We continue our trip around the Titans position by position on the eve of the 2012 regular season with a look at the middle linebackers.
The Barrett Ruud Experience is mercifully over. The Titans signed the much-maligned former Tampa Bay linebacker last offseason to fill the starter, and even people like me who though Ruud got too much blame last year weren't the least bit sad to see him go.
Into Ruud's shoes as the full-time starting linebacker in the middle of the Titans defense stands Colin McCarthy. Last year's fourth-round sensation from the University of Miami got downhill much more aggressively than did Ruud, often a necessary move behind a defensive line that struggled to keep the Mike clean. While McCarthy didn't always make the tackle when he did play aggressively, he made enough of them.
McCarthy's zone coverage drops weren't nearly as clean as Ruud's (seriously, that man was an absolute ace at running backwards in a straight line). He more than compensated for that by having way, way better agility than me, perhaps unlike Ruud. His ability to make quarterbacks throw the ball right to him for no good reason whatsoever, showcased late in the Tampa Bay game last year and twice in the preseason game against the Cardinals this year, also helped.
By the depth chart, McCarthy's primary backup is Zac Diles. Perhaps most famous to the Titans fans for being "the guy who forgot to cover Chris Johnson" when he played outside linebacker for the Texans, Diles is best described as a journeyman. He played mostly third-string in the preseason, but played in the nickel package with the second-team defense. The Titans are probably hoping the injury problems that occasionally plagued McCarthy at Da U don't recur this season and force them to play Diles significant snaps.
Also on the depth chart at middle linebacker is Tim Shaw. The waiver wire pickup was re-signed to a three year deal in the offseason largely because of his special teams ability. Shaw is truly excellent on special teams, and seemed to draw most of the fourth linebacker spots last year. He played above Diles most of the preseason and also filled in at Sam one game. As is the case with Diles, any McCarthy injury that results in him playing extensively could be fairly regarded as a serious downgrade.
With as many good middle/inside linebackers there are in the league, I'd say some Titans fans have gone overboard in their praise of McCarthy. So long as he's healthy, though, the middle linebacker spot should be a strength in the middle of the Titans' defense in a way it hasn't been for a very long time.