KEY ADDITIONS: Dexter McCluster (Free Agency - K.C. Chiefs), Bishop Sankey (Draft, 2nd Rd. 54 Overall)
KEY DEPARTURES: Chris Johnson (Released)
For the first time in six seasons, the Titans will rely on someone other than Chris Johnson for production out of the backfield. The team ranked 14th in rushing yards in 2013, but never cracked the top 20 in the previous two seasons. The importance of establishing a successful ground game can’t be overstated. Being able to run the ball and set up short yardage situations on second and third downs will go a long way in taking pressure off the shoulders of quarterback
GM Ruston Webster recently told Titans All-Access the team will likely use a backfield by committee approach in 2014. The Titans have several options, including veteran Shonn Greene, rookie Bishop Sankey and newcomer Dexter McCluster to help fill the void left by Johnson’s departure.
#23 Shonn Greene – 6th NFL Season
Injuries limited Greene to 11 games in 2013, but the veteran running back still managed to rush for 295 yards and four touchdowns in his first season in Tennessee. Green began his first four NFL seasons with the New York Jets and recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons from 2011-12, including a career-high 1,063 yards in the 2012 campaign.
The 5-foot-10, 235-pound Greene is a physical downhill back and a force between the tackles. He showcased his ability last year in week 16 at Jacksonville with a season-high 19 carries for 91 yards, including a long of 29 yards. He also scored a pair of touchdowns, including a 28-yard scoring run, at Denver.
If Greene can stay healthy, there is plenty of reason to believe that more games in 2014 with double digit carries could yield similar results.
The Titans made Sankey the first running back off the board in this year’s draft at #54 overall. Sankey opted to forfeit his senior season and make the transition to the NFL after setting multiple school records during his three years at the University of Washington.
The former Husky burst onto the scene during his sophomore season in 2012 after starting running back Jesse Callier tore his ACL in the team’s season opener. Sankey took over the reins and finished with 1,439 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. He set a UW bowl-game record with 205 yards as the MVP of the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
Sankey continued to dominate during his senior campaign with 1,870 rushing yards, crushing Corey Dillon’s school record of 1,695 set back in 1996. He topped the Pac-12 in rushing yards and finished fourth nationally. The running back’s 37 career rushing touchdowns and four 200-yard rushing games were also school records.
Sankey’s national rise continued during the NFL Combine. His 26 reps on the bench press, 126 inch broad jump, 6.75 second cone drill, and 4.0 second shuttle drill helped make him one of the top running back prospects in the draft according to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
Sankey is touted as a durable runner who gets better as the game goes on. While Sankey doesn’t have the same top speed of Chris Johnson, he has the ability to use his elite lateral quickness and vision to pick up chunks of yards at a time.
PLAYER TO WATCH:
McCluster is a versatile talent that spent his first four seasons in Kansas City before signing with the Titans as an unrestricted free agent during the offseason. The team lists McCluster as a running back, but he excelled even more as a pass catcher with the Chiefs.
McCluster set career highs in 2013 in receptions (53), receiving yards (511), and touchdowns (2). His top rushing season came in 2011 when he carried the ball 114 times for 516 yards and one score. Those numbers are drastically higher from his other three seasons in which he combined for just 38 carries.
Special teams is where McCluster made a name for himself in 2013, earning his first Pro Bowl after leading the league in both punt return yards with 686 and touchdowns with two.
While the former second-round pick has excelled on special teams, his big-play ability gives him potential to line up anywhere on the field on offense. If the Titans pull the right strings and tap into McCluster’s full arsenal, the hybrid running back will play a big role in the team’s success, and that’s an intriguing proposition for Titans fans in 2014.