We conclude our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2010 regular season with a look at the special teams. As was the case with the last two positions I wrote about, it'll be a mix of continuity and change from last offseason.
The continuity starts with one of the league's best placekickers in Rob Bironas. Bironas is coming into the second season of a four year, $12 million contract extension he signed in February 2009. He had his third consecutive excellent season in 2009, making 27 of 32 field goals, including an impressive 5 of 6 from 50+. The Titans ranked second in the NFL in FG/XP DVOA as measured by Football Outsiders, the third straight season they (read Bironas) has ranked in the top 5. He should be good again in 2010.
The one downside of Bironas' 2009 season was his average kickoff distance slipped 3.0 yards, from 67.2 to 64.2. The Titans' kickoff coverage teams were also mediocre, so the team as a whole slipped from league-average to among the worst in the NFL, and were a big part of the reason Titans' opponents had the second-best starting field position last year. Bironas is already 32, so the Titans might have to live with that shorter kickoff distance going forward.
Also back for 2010 is Brett Kern at punter, who went 14-2 last season between his stint with Broncos early in the season and the Titans for their good second half. Kern clearly provided a much stronger leg than the aged Craig Hentrich, and had averaged a good 45.0 yards per punt and an excellent 41.4 yards net that ranked 3rd in the NFL. Kern's biggest problem was the occasional lousy punt, but age and experience should help cure him of that problem. Assuming he fixes that issue, the Titans have probably found a reliable punter for the next 8-10 years.
The Titans had the league's worst average starting field position in 2009, and a league part of the blame for that must fall on the myriad cast of characters who spent time returning punts and kicks. Five guys saw work at punt returner, seven at kick returner. That needs to change. When the Titans took wideout Damian Williams in the third round, I assumed he would have both of those jobs this year. He's missed most of training camp, including last week's game against Seattle with an injury, but should be playing against the Cardinals. If he does well Monday and going forward, both jobs can be his.
If Williams doesn't win both jobs, another candidate is fellow rookie wideout Marc Mariani, whose roster spot may depend on winning one of those return jobs. Last year's most prolific punt returner, Alvin Pearman, also lurks in the wings as a total disaster-avoidance option, as does last year's top kick returner, Kenny Britt.
Ken Amato is back for another season as the long-snapper. Kern will be Bironas's holder, though sadly he doesn't quite offer Hentrich's ability as a passer. The coverage guys will be the backups at other positions, and may include, once again, Donnie Nickey. Yes, I'm shuddering, too.
Anyway, Kern and Bironas should be pretty good again, and the Titans should be able to cobble out a half-decent return game out of Williams and/or Mariani and/or the rest of the roster fodder