After defensive tackle, our second stop on the defense on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2014 offseason is a look at the defensive ends.
In the DT positional analysis, I discussed in some detail what Ray Horton has said about the defense he plans to run. I believe he will likely install a defense that looks similar to what he ran in Arizona and Cleveland, a base 3-4 that looked, to use a reasonable AFC South comparison, somewhat like Wade Phillips' defenses in Houston the past couple seasons, with more formation versatility and stand-up rushers on third downs and in sub package situations. The front seven positions in Horton's defense map imperfectly onto the more traditional 4-3 defense the Titans have run. For the purposes of this round of positional analyses, I am discussing players based on their 2013 position with Tennessee. Precisely player traits to their potential role in a Ray Horton defense is an area I will explore in more detail later in the offseason, but I will touch on it in these posts to the extent I find it useful.
With the transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3, defensive end is a position group that could experience a lot of turnover from one season to the next. Of course, had the Titans stayed with a 4-3, turnover could still have been the order of the day as, as with the defensive tackle grouping, the Titans had the same situation they did in 2012-one standout player, and a bunch of rotational players. Horton will assuredly find a place for the standout, but is he one of those players whose role will be affected by the change in defensive scheme? Also, what about the rest of the grouping?
It seems a bit odd to refer to Derrick Morgan as the standout player, as the 2009 first-round pick had only 6.0 sacks a season after he had 6.5 sacks and a boatload of pressures that would seem to indicate he may have been in line for more sacks. Still, he was clearly the best player in the position group. No other defensive end had as many sacks, more than half as many pressures (per the Titans), or nearly as many plays in the run game, whether tackles for loss (per the Titans) or just positive plays I noted in the games I've broken down thus far. He did that while playing more plays than any Titans defensive end. True, he didn't play the 914 snaps he did in 2012, but he did play 796 (75% of the time) and would have played even more had a shoulder injury not limited his playing time against the Chiefs and Seahawks and kept him out of the 49ers game; in the other 13 games, he played 86% of the defensive snaps.
When he was coming out, like every edge rusher, Morgan was viewed as a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker. He's played DE in a 4-3 in his career. Now that Horton's bringing his 3-4, he's playing OLB, right? Well, maybe not. Morgan is one of the few players Horton has addressed with any specificity. In response to a question about Morgan being close on sacks at his hiring press conference, Horton noted that you have to be smart in how you rest him and Morgan cannot play 60 plays per game (Morgan averaged 57 in the 13 games he was healthy). This may be a pretty significant clue as to Morgan's position. Looking at the snap counts for Horton's Cardinals defense in 2012 in particular, three linebackers (Sam Acho, Paris Lenon, and Daryl Washington) played at least 92% of the time. He didn't an OLB in Cleveland quite as much as he played Acho, but Paul Kruger still played 55 snaps a game (76%). Especially in Cleveland last year, he was much more aggressive in rotating his defensive linemen; Ahtyba Rubin played the most at only 54% of the time. It's worth noting Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett both played a fair bit more in Arizona, so I wouldn't bet on Morgan playing that infrequently, but I do think that's an indicator Horton sees Morgan as a defensive lineman in his scheme.
Morgan is under contract for 2014. It's worth noting he is not under contract for 2015; unlike Larry English, he played enough to void the expected to void sixth season in his rookie contract. Like Jurrell Casey, he's a player the Titans will at least have discussions with on a long-term contract extension this offseason. I'm not sure I would expect one, though, as the Titans would presumably want to pay him a contract commensurate with his solid overall game but modest sack totals, while he probably wants more; I know I would if I were in his shoes.
The other starting defensive end was the third man in Jerry Gray's seemingly much-loved and inseparable trio of bigger players, Ropati Pitoitua. Added because of his size, Pitoitua was for the most part a solid rotational end on base downs, though perhaps one who seemed to wear down over the course of the season under a bigger role. He ended up playing 576 snaps (54%) in a role that slightly declined from the first half of the season to the second by a couple snaps per game. He had a surprising 4.0 sacks in the first six games, then returned more in line with expectations with 0.0 in the final ten contests.
Pitoitua is a free agent this offseason. Would Horton have interest in signing him? Pitoitua was with the Jets and Chiefs, both 3-4 teams, before joining the Titans. He's a 3-4 end, Horton's a 3-4 coordinator, natural fit right? Well, maybe, though Romeo Crennel's Kansas City defense specifically was a different flavor of 3-4 than Horton likely plans to run. He could stick around as a rotational end, albeit one who plays somewhat less, but that will depend on how much Horton values his particular skills. Possible in my mind, but I probably rate it as less likely than do most other Titans observers.
Whatever happened to Kamerion Wimbley? At least, that would seem to be the question after he went from playing very regularly (911 snaps) to hardly playing at all (352, 33%), but almost everybody knows what the answer is. The Titans signed him to play full-time defensive end, a position he's never played before, and signed him to a 5-year, $35 million deal to be a great pass rusher. He was modestly productive in his limited snaps, recording 3.0 sacks and 3 pressures, but has never been in Tennessee the same caliber of pass rushers he was in Cleveland and Oakland previously. Further, his big reduction in playing time was partly driven by run defense concerns. As a defensive end, he stops the run like a career outside linebacker.
As a veteran outside linebacker who'd kick down on third downs and in sub package situations, Wimbley seems like a natural fit for the OLB role in Horton's defense. That is true. The rub, though, is a $6 million salary. Wimbley could be a solid player in Horton's defense, I believe, though I also note as I did after the Titans signed him his sack productivity has generally not come from the OLB position. Horton will have to significantly value Wimbley the player for him to stick around even despite the positional fit; we haven't seen a Kam Wimbley who was probably worth that in a Titans uniform, which makes him an obvious cap cut candidate.
Karl Klug seems like a great fit for a backup/rotational end in Horton's scheme. He does his best work as a 3-tech against bad offensive linemen, but split his playing time in 2013 between tackle and defensive end; I've considered him a DE this season and am sticking with that here, but he really has been a tweener. Maybe more than any other player in the front seven, he maps easily onto a Horton defense. Just recognize what he is and what he is not; he was never as good a pass rusher as the 7.0 sacks as a rookie indicated he might be, and he's a liability in the run game. I am not sure how long his career lasts or if he ever makes much more than the league minimum, but I can easily see him playing something like the 317 snaps (30%) he played in 2013 in 2014, the final year of his rookie deal.
Lavar Edwards was Derrick Morgan's backup as a fifth-round rookie, not nearly the impact player as a rookie Greg Cosell (and others) thought he might be. He was only active 7 times and 119 of his 149 total snaps (14%) came in that three-game stretch where Morgan was banged up. I'll rewatch the 49ers game later in the offseason to focus on his play, but it's hard to come away with too much of a definitive impression from so small a sample size. If Horton likes him, he'll be a rotational guy. He also had collegiate experience playing on the interior of a 3-man line in pass rush situations, which should help him transition more easily to Horton's defense. My tentative expecttaton is he will be a rotational guy.
The Titans also signed Marcus Dixon and Adewale Ojomo to futures contracts before Horton was hired. Dixon has experience as a 3-4 end with the Jets and his listed at 6'4, 295 pounds. Ojomo spent 2013 on the Titans practice squad and is listed at 6'4, 270 pounds. As with Tyler Horn, I'm sure I saw him play at Miami (FL), but not enough to develop an impression of his game. Dixon was some variant of just a guy; I'm not sure I quite get the point of signing a 29 year old player who was out of the NFL the previous season, but to each his own.
Derrick Morgan will play a fair amount. Karl Klug and Lavar Edwards should be rotational players. Kamerion Wimbley looks like the only potential 3-4 outside linebacker in the group to me, or at least that's how I'd expect Ray Horton to see it. Due as much money as he is, I expect Wimbley to be a cap casualty. The degree of defensive line investment will depend on how Horton fits the D-ends and D-tackles together. As I noted in the DT positional analysis, the Titans could make a significant investment on the line or relatively like the mix they have right now, at least enough to make their investments at other positions.