As training camp winds down, an important day approaches. September 5 is the date NFL teams must trim their rosters to 53 players and I'd like to use much of this special teams analysis as an evaluation of where some players stand in the formulation of the (almost) final roster.
Of course, three special teams players are guaranteed a job. You can't win without a kicker, punter and snapper, so you can count on seeing Rob Bironas, Craig Hentrich and Ken Amato for another season.
Actually, Bironas signed a new four-year contract in the offseason and Hentrich re-upped for two more years. This is the final year on Amato's contract.
Hentrich looks better after losing close to thirty pounds, which should help his chronically ailing back. Rookie A.J. Trapasso has helped share the load in camp and I hope (for the team, not for his sake) that he'll be available this season if or when Hentrich's back acts up again.
Drexel recently wrote about the return game and I have only a little to add to that. After returning kicks against the Cowboys, Javon Ringer has now moved to the top of my depth chart at that spot, ahead of Jason McCourty.
The punt return job is wide open after injuries to Mark Jones, Chris Davis and Ryan Mouton. Tuff Harris, Kenny Britt and Rafael Little are also in the mix but the odds are against a lot of those guys. Britt and Mouton are the only two certain of securing a roster spot.
Defensive backs generally make good gunners and Mouton (if healthy) and McCourty should handle those duties.
The coverage units play such a key role in field position and the players on those units will be primarily linebackers and DBs. I can see several roster spots, particularly at linebacker, being won or lost here.
Looking back at the 2008 coverage units, these are the players who stood out. Michael Griffin, Donnie Nickey and Colin Allred had eleven tackles apiece to lead the team. I'm not sure how much Griffin will play teams this year. Stanford Keglar registered nine special teams tackles and Josh Stamer had eight. Craig Stevens added six and late season addition Harris also had six, one in each of the last six regular season games.
Rookie Gerald McRath has the makings of a special teams standout and should be among the leaders in tackles this year.
Here are the roster spot implications as I see them.
RB - Ringer has already secured a roster spot for his abilities as a RB. Returning kicks and/or punts is icing on the cake. Quinton Ganther is the fourth RB on my depth chart, ahead of Chris Henry, because of his contributions on teams and ability to play fullback, behind Ahmard Hall. I don't have Little on my depth chart and his only chance to make the team is as a PR/KR.
WR - The first three of this position group are set but there's competition on the back end. Either Mark Jones or Chris Davis could still earn a spot by getting healthy and winning the PR job. My money is on Jones. The Titans liked him enough to sign him as a free agent and being out for a few weeks with a pulled hamstring shouldn't erase the reasons for bringing him onboard.
CB - The number twos, Cary Williams and DeMarcus Faggins, seem to be set but neither is a standout on teams. Jason McCourty, formerly the #1 KR on my depth chart, may be on the bubble but I believe he'll make the club. It would help him if he got over his injury and returned a few more kicks in the last two preseason games.
S - As a core member of the special teams, Nickey makes the team again despite his shortcomings at strong safety. I don't believe Harris will make the 53-man roster but I'm not counting him out yet. A tackle a game on teams is something that can't be overlooked and he can also return punts, as noted. As a free safety, I don't believe he's competing with Nickey (a SS) for a roster spot; he's competing against guys like McCourty, Allred, Stamer and Rocky Boiman as coverage players and against Jones, Davis, Mouton and Little as PRs.
LB - I saved the best for last, since this is where the competition will be toughest. There are nine LBs on my depth chart, meaning they have a chance to play this year, and I'm guessing the Titans will keep seven, the same as last year. Five of them are no-brainers - Bulluck, Thornton, Tulloch, Keglar and McRath. Who gets the final two spots? Note that four of the five are OLBs so one of the remaining two spots will have to be a MLB to back up Tulloch. Ryan Fowler is a better MLB but Rocky Boiman is a better teams player. I give the edge to Fowler.
OLBs Allred and Stamer are solid special teamers but you can't keep both if you keep only seven LBs total. I've got both of them on my third team, Allred behind Bulluck and Keglar, and Stamer behind Thornton and McRath. Do you really need two third-team OLBs? No, but you might need both for special teams if you can afford to keep eight LBs.
Overall, I'd rate the outlook for 2009 vs 2008 as follows.
The return game, as Drexel wrote, won't be as good. All we can hope for is that the dropoff won't be too severe.
Kicking should be about the same. Same kicker, holder and snapper. There is a question about the holder. If Hentrich is out, can Nickey or Trapasso do the job? The holder's job is something often taken for granted, and I'm sure the backup will do an adequate job if needed, but Hentrich excels at getting bad snaps down. Can Nickey or Trapasso give Bironas a good placement on an errant snap?
Punting will be a week to week uncertainty, depending on the condition of Hentrich's back.
Kick and punt coverage should be about the same. I foresee most of last year's coverage players being back again. Chris Carr and Eric King will be missed but McRath should be a nice addition.
That's my outlook on special teams for the Titans' 2009 season, including the roster spot battles. How do you see it?