After tackle, our next to last stop on the offense on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position at the start of the 2014 offseason is guard.
The theme of these positional analyses thus far has been uncertainty, uncertainty in roles, uncertainty in players, uncertainty in about everything. For the first time, we reach a position where there is no real uncertainty. For what I believe is the first time since 2009, the Titans enter an offseason with both starting guards from the previous season under contract for the next season.
Of course, considering what the Titans spent on guards last offseason, they darn well better not have been looking for a turnover at the position. One of them cost them $46 million over six seasons. The other? A more modest contract, just $12 million over four years, but also the tenth pick in the draft. The challenge for new offensive line coach Bob Bostad? Getting both of those players to play better in their second season as Titans.
I would argue, though, that by and large Andy Levitre played pretty much how you should have expected, at least until his hip injury that necessitated offseason surgery really started bothering him in Week 17 against the Texans. For the most part, he played well, especially in pass protection. There were a couple times where he got caught, and a couple games where it seemed like the matchups bothered him-Corey Liuget of the Chargers got to him a bit, as did Calais Campbell of the Cardinals. Both Liuget and Campbell are very good pass rushers, but that's kind of who Levitre is. He's a very good pass protector, but not perfect. In the run game, he moves well. We saw that plenty with how much Power the Titans ran and those counters, and with Whisenhunt likely to continue to run plenty of man blocking looks, we'll continue to do that. He does not and will not have great power, so he will not be a powerful drive-blocker, and rushers like Campbell will be able to defeat him with strength. That's just what you get with Levitre. He'll be back for another year of doing the same things he does, preferably at a somewhat higher level than he did them in 2013. Another year with the same teammates and a healthier offseason after last year's knee injury that mostly kept him out until training camp should help with that.
What to say about Chance Warmack? It will take a lot convince me the Titans made the right move by taking Warmack, Justin Hunter, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson instead of Star Lotulelei, Larry Warford, say Marquise Goodwin or Keenan Allen, and oh yeah, having a third-round pick this year, but I will shelve that discussion for this post. He played right guard in the NFL like he was a dominant left guard on a run-heavy collegiate offense. While not as quick as Levitre, he's quick for his size and the Titans could run Power or counter to the left side in addition to the right side. When he can line up smaller players, he absolutely crushes them. All that was impressive, as I noted before the draft. That stuff translated to the NFL, as I thought it would. The rest of his game? Eh...........
Pass protection was something I wasn't comfortable with. Warmack struggled there. He may have improved marginally the second half of the season, or I may have just gotten so attuned to his faults I was just expecting it. He still got beat one-on-one the second half of the season. This wasn't quite "Leonard Davis against Jason Jones in 2010", but he looked pretty bad at times. Defensive line games were another issue. Some of that was the result of playing next to David Stewart, who didn't practice, and multiple centers, but I think that's an area where he needs a lot of improvement. Handling quickness off the snap on run plays was another issue at times, both in terms of players getting upfield on him and just defenders not letting him use his strength. I'd count how often he ended up on his butt when blocking on the backside of zone plays after missing a cut block, but I need to replace the batteries in my calculator first.
All told, I thought Warmack was probably a below-average starting right guard in 2013. Is the stuff he got wrong teachable? I don't pretend to be an offensive line guru, but I think so. My FO colleague Ben Muth has noted blocking on zone backside is something players generally get better at the second year. His one-on-one pass protection responsibilities at Alabama were minimal, so that should improve with experience. Bob Bostad is actually an offensive line coach, rather than a great player with famously non-excellent technique. If Brian Schwenke is healthy, Warmack will play next to the same center all year. Whoever plays right tackle may actually be able to practice during the week, even. He should improve. He better, or else I'll be even angrier at Ruston Webster than I already am.
Now is the typical point in these positional analyses when I talk about the backups. Except, well, there sort of aren't any. I guess I can talk about Chris Spencer, as I did in the preseason positional analysis. The only man to see time at guard other than Levitre and Warmack, he played the final 6 snaps of the year in the season finale against the Texans as Levitre went to the bench (Levitre 1068 snaps, 99.44%; Warmack 1074, 100%). I think of him more as a center, where he played his other 114 snaps as an injury fill-in (120 total snaps, 11%). A free agent this year, he could be back for another year as a swing interior reserve or the Titans could find somebody else to play that role. There's no clear candidate on the roster for that spot, though my assumption is somebody else will get that job instead. There are other interior linemen on the Titans right now, but all of them are centers, so they will be covered when I do that post.
Levitre and Warmack will be your starters again. They should both be better, Levitre for reasons for health and Warmack because going from the first year in the NFL to the second is a good time for players to improve. The Titans will carry a backup or two, probably with the ability to play center. They could draft that player in the later rounds, but more likely it'll be a Spencer-like veteran or some random young player. With any luck, that player will play no more than 6 snaps and I won't have to worry about him at all.
I am less concerned than you about the Titans' prowess at the guard position. Levitre will certainly be better in his second year with the Titans. His health and the fact that he won't have to play beside the incompetent Rob Turner will automatically result in improved play. As for Warmack, very few rookie guards play above average in their first year in the league. Warmack was hampered as well because he was saddled with playing beside both Turner and Stewart, two players that shouldn't have started for any team in the NFL last year. With a competent centre in Swenke and a new RT, I believe Warmack will become a very good guard this coming season.