Oct 21, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (8) takes a snap from center Fernando Velasco (61)

If I were the Titans GM Part 1: Interior Offensive Line

If I Were GM Part I: Interior Offensive Line

            This is the start of the other series I’ll be writing about the Titans leading up to the draft- “If I were GM”.  Free Agency, the Draft, contract negotiations, and even coach hiring should all make an appearance.  But today we’ll start with the most obvious weakness on our team- the interior offensive line.

One of the biggest WTHs of this team is the interior Oline- with a speedster running back and a young QB, plowing resources into the interior Oline should be a no brainer.  CJ2K is a back that NEEDS a fantastic Oline; if you give a hole that gets a normal runningback 5 yards, CJ will take it 20.  If a normal back gets 10, CJ gets the 80 yard TD.  On the other hand, he has no leg power; once he’s been hit well, he’s going down.  He can’t take a 2-yard gain for 5, or run straight into no holes and drag people for 5 yards.  Giving him 50 million and then skimping on the interior offensive line is like buying a Maserati in New York City.

Add in a young QB, and it really becomes shocking.  Locker has essentially had no run game to rely on this entire year.  The only time the run game was decent was when he was injured; before that, Palmer’s switch to a zone system got us nothing, and once Locker came back, 3 more Olineman went down.  But look at a QB like Russell Wilson; he leaned very heavily on “Beast Mode” and the run game early in the year, and is now playing fantastic.  Why, you ask?  Because he could lean on the run game, he (and the Seattle coaches) could focus on improving his skillset and knowledge one step at a time.

Russell Wilson wasn’t asked to carry his entire team at the beginning of the season; he still isn’t now.  Rather, he was asked to acquire/improve/perfect one aspect of his performance each game- first focus on the play action plays, then work on the short timing passes, then on the 2 minute drill, then on mid range timing, etc, etc.  In apposite, Locker has essentially had the entire playbook dumped on him, and been asked to power the whole damn team.  Not only is that a recipe for disaster, it’s going to kill Locker’s development.  Rather than being able to focus in on each piece, and perfect them, he has to try and improve at everything all at once.

So that’s why the interior Oline is our biggest weakness, and we need to fix it.  CJ’s value is drastically limited, Locker is being badly developed and overwhelmed, and honestly, we just suck.  Oh, and let’s not forget that when we suck on offense, the defense ends up on the field for 40 minutes each game.

Guard

     Right Guard is, in my opinion, the biggest hole on our team.  This is where I would go all out this offseason- go for a high level free agent, or spend a 1st/2nd in the draft.  Leroy Harris is a bum that’s just never improved, Deuce Lutui is average, and everyone behind that (as the last few games have shown) is crap.  Luckily, there are two premier options available in this year’s draft; the fantastic Andy Levitre, who’ll be entering free agency from the Bills, and Chance Warmack, perhaps the highest rated guard to come out of college since our own Steve Hutchinson.

Between the two, I’d go with Levitre.  First and foremost, Levitre is a proven commodity; the Bills offensive line has been a top pass blocking unit for years, even with its troubles at left tackle, and the Levitre-Wood combo has paved the way for Fred Jackson to resurrect his career and CJ Spiller to average an NFL record 6.5 yards a carry.  We know we’re getting a premier performer in Levitre.

Second, as good as Warmack is, I’m not comfortable taking him in the top 10.  If we were picking around 15, it would be a different story.  But with the high end talent available along the defensive line this year, I’d rather grab a prospect like Bjoern Werner or Demontre Moore, giving us a real rotation at defensive end and a replacement if Morgan walks after the 2013 season.

Below these two are actually a number of options that would significantly improve our interior offensive line: Matt Slauson, Ramon Foster, and Louis Vasquez are all above average starters that we could plug in and not worry for years.  Chilo Rachal is a young guy who wasn’t ready when he came into the league, but has stepped up in Chicago this year and still has immense physical potential, but he’s riskier than the previous three.

At left guard, Hutchinson was good enough– just like Mawae, he’s definitely not playing like he used to, but his play was more than acceptable, especially in “good stretch” of our run game this year.  At the same time, he’s only got one year left on the contract he signed with us, and should definitely retire at the end of that contract.  If we don’t cut Amano, I think he could make a solid move back to left guard- he was an above average left guard when Mawae was here, and his physical skillset is clearly better suited to guard.

But, as always, accepting Amano is accepting the bare minimum.  And the only interior Olineman on our team I’m sold on right now is Velasco, who should be at center.  This year’s guard class is strong from top to bottom, and I’d prefer to see us take at least a 4-5th (like Alvin Bailey) round developmental prospect to replace Hutchinson next year- it’ll let us save a hefty amount of money by cutting Amano, and give us a player with some upside.  Amano is a mediocre starter (maybe slightly above average at guard), and that’s all he’ll ever be.  I’d rather gamble on someone new developing behind Hutchinson (and learning from three hall of famers) than stick with average Amano.

Center

     Center is our next weakness, in a way.  Luckily, there is a very simple solution for us- resign Fernando Velasco.  After a few shaky games at the beginning of the year, Velasco has turned into a legitimate top-10 center in the league.  His progress and abilities have been noted by PFF and Football Outsiders, and resigning him would finally solidify a position of immense frustration.  Under NO circumstances do we allow Eugene Amano to come back and suck it up.  If we don’t cut Amano (which we should), then we damn well better put him back at guard.

Behind this are not many good options; Evan Dietrich-Smith, Phil Costa, and Brian De La Puente are the only options I’d pursue in free agentcy.  Of those three, the last two are restricted free agents (although they were undrafted, so unless a higher tender comes down, we can snipe them).  All three look to be slightly above average players.  While that’s nothing to write home about, it’s certainly better than Amano.  I still think, however, that resigning Velasco is the best option.  He’s looked as good, if not better, than these three, and will probably cost the same, if not less.

This draft is not so fantastic, especially at the top end, for centers.  Barrett Jones would be fantastic, but he’s projected to go in the 20-35 range; too late for our first round, but too early for our second round.   Khaled Holmes of USC is a projected 2-3 pick, but I’m not sold on him at all.  There are some mildly intriguing guys late in the draft, like the enormous Graham Pocic, but not many centers with the power you’d like to see in our man-blocking run game.

Retaining Velasco is the safest and, likely, highest value option we have.  I’ll be very disappointed if we let him get away in free agency, and even more disappointed if we stick with Eugene Amano.  As helpful as having a veteran center who can call adjustments and read defenses is, Amano’s physical talent just isn’t there.  The value he could give Locker in the passing game doesn’t offset his inability to get push in the run game, and his tendency to get completely blown up by a pass rusher 1-2 times a game.

 

 

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