What are you looking for when you are projecting the likely growth or regression of an NFL Franchise? There are undoubtedly hundreds of things to factor in, but I find it more effective to hone in on several areas.
This one may seem obvious, and just about every fan-base around the league seems to think their team has the most of this one. However, when you peel back the tin-can and take a close look at NFL rosters, you find that the most consistent teams have the best foundation of young talent; whether they be role players or immediate starters after being drafted. I would point to teams like the New England Patriots (except in the secondary), Green Bay Packers (cringe), and of late, the Seahawks. These three teams not only have get contributions from almost all of their young players, but some of these guys are already cornerstones of their respective teams.
The Titans boast a strong corps of young talent on both sides of the roster, more so than anytime I can remember in the past. Indeed, the Defensive Tackle and Wide Receiver groups are extremely deep. This has been the result of many things, not least in the roster reshaping that took place last off-season. Beyond the fringe players, the Titans have come to rely on young budding "stars" like Jurrell Casey, Zach Brown, Mike Martin, Akeem Ayers, and Alterraun Verner on defense, and have some building blocks like Jake Locker, Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, and Chance Warmack on offense. Factor in guys like Karl Klug, Colin McCarthy, Michael Preston, and Lavar Edwards, and you have yourself a team packed with a lot of young talent, meanwhile featuring enough veteran presences to provide leadership and example. One area the Titans will need to work on in the next few drafts is the offensive line, where the tackles are getting long in the tooth. Another spot is safety which will need to be addressed at some point, as well as the advantage that a premier DE would give the defense. Get on it Ruston! Which brings us to...
This goes almost without saying. A GM who knows what to look for in the draft is an essential tool for building an annual contender. The Titans have been cursed with a series of particularly poor drafts in the team's history which have really hurt the franchise's ability to get to the post-season and beyond. Titans fans have to be happy with Ruston Webster. Aside from the high number of savvy veteran additions he brought in, he has been excellent in analyzing and targeting players in the draft which fit what the team wants to do. If he continues to hit on gems on draft day, this team will have a stacked roster for at least the next few years. Webster has also improved the team by being more accountable: he has jettisoned disgruntled players and has been open, yet prudent, with Bud Adams pocket book. He has infused the roster with competitive players like Bernard Pollard and George Wilson, Delanie Walker and Andy Levitre, Ropati Pitoitua and Moise Fokou, players who are leaders, who are proud to be Tennessee Titans.
If this young group progresses as expected, the Team can part ways with expensive players who no longer fit the mold, and lock down emerging players with long term contracts. The Titans future likely doesn't include players like Kamerion Wimbley CJ, and Michael Griffin, at least not without restructuring, and it most certainly doesn't include players like Kenny Britt. The days of over-paying for potential (Reinfeldt-ism) appear, thankfully, to be long gone, and it seems his successor has learned from those past mistakes. While I love this team, I understand that thew NFL is,first and foremost, a business. These players represent the old guard, and thus, are an obstacle to solidifying the team going forward.
Young Franchise QB
This is the most important, and elusive, element for teams looking to contend going forward. Jake Locker has taken a long road to being a respected starting NFL QB. But in my opinion, based on what we've seen against some of the best defenses in the league, with not much of a running game behind him, I am as optimistic as ever that he has arrived. While Locker is far from a polished final product, having a true leader at QB that the team can rally around and who can elevate the play of those around him is invaluable in this league. Coaches live and die in the NFL around selecting their franchise QBs, and I believe Ruston made the best choice when he picked Locker in the first round a few years ago. I can talk about Locker all day. His accuracy issues have been mostly unfounded, while his leadership ability is growing by leaps and bounds. He is clutch, and has shown the ability to guide the ball down the field when needed, and spark the offense with his legs when all else fails. Whether you like Locker or not, the reality of it is that Jake is only going to get better and the trajectory of his progression has been incredible thus far. He may or may not be enough to lead the Titans to an unexpected playoff berth this year, but I have faith that, alongside the excellent pool of young talent on this team and GM Ruston Webster, Locker has what it takes to guide this team to the promised land, and to an escape from the mediocrity that has cursed this franchise for the better part of a decade.