Titans' O-line will go long way in determining winner of starting quarterback slot

Sunday, August 5, 2012 at 9:05pm

Quarterback contests are nothing new to Steve Hutchinson.

The Tennessee Titans are.

That is why the free agent guard figures it is he — not Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker — who will be the central figure in determining how long the starting offensive line plays in Saturday’s preseason opener at Seattle (9 p.m., NFL Network) or seven days later at Tampa Bay.

“Offensive line play is pretty much dictated on continuity and the cohesiveness of the group of five guys,” Hutchinson said. “As long as I can get up to speed, I think that will determine how much we play.”

No one among the offensive linemen in training camp has the base of experience Hutchinson, an 11-year veteran with two previous franchises, does. He’s been to seven Pro Bowls, an All-Pro five times and the NFL Alumni Offensive lineman of the year twice. He’s witnessed — firsthand — quarterback battles, including ones that involved Hasselbeck in Seattle and another in Minnesota last year between then-rookie Christian Ponder and veteran newcomer Donovan McNabb.

Twelve of the 14 blockers, though, do have some NFL experience of their own. Nine have started at least one game during their careers, including seven who have done so for the Titans.

That means — theoretically, at least — there are more than enough linemen to protect two quarterbacks without any of them having to stay on the field longer than they’d like through the first couple preseason contests.

“The mindset we have to have is that it isn’t about ‘I’m not running with this group, therefore, I have conditional performances based on circumstances,’ ” offensive line coach Bruce Matthews said. “That can’t be your mindset. We have to be ready to roll with whoever’s in there, and that’s every quarterback … We have a bunch of guys that can play and can play well.”

This is the second straight year the Titans have loaded up on linemen who are not new to the NFL.

In 2011, they wanted to make sure Locker, their first-round draft pick, was able to learn without any fear that he would be pounded every time he dropped back to pass. Ultimately, he was sacked three times in the four games but completed more than 65 percent of his throws and delivered Tennessee’s only two touchdown passes of the preseason.

This time the idea is to make sure that Hasselbeck and Locker have comparable working conditions so that coaches can sort out which one will be the starter when the regular season opens Sept. 9 against New England.

“It’s very important because if you don’t give them the chance to be comfortable in the pocket, they’re going to rush things, and you’re not going to get a true evaluation of their play,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said.

Presumably Hasselbeck and Locker each will be up first in one preseason game. Ideally, the regular season starter will be named after that and he, along with the starting offensive line — center and right guard currently are unsettled — will play the entire first half and one series of the second half in the next contest.

Regardless of which quarterback plays when, though, they ought to be well protected.

“They want both those guys to work with everybody, so it’s just a matter of getting everybody the best reps they can get,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “… Little things like technique you have to worry about, but the other stuff like trying to know what a guy’s thinking or how a guy plays … we all know each other. The familiarity is there. It’s nice.”

The last time the Titans had such uncertainty at quarterback was 2006, the year Vince Young was drafted third overall. Then the training camp roster included eight veteran offensive linemen and seven with no game experience.

Four quarterbacks were sacked a total of 11 times, including four times each for Young and Billy Volek, who was traded after the third preseason contest. Kerry Collins basically was handed the job when he was signed after the Volek deal.

Either Hasselbeck or Locker figures to win the job this year, which affords Hutchinson a certain sense of familiarity in otherwise new surroundings.

“It seems like my whole career we’ve had a couple guys battling,” he said. “… Those guys are both capable of playing. They’re both as professional as it gets. So they’re going to battle it out and whoever’s the best for this team is going to play and the other guy is going to back him up 100 percent.”

The number of offensive linemen available to protect both until that time, though, is a little unusual for the 34-year-old.

“I don’t know how that compares to other teams,” Hutchinson said. “I know, for instance, the last few years when I was in Minnesota we weren’t real deep. You always like to surround yourself with guys who can play, and to have a group like this, we’re pretty happy about it.

“I don’t know if it’s unusual or not, but it’s a good thing.” 

 

The Titans offensive linemen:

LT

Michael Roos

6-7, 320

Eighth year

He has started every game since he entered the league as a second-round pick and was an All-Pro in 2008.

Mike Otto

6-5, 310

Fifth year

He has two career starts but been a regular special teams contributor and an occasional extra tight end the past three years.

 

LG

Steve Hutchinson

6-5, 313

12th year

He was waived by Minnesota due to salary concerns but has been to seven Pro Bowls and has been an All-Pro five times.

Ryan Durand

6-5, 301

Second year

He has appeared in just one game and has spent two full seasons (2009 and 2011) on the practice squad since being drafted in the seventh round in 2009.

 

C

Eugene Amano

6-3, 300

Ninth year

He has missed just four games in his career and has been a starter — at two different spots — for the past four years. However, an arm injury sustained in practice last week will cause him to miss the entire 2012 season,

Kevin Matthews

6-3, 302

Second year

He spent most of 2010 on the practice squad but played three games, with one start, late that season.

 

RG

Leroy Harris

6-3, 303

Sixth year

He was the starter at left guard each of the last two years and has played in 62 of 64 contests over the past four.

Fernando Velasco

6-4, 312

Third year

He spent almost two full years on the practice squad and has appeared in every game, with three starts, the past two years.

 

RT

David Stewart

6-7, 315

Eighth year

He has been the starting right tackle in all 92 games he’s played in his career, beginning in 2006.

Troy Kropog

6-6, 308

Third year

He made six appearances in 2009 and 2010 but spent all of last season on the practice squad.

 

OTHERS

Byron Stingly

6-5, 313

Second year

He was a healthy scratch for all 16 games last season after being drafted in the sixth round out of Louisville.

Kyle DeVan

6-2, 306

Fourth year

He has been with five teams and has played 36 games, with 25 starts, since he entered the league undrafted in 2008.