Titans feel grown up, ready to compete heading into camp

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vince Young looks around at his fellow Tennessee Titans, and he doesn't see a young team anymore. He prefers a different word: Maturing.

"Everybody's basically grown up. From some of the positions that we were at, we were pretty young. At the same time, we're going to have three years under our belt now. We've been to the playoffs. We know all these things, what it takes to get to the playoffs and what it takes to win games," Young said.

"We are grown up and maturing right now."

Young and the rest of the Titans hit the field Friday for the first practice of training camp with expectations, both inside the locker room, and outside much different than two years ago when he came in as a rookie along with LenDale White. Then, they helped turn around a team that had gone 4-12 before they arrived.

OPEN CAMP: July 25, Nashville, Tenn.

LAST YEAR:Titans reached the playoffs for first time since 2003 almost in spite of quarterback Vince Young, who struggled in second year as starter. All-Pro tackle Albert Haynesworth led one of NFL's stingiest defenses, while All-Pro kicker Rob Bironas provided most of the offense.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: TE Alge Crumpler; DE Jevon Kearse; WR Justin McCareins; RG Jake Scott; offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger; RB coach Earnest Byner.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: RG Benji Olson (retirement); DEs Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy; LG Jacob Bell; DT Randy Starks; TE Ben Troupe.

CAMP NEEDS: Pressure is on Young to develop quickly under Heimerdinger and build chemistry with receivers after throwing more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (9) last season. Pick either Eugene Amano or Leroy Harris as new left guard. How Haynesworth handles status as franchise player, his conditioning and health, will be a concern.

EXPECTATIONS: Winning in playoffs now is goal for a franchise that has rebuilt through the draft and low-key free agent signings. Coach Jeff Fisher focused on improving his defense in 2007 and went from most yards allowed to fifth-stingiest unit in NFL. Offense has been target of his attention in 2008 for a team hoping to challenge Colts atop division.

Now, the Titans are coming off a 10-6 season and their first playoff appearance since 2003. Veteran center Kevin Mawae has watched them grow, and he said they now know exactly what's expected of them.

"It's not the huge learning curve we had two years ago, like a deer in the headlights with the big NFL monster. Guys are more comfortable ... Our goal is to be ready to roll by training camp and not have to take backward steps, and I think we're headed in that direction," Mawae said.

The biggest question the Titans face in training camp involves the offense. Young has to throw more touchdowns than the nine he had in 2007, and the passing game has to improve to ease the pressure on White, who ran for 1,110 yards in his first full season as a starter.

Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, brought back to replace Norm Chow in January, spent the offseason tweaking Young's footwork to put the quarterback in better position to throw and adjusting the offense itself to throw downfield more effectively.

"Y'all can tell I'm getting better and better in the offense ...," Young said.

After months of criticism, the receivers are running out of time to earn jobs and starting spots. The early edge will go to Justin Gage, who signed an extension after catching 55 passes last season, and Justin McCareins, the free agent who knows Heimerdinger's offense well from his last stint with the Titans.

Roydell Williams still is recovering from his broken ankle, and Biren Ealy, an undrafted free agent from Houston a year ago, also are expected to compete.

"I can't say who is No. 1 and who is No. 11," Fisher said. "I can tell you that it is a really competitive group, and they are all improving."

Veteran Jake Scott has replaced the retired Benji Olson at right guard, and Eugene Amano is working to hold off Leroy Harris for the starting left guard spot vacated by Jacob Ford's free agent departure.

The other biggest question facing the Titans involves All Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The team failed to sign him to a long-term contract before the league deadline July 15, and Haynesworth wants the Titans to promise, in writing, not to slap him with the franchise tag again once he signs his $7.25 million tender for 2008.

The Titans want Haynesworth in camp on time. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

But Haynesworth is vital to a defense looking to improve on 2007 when Tennessee ranked fifth-stingiest in the NFL in yards allowed overall and against the run. The Titans also brought back veteran end Jevon Kearse who has something to prove, while Antonio Johnson and Jacob Ford give them depth they haven't had in years.

"We were last, then we went to five," linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "We might as well try to be No. 1 in defense this year. ... I'm sure we'll be able to set that tone, set that tempo to take us forward. We don't want to go backward as a defensive unit. We definitely want to progress forward."

For a team that lost to San Diego 17-6 in the AFC wild-card last January, that's a goal shared by all the Titans.

"Obviously, we've set our sights higher this year," Fisher said. "Regardless of whether they are young or old, we have a team of consistent players that have higher expectations. I think that's all that matters."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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