|Cornerback Alterraun Verner was one of several rookies that made a solid contribution to the Titans in 2010.|
One year ago the former walk-on at Montana wondered if he was going to make it to the NFL. The Titans tabbed him with the 222nd pick in the seventh and final round of the draft. He won a roster spot in training camp and made an immediate mark on the league, but hasn't forgotten the anxiety between ending his college days and extending his football career.
The Titans, who ended the 2010 season Sunday with a 6-10 record, might undergo multiple changes this offseason, and next season is in jeopardy for all teams until all 32 NFL owners and the players union agree to a new labor deal.
"It reminds me a lot of this time last year with the draft and everything because there's so many question marks of where your career is going to go, where you're going to end up," Mariani said. "That's kind of what we're looking at here. Are we going to have to find real jobs? Are we going to have to pick something up on the side? We as players don't have much control over it, so we're going to have to fall back on our union."
Mariani appears to have solidified his roster spot when football does return.
He broke the Oilers/Titans franchise record for kick and punt return yards set by Derrick Mason (1,794 yards in 2000) and led the NFL in that category this season (1,859 combined), earning selection to the Pro Bowl. Mariani's return yardage was the 18th highest total in NFL history and included a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Denver and an 87-yard punt return for a score against Washington.
The Titans cleaned out their lockers Monday, a day after losing for the eighth time in their final nine games. Mariani said it was important for the Titans to keep playing hard. He will have one more game this season when he joins Titans teammate Jason Babin in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl on Jan. 30.
"I think we're all just a little bit disappointed with how the year turned out," Mariani said. "For me, being a rookie, it was a crazy one to step into. I have one more game, which I am so honored to be playing in. It was a good experience for a rookie year."
Mariani, wide receiver Damian Williams and cornerback Alterraun Verner were the three Titans rookies who played in all 16 games this season. Williams, who was drafted in the third round, finished the season with 17 catches for 219 yards this season and played on special teams.
Verner was called into action quicker than he expected when second-year cornerback Jason McCourty suffered a fractured forearm in Week 3. Verner quickly delivered, making an interception in each of his first two starts.
Verner, a fourth-round selection that the Titans traded for, finished the season with three interceptions and 15 passes defensed, forced a fumble and recovered two fumbles. He had 91 tackles on defense prior to Sunday's finale in which he was credited by the press box with 10 solo tackles
"They said I'd have a chance (to contribute this season), but usually when you say that to a rookie, it's more like 'We'll try to get you ready. There may be some competition but you're going to have to wait a little bit,' which I was going to (understand). I thought my role was going to be special teams, maybe a dime package here and there, depending on how many DBs you wanted to get out there.
"I thought it was a big honor and definitely a surprise, so I enjoyed every moment," Verner said.
Titans defensive end Derrick Morgan, who was chosen in the first round, also made an immediate impact but suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury on Oct. 3 against Denver. Morgan recorded a sack, a quarterback pressure and defended a pass in his Titans debut on Sept. 12, and coaches were pleased with his development before he suffered the injury.
Injuries also led to opportunities for other rookies this season. Tennessee had just 23 players (offense, defense and special teams combined) compete in all 16 games this season.
Quarterback Rusty Smith (sixth round) relieved Vince Young against Washington and started at Houston on Nov. 28. Linebacker Rennie Curran (third round) played in the final nine games this season, mostly on kick coverage teams, and recorded 11 tackles on special teams.
Center Kevin Matthews and defensive end Hall Davis were signed from the practice squad late in the season and made their NFL debuts on Dec. 19 against Houston, and Matthews made his first start Sunday. Malcolm Sheppard, whom the Titans signed off the Texans' practice squad, played in the Titans' final three games and recorded eight tackles.
Mariani said he planned to take a slight break from the detailed schedule that players have kept since training camp but would be "ready to get back going when February comes around" to help make next season last longer.
"I think my rookie year was so fun this year because we had a great rookie class," Mariani said. "The vets in the locker room kind of embraced us and took us under their wing a little bit and helped us out. I think we have a bright future and I'm looking forward to seeing the steps we take in this offseason and how much better we can get so we can (make the playoffs)."