Having finished with the offense, we now turn our attention to the defense, specifically the defensive tackles, as we continue our trip position by position around the Tennessee Titans as we had into the 2013 offseason.
As I've chronicled on here, the Tennessee Titans were very young defensively. That was true at many positions, but perhaps nowhere was it more true than it was at defensive tackle. The Titans carried five defensive tackles. Together, those players had as many years of NFL experience in 2012 as they did combined in the years preceding 2012, and one player accounted for three of those five years of experience entering this past season.
The basic question the Titans face at defensive tackle is a familiar theme from this round of positional analyses. With one starter who played most of the time heading to free agency, did the Titans get enough from the position in 2012 that they should look to retaining him and internal improvements to help them improve from 6-10 to the playoff or near-playoff team they need to be in 2013 for the head men to keep their jobs, or should they be looking instead to upgrade at the position? And just how good can those young players be, anyway?
However the Titans decide the big question, it's a pretty good bet that one of the starters will be Jurrell Casey. The 2011 third-round pick out of USC started every game and played a position-leading 781 snaps, or 69% of the time, and would have played more had shoulder injury not forced him to miss much of the Week 6 game against the Steelers. For the second consecutive season, he played very, very well at times and was less impactful at others.
His overall production was pretty similar to what he did in 2011, with a similar number of tackles. He once again made most of his plays against the run. He had 3.0 sacks, 0.5 sacks up from his 2011 total, and had three quarterback hits, the same he had the year before. Titans coaches apparently credited him with 80 total tackles (38 solo), rather than the 54 (34 solo) the NFL gave him. Will he ever be more of a pass rusher? I'm not sure, but I wouldn't bet on it. Instead, he's a very good run defender and the worthiest defensive tackle the Titans have.
Starting next to Casey for the final fourteen games was Sen'Derrick Marks. As I noted in the preseason look at the position, I've struggled with Marks since the day the Titans drafted him, and for a second-round pick, he had a pretty unimpactful first three seasons. With the training camp release of Shaun Smith, though, Marks got the starting spot he'd earned and, well… the Titans played better with Marks in the lineup than they did in the games he missed. He finished the season playing 678 snaps, 60% of the total for the season but 69% of the time in the games for which he was healthy enough to be active. He didn't make as many plays as Casey (41 tackles by the NFL, 63 by the Titans), but the Titans in base personnel were generally okay against the run in the games he was around. Like Casey, he didn't do that much against the run, finishing with 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hits.
2012 was the final year of the deal Marks signed after being drafted, and the Titans have a decision to make on him. Is he good enough, with the rest of the guys I'm covering, that the Titans feel comfortable retaining him? Will he want to play for the Titans at the money they want to pay him? Just how strong will the interest be around the league for his services? Based on the first three years of his career, I would have expected little interest for him, but he showed enough in 2012 to be a useful player in base personnel on first and second downs. That's more than a veteran minimum role, but just how significant is it?
The broader question is what do the Titans think of their defensive tackles, and how do they want to use them? Marks seems more comfortable playing the nose tackle/1-tech role. I also think that's the most natural position for Jurrell Casey, though the Titans have had him play more 3-tech. I don't expect the Titans to agree on this any more than they agree with me on anything else. I think there's a theoretical world where bringing back Marks makes sense, but given what the Titans have said and the realistic options, I think they let him walk and look for another significant contributor.
In the preseason positional analysis, I speculated 2012 third-round pick Mike Martin could displace Marks as a starter by the end of the season. That of course did not happen, nor did I think it should have. Martin finished the season playing 428 snaps, 38% of the time, but with an interesting playing profile. In the games for which either Casey or Marks was unavailable, he played 64% of the time. In the games for which they were both available, he played 35% of the time. To me, this says the Titans thought of Martin as a clear third defensive tackle, clearly worse than Casey or Marks but at the same time clearly preferable to the other tackles on the roster. With Marks likely departing in free agency, does that mean the Titans want Martin to be the starter?
It's a tricky question. Going back to the point I just made, I think Martin is a shade nose, and he fits a pretty similar profile to Jurrell Casey. I'm not sure he holds up quite as well as Casey, but that strikes me as a very good starter-backup combination at that spot. Will the Titans see things the same way?
One thing Jerry Gray noted in his recent round of media interviews is the Titans are looking specifically to get bigger on the defensive line. That has not been a good way to describe the Titans in recent years. Casey is 6'1, 300 pounds; Marks is 6'2, 294 pounds; Martin 6'1, 306 pounds. By NFL standards, these are not particularly large or particularly tall defensive linemen by NFL standards. I think it's really possible the Titans will do look for a bigger defensive lineman and not give like 1.3-1.4 snaps a play to Casey and Martin like they did to Casey and Marks.
The Titans' fourth defensive lineman was Karl Klug. He is an undersized situational 3-tech pass rusher. This is what he was in 2011. This is what he was in 2012. This is almost certainly what he will be in 2013. This is a useful thing to have. Too many people saw his 7.0 sacks in 2011 and though greatness. I predicted he would have 3-4 sacks in 2012; he had 3.5, plus five quarterback hits and a similar number of other pressures. He was active for all 16 games and played 248 snaps, including as few as 3 in a game (twice, at Jacksonville and versus the Jets). Expect a similar role and production in 2013.
The fifth defensive tackle was the man Casey played next to in college, DaJohn Harris. After making the team as an undrafted free agent, he then didn't suit up much, playing in only six games, and was on the field even less. For the year, he played 76 snaps, 32 of them in Week 2 against San Diego. I thought he'd get some playing time in the meaningless season finale, but he was a healthy inactive that game after suiting up the previous two weeks. With so little playing time, I don't have a firm impression of his play. At 6'3, 306 pounds, he's slightly taller, at least, than Casey and Martin. He may make the team again, but I don't think he's a significant part of their plans. That said, he could challenge Klug if the Titans are looking for a bigger backup at 3-tech.
The Titans also signed Zach Clayton, the 2011 seventh-round pick who spent 2012 on their practice squad, to a futures contract. I've never been quite sure what the Titans saw in him and would put him behind Casey and Martin in the shade nose position in my personal rankings. If they keep five defensive tackles, I'd keep both of Klug and Harris instead of one of them and Clayton, but I've been wrong plenty of times.
I don't normally write about free agent visits here, but the Titans have reportedly offered a contract to former Giants defensive lineman Chris Canty. Checking in at 6'7, 317 pounds, he's definitely a bigger defensive lineman than what the Titans have been carrying. Knee injuries, including recovery from offseason surgery, limited him to nine games in 2012. Without knowing contract details, it's tough to know if the Titans are looking at him as a starter or what, but it may be another indicator they're looking to move on from Marks. Then again, maybe not.
Given what they've said, though, I think the Titans are definitely interested in an upgrade at the defensive tackle position. With their youth, I think they may be interested in a veteran. Canty would be a useful player. If he makes it to free agency, Bears tackle Henry Melton would be a pretty nice fit. If they don't add a player in free agency, then I think adding a defensive tackle is definitely an option in the draft, and that includes with their first-round pick. I've gone on record with my affection for Star Lotulelei and would be happy with him at tenth overall. The Titans seem awfully attached to the core of a non-great team, though, so don't be too surprised if they re-sign Marks instead and choose to roll with the same group.