Titans hope risky move to undergo youth movement pays off

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Veteran free agents Kevin Mawae and  Keith Bulluck still have their names above lockers in the Tennessee Titans' locker room. They remain unsigned and aren't present, however. The nameplates above their longtime booths could be serving as headstones for two longtime fixtures who are no longer a part of the process. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tight end Alge Crumpler are gone, too.

For the time being, 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson and tight end Bo Scaife, who are under contract, are skipping out on voluntary drills. So is linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who hasn't signed his free-agent tender. Titans coach Jeff Fisher doesn't seem too pleased about their absence, but he's not too pressed, either. He understands the business of the game and knows that when players like Johnson want a new contract, they exercise their right to skip out on voluntary work -- and sometimes mandatory requirements. Fisher actually let the missing players off the hook somewhat by saying they're just following the advice of their agents.

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The overall vibe with the Titans right now is understated, especially since the franchise has had its importance devalued by a flood that has rocked this city far worse than some of the television images have conveyed.

Even so, there's something different about this team. A defense that took a step backwards last season after the free-agent departure of Albert Haynesworth to Washington (think he'd like a do-over?) has lost Vanden Bosch and Bulluck. There's a five-man battle for a cornerback spot opposite Courtland Finnegan. Not only is Johnson playing hooky, but backup tailback LenDale White was traded to Seattle.

A team typically brimming with confidence, even when it started 0-6 last season before a late rally to finish 8-8, is simmering with uncertainty.

"The biggest thing for any team trying to stay consistent and trying to stay at a high level is you want the 'group' guys to stay," safety Chris Hope said. "Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch are 'group' guys. Any time you take a loss to those guys, the whole team feels it. Not just the defense. Like Keith was when he was a younger guy, you have to build that. Now it's a new core group of guys.

"It starts at offseason workouts, running to the ball, doing the little stuff. If you go into the game knowing that you're going to do everything and do it hard, you can take the numbers off the jerseys because everybody is on the same page."

That's easier said than done, especially for a team that has gotten younger and is hoping that youth is mature enough to compete with the Colts, Texans and Jaguars in the AFC South.

There is a new core -- Hope, Johnson, Finnegan, Vince Young, Michael Roos -- but there's also new blood, especially on a defense that fell off dramatically after coordinator Jim Schwartz left to become the Lions' head coach. Chuck Cecil replaced Schwartz, and was beset by an aging defense that battled injury and ineffectiveness.

First-round draft pick Derrick Morgan is projected to start in Vanden Bosch's place. The Titans are going to publicly say that Dave Ball and Jason Babin are going to compete for the starting job, but it's Morgan's to lose. Veteran Will Weatherspoon could step in for Bulluck. Second-year player Gerald McGrath and third-round pick Rennie Curran also are in play at outside linebacker, meaning veteran David Thornton isn't a lock to keep his job.

Offensively, Eugene Amano, a six-year vet who started at guard, will take over for Mawae at center, creating a space for LeRoy Harris at guard. Scaife and Johnson are huge pieces, but while they're gone this spring, tight ends Jared Cook and Craig Stevens, and backup running back Javon Ringer -- all with two years of experience or less -- are gaining valuable practice work.

Ringer is getting first-team reps right now, but that will change if/when the Titans either re-do Johnson's five-year $12 million contract, or when he decides to play and banks on the big deal next season when a new collective bargaining agreement could be in place. In this uncapped season, there are restrictions that limit what the Titans can award him in salary, and they don't appear likely to hand him a huge signing bonus to offset the minimal raise in salary they can offer.

Regardless of Johnson's status, Ringer is poised to move into the backup role with White now in Seattle.

"Nothing specifically was said to me," Ringer said about the fallout from White being traded. "I just kind of took it as, 'Okay, best of luck to LenDale because he helped me out a lot last year but this is a big opportunity for me.' I also knew that C.J. wasn't going to be here much, for right now, so I took it upon myself to showcase the coaches that they can have faith in me."

Fisher and his staff like Ringer, but he can't get comfortable. There is a tremendous buzz about undrafted rookies LeGarrette Blount and Stafon Johnson among Titans coaches. Both players made major impressions during a rookie camp.

There were no pads on, so they didn't have to pick up surging defensive ends and linebackers in pass protection, but the Titans are making plans for both of them, including on special teams. They have to earn their keep once Tennessee really starts playing football, but the initial impressions were strong.

And then there is Young, the biggest question mark on the team. He looked like a big-time quarterback in rallying Tennessee to .500 last season, saving the Titans following an 0-6 start that prompted owner Bud Adams to publicly push for Kerry Collins to be replaced as the starter. A lot of Youngs' success was due to Johnson being such a threat in the running game, but a lot of Johnson's success came because Young's run-pass threat kept defenses honest.

The last time Young entered the season as the starter (2008), things went sideways quickly. He got booed, hurt and lost more than his starting job. Young was shaken mentally and rapidly alienated himself to Titans fans and to some within the franchise. Now he's The Man again.

Young told me that he's matured and is spending more time with his teammates on and off the field while keeping a low profile. Ringer vouched for that and said Young is the team's leader. Young's past experience and witnessing what's gone on with two quarterbacks -- Ben Roethlisberger and JaMarcus Russell -- this offseason has him focused on everything he does, and what he needs to do.

Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson "are doing a great job of understanding my skills as a quarterback and what I can take advantage of," Young said. "Now, I'm more so trying to read the defenses and trying to get ahead of them guys so I can get the ball out of my hands now."

So much of Tennessee's success depends on Young, but there clearly are other unknowns for a franchise that has dismantled some keystones of its foundation. There is a transition going on, and it could be a crossroads season for Fisher and the Titans. The schedule doesn't seem to break too hard early (Oakland, Pittsburgh, at the Giants, Denver), which could be just enough of a grace period for some of the young players to understand the workload and for Tennessee to regain the momentum it built at the mid-point of 2009.

A slow start, though, would only magnify a lot of the questions currently facing the Titans.

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