For Leroy Harris, the difference is obvious. It reveals itself every time the fourth-year offensive lineman walks past the locker occupied in previous seasons by Kevin Mawae.
“It is a little strange to walk past his locker and him not being here because he taught me a lot about leadership,” Harris said. “He was an inspiration by teaching guys all he’s learned throughout the years.”
For the Tennessee Titans as whole, though, the absence of Mawae – a 16-year veteran and seven-time Pro Bowler – or anyone with a similar pedigree is an outright departure.
One thing that has defined the franchise since it relocated from Houston has been the presence of well-schooled, much-decorated offensive lineman.
It started with Bruce Matthews, who already was in his 15th season and had been to nine straight Pro Bowls when the team arrived in 1997. When Matthews retired following the 2001 campaign, the role of elder statesman fell to Brad Hopkins. He had played eight seasons and had been to one Pro Bowl.
Mawae joined the Titans in 2006 after 11 seasons and six Pro Bowls with Seattle and the New York Jets. His contract expired after last season (he’s currently unsigned and available as a free agent) and created a gaping hole (relatively speaking, of course), in terms of experience, among the front five.
Of the five projected starters, the oldest are center Eugene Amano and Jake Scott, both of whom are entering their seventh seasons. Scott has started 89 of 92 games, but Amano has a little more than two years worth of starting experience. Tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart both were drafted in 2005 and Harris came along two years later.
In three seasons, Harris has started three games.
“For me, what I haven’t experienced are the week-to-week different things that teams do,” Harris said. “For me, that’s going to be the key difference – every week against a different team, a different challenge for you and going against a different team.”
Another notable difference is that all except Roos (second round) among this year’s five were taken in the fourth round or later in the draft. Matthews and Hopkins were first-round choices, and Mawae was a second-round pick.
Not only, therefore, will this year’s line lack the anchor of experience it has featured for more than a decade, it also will pale in comparison to previous units in terms of collective pedigree.
With a 2,000-yard rusher and a quarterback who’s still developing as a passer behind them, the expectations on those five will not diminish even if the overall age and experience already have.
“There’s always pressure in this league,” Harris said. “You can’t escape the pressure, you have to look forward to it – look forward to the challenge of going out there and playing. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m excited about going out there to play. I’m ready to go.”