NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans' youth movement is hitting the unlikeliest part of this franchise -- an offensive line that just helped produce a 2,000-yard rusher while allowing a measly 15 sacks.
Eugene Amano is moving from left guard to center, and Leroy Harris is going to left guard and the chance of being a full-time starter for the first time in his NFL career. Gone, for now, is 16-year veteran center Kevin Mawae despite coming off his eighth Pro Bowl season.
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Now a free agent, Mawae wants to stay in Tennessee, but he likely would be a backup if he returns.
The Titans have committed to Amano, signing the 2004 seventh-round draft pick to a five-year, $26.2 million deal in February after he started the past two seasons at guard. They have been grooming Harris since drafting him out of North Carolina State in the fourth round in 2007.
"It's a real smooth transition," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday of the changes. "I would like to think they can play for a number of years together."
A strong offensive line is a hallmark of this franchise, which is tied with the New York Jets for producing an NFL-best 12 1,000-yard rushers since the start of the 1996. The unit has been coached by Hall of Fame lineman Mike Munchak since 1997 and is coming off one of its best seasons ever.
The Titans ranked second only to the Indianapolis Colts in sacks allowed and had a league-low 73 yards allowed off sacks. Tennessee also plowed holes for Chris Johnson, who became just the sixth player in NFL history to top 2,000 yards (he ran for 2,006). The Titans ranked second in the NFL with 162 rushing yards per game.
So why change?
Mawae leads active NFL linemen with 241 regular-season games played after he started all 16 contests last season -- his fourth with Tennessee. He's eager to keep playing and wants to start, but there could be factors working against him: He turned 39 in January and also has said with heated labor negotiations looming that his job as president of the NFL Players Association might not be helping him. His agent has talked with the Titans, but there's no movement yet.
"We're just kind of in a holding pattern," Fisher said last week when asked about Mawae.
The Titans drafted left tackle Michael Roos and right tackle David Stewart in 2005, and both now have four years left on their contracts. The team liked Amano in 2004 and made him the 239th pick overall out of Southeast Missouri State. The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder started two games as a rookie and permanently moved into the starting lineup in 2008 at left guard.
Munchak said he asked Amano where he'd be most comfortable at early this offseason, and he prefers the center spot he played in college.
Quarterback Vince Young believes the six-year veteran was well prepared by Mawae and sees him taking over the line as the man who makes the protection calls against defenses.
"Eugene did a phenomenal job of paying attention," Young said. "Eugene's a very, very smart guy and a very physical guy to me. He's outstanding. I've been playing with him since scout team. I know the type of talent that he has. To me, it's good to see he's getting the opportunity to take over and be what he wants to be -- a starting center. Congrats to him."
Harris, who's 6-3 and 302 pounds, played at center and both guard spots in college. In his second NFL season, he started for an injured Mawae in two games, including a divisional playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January 2009. He started at right tackle for Stewart last season against the San Francisco 49ers.
Harris said he knows there's pressure stepping into this starting line.
"Our offensive line has been known as one of the best out there year after year," he said. "You don't want that to drop any or the things we have achieved to drop any. There's a little bit of pressure. I look forward to it, and I'm enjoying playing beside those guys."
Munchak said his high expectations don't change. With the entire offseason, training camp and the preseason, he expects the line to work smoothly with no excuses when the season opens Sept. 12 against the Oakland Raiders.
"We should be feeling like we can pick up where we left off last year," Munchak said.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press