There have been times when free agency seemed to give the Tennessee Titans fits.
One game in, though, coach Jeff Fisher was prepared to declare some of this season’s newcomers perfect fits — particularly on defense.
“I guess I have to take advantage of this to just compliment [general manager] Mike [Reinfeldt] and his staff on what they’ve done to help this football team,” Fisher said a day after the Titans routed the Oakland Raiders 38-13 in the season opener. “You talk about [defensive end] Jason Babin, [linebacker] Will Witherspoon and [first-round draft pick] Derrick Morgan, and the new pieces to our defense and the production we got out of them in the opener — they’ve done a great job.”
It was a significant statement on the part of the NFL’s longest-tenured head coach, given that the verdict on a free agent’s impact is rarely known after just one season, let alone one game.
Wide receiver Nate Washington, for example, was one of the Titans’ key additions in 2009 and — in some ways — came in and did exactly what was expected of him. He was the Titans’ top pass catcher among the wide receivers and tight ends (47 receptions) and had a team-high six receiving touchdowns, playing in all 16 games with 15 starts.
But the entire season was an adjustment, and not just to a new team and schemes. For a player who originally made it with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent, the expectations that came with a six-year, $26.8 million contract took a little getting used to.
“Coming in here last year, not only was it a new team for me, but it was a totally different position — I … was coming in as a starter, coming in as the guy they paid to come in and make a difference,” Washington said. “I never really experienced that … so it was a tough time for me.”
For Witherspoon and Babin, who were signed a little more than a week apart in March, the integration process is nothing new.
In the opener, Witherspoon had six tackles and a sack less than 24 hours after he attended his mother’s funeral. It was the third different team for which he had played in a year.
Babin had a sack, a tackle for a loss and a forced fumble to go with two tackles as he debuted for his fifth different team overall and his fourth in just over two years.
Each added another sack in Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh.
“I can’t say it gets easier,” Witherspoon said. “It’s always a challenge. You have to try to find your place in the scheme, become part of the team and really learn to fit in. … You have to earn the respect of the locker room because to them you’re the outsider, and you have to make sure they’re comfortable with you being here. That’s where the biggest adjustment is.”
It helps free agents, of course, when the team that signs them uses schemes that actually suit their abilities and experience.
“To tell the truth, this scheme is real similar to what I played in college,” Babin said. “It’s what helped me get drafted 27th overall [in 2004 by Houston], and it’s the first time I’ve gotten to play it as a professional.
“You know the proverbial square peg and round hole? Not this time. This is a perfect fit.”