As the Tennessee Titans launch their organized team activities this week, there are plenty of players who are at a crossroads of sorts with the 2009 season.
Many of them will be free agents at season’s end while others are simply in a position of increased responsibility and opportunity for the first time in their careers.
Let’s take a look at five Titans who are on the spot in one aspect or another for the coming season.
1.QB Vince Young
Young’s fall from grace last season is certainly well documented — his hesitance in returning to the field in the season opener after fans booed an interception; the bizarre and confusing incident the following day involving police, family and team personnel; the apparent detachment from his teammates at times during the remainder of the 2008 season.
Thus far in the off-season, credit Young for saying and doing all the right things.
He has been a regular participant in the Titans off-season program and has asked Head Coach Jeff Fisher to outline what he needs to do to earn his starting job back from Kerry Collins.
But make no mistake, Young’s career has come to the proverbial fork in the road, and the most urgent part of the equation might be that, as the second-string quarterback now, he would only get a chance in the regular season at redemption if something happened to Collins.
That means Young must use the OTAs (organized team activities), mini-camps, training camp and preseason games to show the Titans that he “gets it” when it comes to a team-first, professional approach that is centered around hard work and improvement. And he probably has only this season to show it. That’s because his salary cap hit zooms to around $14 million next season, meaning he would likely have to rework his deal (a pay cut) or somehow regain full control as the starter (to earn an extension) in order not to risk being let go before the 2010 season
2. DE Kyle Vanden Bosch
Since coming to the Titans in 2005, Vanden Bosch has been a model player on and off the field. So why is Vanden Bosch on the list of those “on the spot?”
It is simply due to the frustrating groin injury that derailed his 2008 season, requiring surgery, along with the defensive end entering the final year of his contract.
Already the emotional leader on defense, Vanden Bosch is the consummate hard worker who won’t leave anything to chance when it comes to preparation. That alone, if he stays healthy and productive, should put him near the front of the line for Titans players who are likely to earn a contract extension — despite the fact he turns 31 in November.
With Mr. Haynesworth gone to Washington, much of the focus of opposing offensive lines now turns to Vanden Bosch, meaning overall numbers might not tell his true value.
Such was the case in 2006 before he was aligned alongside Haynesworth. His sack total dipped from 12.5 in 2005 to 6.5 in 2006, but the general consensus among the Titans staff was that his overall production did not drop off, despite the drop in sacks. It was simply that teams were doing more preparation to slow him down than before.
3. LB Keith Bulluck
Bulluck has been a fixture for so long that it would seem odd to see him in anything other than a Titans jersey. But as he approaches the final year of his contract, the question becomes what will the Titans do with him after the season as he just turned 32?
Most would love to see him stay and retire as a Titan. But that same sentiment was not afforded franchise icons Eddie George and Steve McNair once they were on the backside of 30.
Bulluck has seen the good years, the bad years and the good again in Tennessee, and he will be the most interesting case study this off-season as the Titans decide how he fits behind 2009. Where perhaps he differs from George and McNair is that he still appears to be near the top of his game productivity-wise, even as he approaches “old age” by NFL standards.
When George left the Titans for Dallas, he wound up in a part-time role for one season with the Cowboys before ending his career. McNair had one productive year in Baltimore, but then injuries and age began to catch up with him too the following season, and he retired.
Also in Bulluck’s favor is that at least for now, the depth behind him is mostly young and unproven with rookie Gerald McRath and second-year man Stanford Keglar.
4. RB LenDale White
White has had quite the roller coaster ride in his three seasons in Tennessee.
As a rookie, mostly he watched Travis Henry be the featured back. Then in 2007, White carried the load and ‘a load,’ as he rushed for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns, despite battling issues with his weight from the start of the off-season program that year.
Last year, White settled into the No. 2 role behind Chris Johnson, and responded better than some had anticipated (there was that one incident after a loss to the Jets when he complained about a lack of carries), rushing for 773 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns.
The downside of all that, of course, was that he had one of three costly turnovers that doomed the Titans in their playoff loss to Baltimore. After his fumble, White vowed he would atone in 2009, and supporters say he took a good first step by reporting to the off-season program at 238 pounds, his lightest weight ever at the start of off-season work.
Critics, of course, point to it being a contract year for the former Southern Cal star as a motivating factor.
The Titans seem fine with White’s role and his production for now. Where White is on the spot is that he must convince the Titans that he has matured past things like the weight issues and the minor off-field problems that have cropped up with him from time-to-time. It is those sorts of things that White must distance himself from once and for all or run the risk of the Titans not going the extra mile to re-sign him to an extension.
And, almost as if on cue, the Titans drafted Javon Ringer of Michigan State to be waiting in the wings in a deep stable of running backs, just in case.
5. WR Nate Washington
Nate Washington is the latest free agent wide receiver to tempt fate and join the Titans. It’s not as if the Titans haven’t tried to address their issues at the wide receiver position over the years. It’s just that they haven’t had much luck in trying to fix the problem in free agency or the draft.
In terms of free agency, Yancey Thigpen came in as the ‘answer’ years ago, but was befallen by injuries. Carl Pickens was imported from Cincinnati, but proved to be over the hill. A horrific knee injury ruined David Givens’ career as a Titan before it ever really got started.
The Titans did hit on a bargain pickup in Justin Gage, but other free agents brought in recently — Eric Moulds and Justin McCareins — proved only to be stopgap remedies.
So now here comes Washington, fresh off winning a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh, and ready to step into the spotlight in Tennessee. He had 40 catches for 631 yards and three scores as the Steelers’ third receiver, but with a six-year, $27 million contract, the Titans are expecting Washington to blossom in his first chance as a starter.
The Titans track record in this regard hasn’t been good, but Washington hopes to buck the trend and become the vertical threat the team has needed for several years.