We continue our analysis of the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2013 regular season with a look at the defensive tackles.
I intentionally waited on this post until after the first preseason game due to Jerry Gray's comments about the Titans possibly not being a 4-3 team this year. And lo and behold the Titans lined up with four defensive linemen every single snap in the first preseason game; they didn't even do that in last year's first preseason game, thanks to a couple snaps of Ruby (3-2-6). In light of that, I'll be treating the Titans in the DT and DE analyses as though they will indeed be a 4-3 team.
The question I looked at in the offseason was how much change we would see at a very young defensive tackle position. Would they look to retain a starter going to free agency, and how much would they look to buttress a position that hadn't been a strength for a couple seasons? We know now the answer-they let Sen'Derrick Marks depart in free agency and added Sammie Lee Hill to take his place as well as later Antonio Johnson to supplement a pair of recent third-round picks in Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin. Will that likely quartet be enough to take the Titans where they want to go in 2013?
The best player in the group is almost certainly Casey. The 2011 draft pick has started 31 of 32 games and should play a significant role against in 2013 after leading all Titans defensive tackles in snaps last year. He can be a very good penetrator and make some plays against the run. He's consistent played on both run downs and in sub package situations, a trend that based on the first preseason game I expect to continue. The big question is whether he will ever provide more than a very modest pass rush threat. We have not seen him do that in his first two seasons, though as Derrick Morgan obviously showed last year sometimes players are much better pass rushers in their third season. He'll still see plenty of snaps if he does not.
Fellow returnee Mike Martin played a modest amount of the time as a rookie and flashed at times as a pass rusher. What wasn't so good was his performance when he was not flashing, as sometimes he ended up 5 yards downfield instead of 5 yards in the backfield. That helped him make more tackles on 7-yard runs but is not otherwise a particularly desirable trait in my point of view. Given Jerry Gray's stated intention of getting bigger on the defensive line and the Titans' problems in run defense when in sub package last year, my tentative expectation is Martin will probably play about as often as he did last year instead of seeing the big role expansion you might expect from a rookie who flashed.
Sammie Lee Hill was the first part of Gray's plan to get bigger on the defensive line, a 6'4", 328-pound behemoth. I reviewed a couple games of his play with the Lions in some detail and what stood out to me was very good strength even by the standards of NFL defensive linemen. I don't think the Titans will ask him to do as much upfield penetration as the Lions did, and I think that's a better fit for what Hill does best. The Titans made noises when they signed him about pass rushing, but he's a terribly unsubtle pass rusher who has 4.0 sacks in four seasons. Gray has backed off those comments, declaring what he wants Hill to do is help stop the run on early downs. That's how he was used against the Redskins (all of his snaps came in base personnel on first or second down), and how I expect the Titans to use him this year.
If Hill was part one of Gray's plan to add bulk at defensive tackle, Antonio "Mookie" Johnson ended up as part two. Unlike Hill ($11.4 million over three years), the former Titans draft pick turned Colt came with a modest price tag. A round peg forced into a square hole as the nose tackle in the Colts' 3-4 last year, like Hill he is listed at 328 pounds and should play primarily on run downs. I thought he stood out in the first preseason game as being better than the Redskins' second-string offensive line. There's a chance he could be this year's Pannel Egboh, the man Gray talks about all offseason and preseason then ends up finding it hard to make it onto the field, but my tentative belief is he'll make the team and play a rotational role behind Hill.
By my accounting, Zach Clayton actually saw the field before Martin or Mookie against the Redskins. As I indicated in the offseason, I've never seen what the Titans do in Clayton. They kept him on the active roster as a rookie and he was on the practice squad last year. I don't see how he makes it ahead of any of the four players I've already noted, and given the grouping of the line pieces I'm not sure the Titans keep five pure defensive tackles.
DaJohn Harris is also in the mix for a potential fifth defensive tackle spot. Casey's teammate at USC, I like him better as a purer 3-tech backup than the Titans tend to prefer. At a listed 6'3", 303, he does not provide the size Jerry Gray is looking for. The Titans surprised me by keeping him last year, but I think he has even more difficult path to making the team in 2013. I could just be missing what the Titans like in him, but I just don't see a good route to playing time.
Entering the game late at the same time Harris did was undrafted free agent Stefan Charles. A first-round pick in this year's CFL draft who's listed at 6'5, 323 pounds, he definitely has the size the Titans want on the defensive line. Unfortunately, Canada's different line of scrimmage rules and playing at a smaller school (relative to the BCS) set him back in terms of learning NFL technique, a deficit in his game Gray noted at his latest media session. In a different world, he'd be a nice practice squad candidate. In this world, he very likely goes to play in Canada instead of joining an NFL practice squad.
Karl Klug and Lavar Edwards are a big part of why I have a very hard time seeing the Titans keep five defensive tackles, as both played defensive tackle in sub package situations against the Redskins and have played inside in sub in the past. I will cover both in more detail in the defensive ends positional analysis.
Jerry Gray has pieces that look how he wanted in Sammie Lee Hill and Antonio Johnson. The big question is, will they be more than big bodies like Shaun Smith was and instead be productive players? The problem I see with the Titans is they have one guy I like as a starter in Jurrell Casey and a couple guys in Hill, Johnson, and Mike Martin who are better suited as rotational tackles. The defensive tackle grouping should be improved from last year's unit, but I still see what's likely to be a below-average unit.