|National Football League|
Titans have flexibility picking at No. 20 overall
By TERESA M. WALKER
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Tennessee Titans' biggest move in free agency fell flat when Peyton Manning chose Denver. They still have plenty of options in the NFL draft.
They filled their quarterback needs last season by drafting Jake Locker with the eighth pick overall and then signing veteran Matt Hasselbeck to a three-year contract. They chased Manning as a free agent only when owner Bud Adams decided to join the chase. Since Manning chose Denver, new general manager Ruston Webster has been busy meeting with a handful of veteran free agent centers and signing defensive linemen.
Tennessee also has visited with some of the top receivers available in the draft starting Thursday night. Webster said there could be clues there, but the choice will be simple at No. 20 overall.
"You just want to make sure you take the best player," Webster said. "If receivers are there and a level better than the defensive player, it's always a possibility. I think, though, it'll depend on who else is there."
Webster was promoted in January to general manager when Adams moved Mike Reinfeldt to chief operating officer. Webster has worked drafts for a couple decades starting with Tampa Bay and Seattle before coming to Tennessee. This will be his first making the final call on a pick, and he has just seven, Tennessee's fewest since 2003.
The Titans just missed out on a playoff berth in coach Mike Munchak's debut season, going 9-7 and losing out on tiebreakers to Cincinnati as a wild card. It was an impressive record considering Munchak had two new coordinators in Chris Palmer and Jerry Gray with no offseason to teach their schemes thanks to the lockout.
Gray also had a bigger challenge with four rookies contributing heavily on defense while still ranking eighth in the league in points allowed, giving up 19.8 points per game. But the Titans finished next to last with a measly 28 sacks, making improving the pass rush a big key this offseason.
Lost in the news of Manning choosing Denver was Webster signing Kamerion Wimbley to a five-year deal that will see the linebacker play at defensive end in Tennessee. Webster also re-signed Dave Ball to a one-year deal and brought in Leger Douzable in moves to take some of the pressure off hitting on a defensive end in the draft who can play immediately. They also expect more from end Derrick Morgan, the 16th pick overall in 2010, with his first full offseason.
"Defense is a big focus of ours this year," the general manager said.
The Titans also signed five-time All Pro Steve Hutchison as a free agent and plan to use him at left guard. They visited with Chris Myers, Scott Wells, Jeff Saturday, Dan Koppen and Jeff Faine only to see four sign elsewhere. It's part of trying to improve the interior of the offensive line after ranking 31st in the NFL in rushing, averaging 89.9 yards per game, with Chris Johnson having his worst season after signing his big contract extension.
The Titans open their offseason program Monday and are counting on that helping boost a defense that had so many rookies play so much in 2011. Linebacker Akeem Ayers, the second pick overall, was their first rookie to start all 16 games for Tennessee since safety Tank Williams in 2002. Third-round pick Jurrell Casey started 15 games at tackle, while tackle Karl Klug started one and played in all 16.
"It's going to be a huge help for our coaches, our players, just for our players to be able to spend time with (strength coach) Steve Watterson and be in the training room with any rehab they have to do with (trainer) Brad Brown," Webster said. "All of that is a positive and should definitely help us for next year. We still hope to hit with all our picks."
Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins all had career seasons at receiver, but Kenny Britt, their top pick overall in 2009, tore his right ACL in September. He's expected to be ready for training camp but has missed games with injuries each of the past two years. So the Titans met with Michael Floyd out of Notre Dame, Baylor's Kendall Wright and Stephen Hill out of Georgia Tech.
They also met with South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Melvin Ingram.
So if Webster can follow up Reinfeldt's success, this should be a draft to remember.
"Hopefully, I'll remember it fondly," Webster said.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
Updated April 23, 2012