Our next stop on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the start of the 2013 regular season is a look at the outside linebackers.
As I've covered before, most recently in the offseason positional analysis, Jerry Gray on his arrival in 2011 brought a revised conception of what the two outside linebacking positions meant. The Titans brought in the first player to fit his new mold in 2011, and 2012 saw the arrival of a player who fit his other mold. The Titans thus could be set at both OLB spots for many years to come.
Or they could not. Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown are both young players who have done some impressive things on the field at times, but also done some not-so-impressive things. While neither player will suffer the possible fate of Colin McCarthy and end up playing less than he could, the probable ascension of both is far from inevitable.
Of the two men, Ayers will likely be the more interesting to watch in 2013, particularly just how much he'll rush the passer and whether from his normal strongside spot or from somewhere else, like defensive end. His pass rush technique was pretty awful as a rookie, but he got better last year. If I had my druthers, he'd do that more and spend less time in coverage, especially in sub package situations. The Titans keep playing him there, and by my eyes and the numbers agree teams have found that far too profitable a proposition. Some of that work has been out of necessity or because he's been the least worst option, but with other players available who could do that this year, I really want to see him going forward instead of backwards.
I was skeptical when the Titans drafted Brown in the second round of last year's draft, but ended up naming him the Titans' rookie of the year even though he didn't enter the starting lineup until midseason. To my pleasant surprise, he showed very little of the things he did in college that made Mike Mayock label him "allergic to contact" and Josh Norris describe him as "pillow hands." I broke down his play against the Bears, and I think the basic identification of his strengths and weaknesses held up reasonably well for the rest of the seasons. In comparison to both Ayers and the departed Will Witherspoon, his work in man/matchup coverage stood out and he should only improve his second season. Chet Parlavecchio noted a need for better consistency and knowing what he can, should, and shouldn't do in any situation. As is, he can be a decent player. But he can and should be so much more. He just needs to hone his craft. Parlavecchio will assuredly encourage him to do so, but it's on him. I'm getting myself excited to watch Brown as I type this.
Ayers' nominal backup at Sam is Tim Shaw. Shaw is a nice special teams player who will do his best if he's asked to play defense. He should not be asked to play defense very much. In his defense, he is not a downgrade at backup from Patrick Bailey, who was listed as the backup Sam the past two years and is now listed as the backup Will behind Zach Brown. The Titans were even less willing to play Bailey on defense than they were Shaw; given his missed time with injury last year and the additions at linebacker, I think there's only room for one of these guys and it's Shaw. Whether that's how things work out will depend on the shape of the overall roster and the construction of the special teams units.
The more intriguing option behind Ayers is the listed third-stringer, Scott Solomon. Last year's seventh-round pick had a very modest performance at defensive end last year. With the modification of how the defensive line seems likely to align and perform, he's now working with, and listed on the depth chart at, Sam. Jerry Gray praised his athleticism and toughness, but the big transition is adjusting to the other things an outside linebacker must do. Gray described him as a "3-4 OLB," which prompted the question that led me to wait off on writing about the defensive linemen. Like Ayers, it wouldn't shock me to see him line up with his hand in the dirt again. He's a better true Sam backup and Ayers replacement than anybody else on the team save, perhaps, Kamerion Wimbley, but will that be enough to earn a roster spot? My current thinking is no.
Zaviar Gooden was drafted in the third-round to be Brown's backup at Will and play special teams. It's possible he could play a role in sub package situations, but barring injury I doubt he's on the field for 100 snaps on defense. I wasn't a huge fan of his, but he certainly fills a need the Titans wanted fill.
It would be awesome to see Jonathan "Tig" Willard make the team after he rightly drew headlines nationwide for his heroics on the road to training camp. He was a nice college player at Clemson, but I don't see a spot for him on the team unless he really impresses.
It's all about Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown, and how much they improve. If a lot, they could be great at what they do. If not, well, there's a reason "potential" is as much curse as promise.