By John Glennon | The Tennessean
The bottom line for the Titans in 2011: they took three steps forward.
One year after posting a 6-10 record that included losses in eight of the last nine games, the Titans turned it around in Mike Munchak's first year as head coach, winning four of their last six to finish 9-7.
"A lot of good happened," Munchak said. "I think we are heading in the right direction in a lot of areas."
That's the challenge for Munchak and his staff now, keeping things going on the "right direction."
That will include evaluating film to determine which positions are strong enough to help the Titans step to the next level, and which positions need the most offseason help.
Here's a breakdown by position, looking at strengths and weaknesses, as well as a glance at the possibility for change when free agency begins March 13.
What worked: Matt Hasselbeck took control of the offense early despite not having an offseason with his new team. He threw for more than 3,500 yards for just the third time in his 13-year career, despite losing his best wide receiver, Kenny Britt, to a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. Hasselbeck's passer rating of 82.4 was his best in the past four years. Rookie Jake Locker proved to be more than capable when called upon as a reserve, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions in five appearances.
What could have been better: Hasselbeck's play slipped in the second half of the season. He threw five touchdowns vs. eight interceptions over the last eight games, and his rating was less than 80 six times. Locker could have been more accurate -- he completed 34 of 66 passes (51.5 percent).
Contracts: Everyone is under contract for next season, so the only potential change likely would be at the No. 3 spot, which Rusty Smith held the past two years.
Optimism: Hasselbeck and Locker put up good numbers despite no offseason work with offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains. Both players should benefit from additional time with coaches and wide receivers this summer. A healthy Britt should make the quarterbacks look better as well.
Pessimism: Hasselbeck turns 37 in September and -- though he started all 16 games -- was at times limited by injury. Will time take even more of a toll? On the other hand, if the Titans choose to go with the promise of Locker, will his inexperience mean a rocky start in the win column?
What worked: Chris Johnson rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the fourth straight time and added a career-best 57 receptions. Three of his four 100-yard games came in the second half of the season. Javon Ringer became a viable third-down option, catching a career-best 28 passes for 187 yards.
What could have been better: Much more was expected out of Johnson after he signed a $53.5 million extension. His 1,047 rushing yards was easily the worst total of his four-year career, however. His 4.0-yard average was also his worst, and his four rushing touchdowns represented a big drop from the combined 25 he scored over the previous two seasons. In six games, Johnson was limited to 35 rushing yards or fewer.
Contracts: Johnson, Ringer and Jamie Harper are under contract. Fullback Ahmard Hall, on the other hand, will be an unrestricted free agent. He's said he doesn't think he'll be in the Titans' plans for 2012.
Optimism: Johnson not only missed the offseason because of the lockout, but also all of training camp because of his contract holdout. He should be more in step when the 2012 season starts. Coach Mike Munchak has also talked of potential changes on the offensive line, which could benefit Johnson.
Pessimism: Johnson didn't look like he had the same explosiveness last season as he had in past years, so what has wear and tear done to him in just four seasons? If he's already on a downhill slide, that's not the kind of problem likely to be remedied with more offseason work or a full training camp.
What worked: It was a big year for the group despite Britt's absence. Nate Washington, Lavelle Hawkins, Damian Williams and Jared Cook posted career highs in receptions. Washington played an especially prominent role, posting more than 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, and adding a career-best seven touchdowns. Hawkins, who made 19 receptions in his first three seasons, wound up with 47, two more than Williams.
What could have been better: Cook had a huge finish, catching 21 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown over the final three games. But he averaged a little more than two catches over the first 13 games. The Donnie Avery experiment was a flop, as the free agent didn't catch a single pass until the final game.
Contracts: Hawkins' contract expires in March. That wouldn't have been much of a concern a year ago, but his progress should have the Titans interested in keeping him. Tight end Craig Stevens has a new contract and figures to be a priority because of his blocking skills.
Optimism: Britt, who was off to a great start with 17 catches for 289 yards in two-plus games, is likely to be ready for training camp after rehabbing his torn ACL. If he can come back, and the other receivers continue to ascend, the passing game should be good.
Pessimism: All players have different timetables when recovering from serious injuries. Even if Britt is ready for training camp, it might take longer for him to return to his top form. The Titans also could lose Hawkins just as he appears to be coming into his own.
What worked: The line had another good season protecting the quarterback. The Titans surrendered the third-fewest sacks per pass play in the NFL, as Hasselbeck was taken down 16 times and Locker five.
What could have been better: The running game was a big disappointment, as Johnson's production declined by more than 300 yards from 2010 and the Titans finished with the second-worst rushing total in the league. Part of the blame goes to Johnson. Part of it goes to the lack of a big-play receiver after Britt's injury. But the line had to take its share of the blame as well. Johnson was often hit in the backfield and often had little or no hole to run through.
Contracts: The only starter whose contract expires in March is guard Jake Scott, an eighth-year pro. If the Titans want to make changes, he seems the logical place to start. All the other starters are under contract, but the Titans are likely to at least consider other changes in the interior, where guard Leroy Harris and center Eugene Amano were the other starters.
Optimism: Munchak said he believes linemen were most affected by the lockout, that the offseason is extremely important for the group to gain cohesion and chemistry. He has also said the Titans will be open to changes, including drafting a lineman in the second or third round.
Pessimism: If you go by contract alone, four of the group's five starters will return next season. That might not be what Titans fans want to hear after the running-game struggles this year. It's also hard to believe the Titans will be as fortunate with injuries at this position in 2012, as the five starters missed a combined one game.
What worked: The best news was the development of rookies Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug. Casey worked his way into the starting lineup at tackle and wound up leading all defensive linemen with 74 tackles (he added nine quarterback pressures). Klug excelled as part of the rotation at tackle, posting a team-leading seven sacks to go with his 32 tackles. End Dave Ball had another solid season with four sacks and 15 quarterback pressures.
What could have been better: Overall, this was not a position of strength for the Titans, who finished second-to-last in the league in sacks per pass play and 24th against the run. End Derrick Morgan was hampered by injuries and wound up with 2.5 sacks. Jason Jones was not as productive at end as he had been at tackle. Free agent Shaun Smith lost his starting job after six games.
Contracts: Ball, Jones and William Hayes have expiring contracts. Jones may be more interested in heading to a team that will allow him to play more as a tackle. It's hard to see Hayes returning after he was deactivated late in the season.
Optimism: Casey and Klug appear to have bright futures. The Titans also like tackle Zach Clayton, though he didn't get much playing time as a rookie. Morgan and starting tackle Sen'Derrick Marks got better in the latter half of the season, as the health of both players improved.
Pessimism: Despite adding bigger players in 2011, the Titans still look like they need to make more personnel additions in order to be more effective against both the run and the pass. Morgan's first two seasons have been marred by injuries, leaving fans wondering whether the 2010 first-round pick will live up to expectations. And will the Jones experiment lead him to look elsewhere?
What worked: Much like at defensive line, the youth showed promise. Rookie Akeem Ayers led all linebackers with 88 tackles and added seven quarterback pressures. Rookie Colin McCarthy made some impact plays in the middle despite starting only seven games. He finished with 76 tackles and added an interception, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and eight tackles for loss.
What could have been better: Free agent Barrett Ruud got off to a productive start in the middle, but injuries limited him to nine games. Third-year pro Gerald McRath slid out of the picture for the most part, posting 14 tackles. Ayers was not enough of a force in the pass rush. Overall, the group has to take part of the blame for the struggles against the run.
Contracts: Ruud, Tim Shaw and Patrick Bailey will be unrestricted free agents in March. McCarthy has replaced Ruud in the middle. Shaw and Bailey were both contributors on special teams, so the Titans might have interest in retaining one or both.
Optimism: Ayers and McCarthy will have a year's experience -- as well as their first offseason work with the team -- under their belt when they line up next season. If the Titans keep him, Will Witherspoon will bring back a steadying veteran presence.
Pessimism: The Titans once had a lot of hope for McRath, a third-round pick in 2009, but he doesn't appear to be a big part of their future. Ayers and McCarthy have potential, but they still made their share of mistakes in gap control and in pass coverage. Is Witherspoon still a starter?
What worked: The Titans made clear progress in passing yardage allowed, finishing 14th in the league after finishing 29th in 2010. Safety Jordan Babineaux proved a key free-agent addition, as he led the team with 117 tackles. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan transitioned well to the slot role, producing 95 tackles -- including five for loss, tied for second-best on the team.
What could have been better: The Titans improved a bit in terms of completion percentage allowed. But opponents still connected at a 62.4 percent rate, leaving the Titans in the bottom third of the NFL. The secondary didn't get much help from the pass rush, but produced only 11 interceptions, tied for eighth-lowest in the league.
Contracts: This is an area that could see huge turnover, as Babineaux, safety Michael Griffin, safety Chris Hope, safety Anthony Smith and Finnegan all have contracts that expire in March. Finnegan has been especially vocal about wanting to return, but doesn't think he'll be back. Babineaux would appear to be a re-signing target.
Optimism: Jason McCourty (107 tackles, two interceptions) and Alterraun Verner are talented cornerbacks, along with the less-experienced Tommie Campbell and Chris Hawkins. If Finnegan moves on, Verner has shown he's a capable starter.
Pessimism: Depending on what happens in free agency, the Titans could have far less experience at safety next season. Are there better alternatives to losing players such as Babineaux and/or Griffin? If Finnegan leaves, the Titans will have to replace one of the team's top leaders in addition to its most aggressive cornerback.