Next up on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as head into the 2013 offseason is a look at the outside linebacker position.
If middle linebacker was a position that went from stable last offseason to potentially unstable this offseason, something like the opposite transition has occurred at outside linebacker. It's been a gradual process, almost an exceedingly gradual one at times. It started, in a way, back in 2009, as the Keith Bulluck-David Thornton pairing that worked so successfully the previous three seasons showed increasingly major wear. A temporary solution came in free agency, and the draft brought more players cursed with potential.
The current picture started to take shape in 2011. New defensive coordinator Jerry Gray brought a new conception of what being one of the outside linebackers meant, and that year's draft brought a player to fill that role, one who made too many mistakes due to inexperience and lack of skill, but seemed like a promising piece to build on. Unlike at Mike, that second-year Sam had about as strong a second season and still looks like a good solution, albeit one who needs more improvement.
The 2012 offseason brought a new player at the other outside linebacker position. With a player at his position already on the roster, this highly-drafted rookie was not immediately installed as a starter, but like the middle linebacker became a starter during his rookie season thanks to the starter's ineffectiveness. He looked good at times, less good at others. Can the Will avoid the Mike's fate and continue to improve in his second season?
That strongside linebacker is of course Akeem Ayers. Credited with 13 starts thanks to things like nickel defense, he led all linebackers in snaps, playing 860 (76%). He ended the season leading the Titans in tackles, as the team credited him with 110 (79 solo). Unfortunately, he missed too many tackles as well, some of them in space. Part of the reason he played so many yet at the same time so few (sitting nearly a quarter of the time) was he played in nickel. For the second straight season, neither I nor the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project particularly liked his work in pass coverage.
The more encouraging sign from Ayers in his second season was his improved work as a pass rusher. He had 2.0 as a rookie, and when I watched him last offseason, I thought his pass rush tech, to be frank, sucked, and I'm bad at noticing things like that. He got better at that in 2012, finishing with 6.0 sacks plus eight quarterback hits and a similar number of pass pressures. He even played a little bit of defensive end in sub package situations-not very much at all, but I think more than he did in 2011. Given how much Jerry Gray has talked since he's been here about having a pass rusher who can rush standing up, I'll be curious to see how much, in what situations, and from what position he rushes in 2013.
The rookie weakside linebacker was Zach Brown. Early in the season, it was obvious to see why he wasn't playing much, as his play when he was on the field featured entirely too much inexperience. I characterized his zone defense as being at times frenetic, which is a polite way of saying running around undisciplined like he wasn't quite sure what he was doing. He got better at that as the season went on, thankfully. Thanks to Colin McCarthy's injuries, he got his first extensive action in Week 2 against the Chargers, but his playing time fluctuated for the next few weeks. He took over the starting job for good in Week 8, playing 88% of the snaps in those final nine games. I wrote in some detail about his play Week 9 against the Bears.
As for his production on the field, the Titans credited him with 93 tackles (70 solo). He finished fourth on the team with 5.5 sacks, earning him plaudits for his pass rushing. Unlike Ayers, though, his ancillary pass rush production isn't much, suggesting a Klug-like fall in sacks in 2013. That doesn't bother me so much, though. The bigger responsibility for a weakside linebacker is to chase people and tackle them. Brown did pretty well there, I thought, better than Ayers, but certainly needs to get better here, but so does every first year player. He should, as just about every first year player does.
The man Brown supplanted as a starter was Will Witherspoon. I wrote last offseason about the Titans holding onto players perhaps a year too long. I noted last preseason Witherspoon had started to show his age, and his 2012 performance was a reminder that 32 is far from young for an NFL linebacker. He ended up playing 388 snaps (34%), third-most among linebackers, because the Titans needed him to because of Colin McCarthy's injury. He was a good player for the Titans for about a year and a half. The last year in particular, he played because the Titans reasonably believed he was the least bad option. A free agent this offseason, the Titans and I will be wishing him best of luck in his future endeavors.
Patrick Bailey is nominally Ayers' backup at Sam. He played 2 snaps on defense, both against the Chargers in Week 2. Like middle linebacker Tim Shaw, he's almost exclusively a special teams player and is under contract for two more seasons. He missed four games with injuries and had 10 special teams tackles. He's not playing regular snaps on defense unless the Titans are desperate. Tim Shaw, whom I covered at more length in my look at the middle linebackers, played Sam for Bailey in the preseason, and I suspect he'd play Sam for Ayers before Bailey (though Jerry Gray would just play more nickel, most likely).
Did I say Bailey was a special teams player? He actually played on defense, unlike Xavier Adibi. Added to the active roster when Zac Diles went to injured reserve before Week 8, he was active in six of the final nine games, playing exclusively on special teams. Like Diles, he played for the since-departed Frank Bush in Houston. A free agent this offseason, I can't see the Titans bringing him back.
Gerald McRath, former weakside linebacker of the future, spent all of 2012 on injured reserve. A free agent this offseason, he could be an option for the Titans as a likely moderately-priced backup to Brown.
The future appears bright with Ayers and Brown. They need to get better, but it's bright. Bailey is a fine special teams player. The Titans could use another player at weakside linebacker. Given Brown's youth, I expect this to be a veteran with a modest pricetag. That player could be Gerald McRath. Another option is to find a player like Witherspoon who has the flexibility to play either Mike or Will. This would let the Titans keep six linebackers instead of seven, if they wanted an extra roster spot somewhere else. More likely, though, they'll be content to carry 7 OLBs and keep one inactive if need be. In that case, the backup Will can be just a backup Will and special teams player.