In a normal year, I would begin the defensive part of our trip around the Titans position by position as we approach the regular season with a look at the defensive tackles. Not this year, though, not after Jerry Gray's declaration in his recent media session that "Who said we were going to be a 4-3 system?" My automatic response to that was "Antonio Johnson, a couple days before, expressing his happiness to be back in a 4-3 after being in a 3-4 last year in Indianapolis," though of course I was sitting at home and not in front of Gray. With only two more positional analyses to go before the first preseason game, though, I decided to flip the defensive linemen and linebackers, just in case we get more clarity in how the Titans will align their linemen this year. Thus, rather than starting with defensive tackle, our first stop is middle (or maybe inside!) linebacker.
When I evaluated his play in the offseason positional analysis, I noted I wasn't sure how much of Colin McCarthy's sophomore struggles were due solely to the high ankle sprain he suffered in Week 1 and how much was due to inexperience resulting in a player who was simply aggressive in getting downhill instead of intelligent in aggressively getting downhill. As I expected, the Titans made a modest investment in an MLB2, bringing in a non-Zac Diles reasonably-priced veteran.
Enter Moise Fokou at $2.8 million over two years. And whether due to concern over McCarthy's 2012 performance, his late-season concussion that reportedly lingered well into the offseason, or simply McCarthy's long history of injuries, or maybe even because Fokou has been particularly impressive, there seems to be a battle at middle linebacker.
As far as battles go, right now this one is a bit one-sided as McCarthy is currently out with a hamstring injury and will miss at least the first preseason game against the Redskins. That means more of an opportunity for Fokou. He was mostly a sub package defender last year in Indianapolis, but the Titans have indicated they think he can be an every-down player.
Assuming McCarthy can get back on the field and stay there, it should be a very, very interesting battle. The Titans have said nice things about both of them so far, but I think new linebackers coach Chet Parlavecchio, who stresses consistency and fundamentals, and Jerry Gray, who talks about the Mike linebacker as the quarterback of the defense, see one reliable performer and one with too many question marks. I'd say it's too bad for McCarthy, who was apparently looking very good in training camp after what Parlavecchio described as a bit of a "sluggish" OTAs, if I actually had an expectation he would remain healthy.
Regardless of who wins the Mike job, the next question is how much the Mike plays. McCarthy has played in sub. Fokou has obviously played a lot in sub. Do the Titans play a 3-3-5 sub package, as Andrew noted they did in Monday's practice and as I previously noted Gregg Williams likes to? My thinking on this issue has evolved over time. Right now, I'm thinking Akeem Ayers' position in sub defense will be as a "pass rusher", whether that's standing up or with his hand in the dirt, so the 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 could end up looking a lot alike. Zach Brown is pretty much a lock for one of the linebacker spots in either look, which means maybe the Mike will play in sub. Perhaps not in Ruby (3-2-6), but if there is a clear winner he could end up playing a lot rather than regularly coming off the field on third downs.
I suspect what it'll come down to is how much McCarthy can stay healthy and practice. If he can do both, he'll play some to a lot. If he can't do either, Fokou will play a lot. If he can sort of do some of both, I think he could play a modest amount and you could see a bit of a timeshare.
In that recent radio interview, Parlavecchio in the context of discussing the MLB battle spontaneously brought up Greg Jones' name, described him as a hell of a player, and declared the Titans have 3 Mikes that are real good football players. Considering he went back to discussing solely Fokou and McCarthy, I'm taking that with a Pannel Egboh-sized grain of salt, especially considering Jones' name has otherwise hardly been mentioned at all. It's not a particularly good stylistic comp, I don't think, but he reminds me of Brad Kassell, a player who could fill a sufficiently constrained role reasonably well, but you're always looking to upgrade on him. As an MLB3 and special teams player, I'd be fine with him.
With McCarthy out, the Titans just added Kadarron Anderson, a highly-productive middle linebacker at Furman who spent last training camp with the Saints and played in Italy this offseason. I doubt he's anything other than a camp body.
Tim Shaw, last year's MLB3, is listed on the depth chart at outside linebacker, so I'll discuss him with that position grouping.
Colin McCarthy has shown he's a nice player when healthy, which isn't often enough for a position that demands reliability. It would be great if he got healthy, won the job, kept it, and showed the kind of improvement from his first to third seasons you'd expect from a player who looked promising. Instead, I'm expecting to see a decent amount of Moise Fokou on the field, regardless of whether he's the nominal #2 (as he is right now) or the #1.