After defensive tackle, defensive end, and outside linebacker, our next stop on the defense as we go around the Tennessee Titans position by position heading into the 2014 offseason is middle linebacker.
Repeating my introduction from the DE post: 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 mapping players and their traits to their potential roles 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.
In other words, this is probably the last positional analysis for a while you will see entitled "MLB" as opposed to "ILB." Unlike the other front seven positions, though, you are likely to see all of the players discussed in this MLB positional analysis discussed in the ILB positional analysis in five or six months. Generally speaking, what the Titans asked of their middle linebackers last season seems to fit what Horton is looking for from his inside linebackers.
That tentative conclusion leaves us free to just go ahead and evaluate how the middle linebackers played last season. On second thought, maybe that is not an exercise you want to embrace. The previously promising young player continued what feels like a career decline. The veteran who won his job impressed early, then seemed to fall off. Both could easily be around in 2014, but there is no guarantee either sees significant snaps on defense in 2014.
Thanks in part to injury, Moise Fokou won the training camp competition to be the starter and began the season playing reasonably well. Not outstanding so in my view, but of the level commensurate with a starter and three-down player. A knee injury in Week 6 kept him out of the next four games, then he returned for the final six contests and played roughly the same every-down role he played the previous game. He finished the season playing 719 snaps (68%, 90% in active games).
Maybe it was the knee injury that kept bothering, but I thought as the season wore down he played less effectively. I compared him to Barrett Ruud in my review of the Arizona game. For those of you not around or who have successfully repressed 2011, that was not a compliment. What did on the field, namely hesitation in attacking downhill and robotic-seeming pass coverage, reminded me very much of Ruud's play.
Fokou has experience in a 3-4 before and is under contract for 2014 at a reasonable base salary of $1.4 million. My tentative expectation is he will be around, as he could be a solid special teams player and veteran ready to step into the lineup, but the change at scheme and coordinator, plus his level of play the second half of 2013, means anything is possible.
I have said this before, but remember when Colin McCarthy looked like a promising young player? Two themes both present in his 2012 season continued to stand out in 2013 for me. First, injuries were an issue. Though McCarthy did suit up for all 16 games, his training camp hamstring injury basically gave Fokou the starting job by default. Second, his aggressive play seemed aggressive for the sake of aggression, rather than aggressive instinctiveness. Combine that with ineffectiveness when not playing aggressively, and maybe 2012's disappointment had more to do with a young player who did not progress as expected rather than a lingering high ankle sprain.
McCarthy made it on the field when Fokou was injured, when the Titans were doing their bizarre defensive packaging against the Broncos, and, in my favorite "we have no idea what we're doing" move, split time with Zach Brown at WLB in the Week 16 Jaguars game. He finished the season playing 330 snaps on defense (31%). The Titans credited him with 51 tackles.
Unless Horton likes what he sees in his game more than I think he will or should, McCarthy is in line to potentially be a backup off-the-ball inside linebacker and special teams player. I do not expect him to start.
Were you to from a Ray Horton defense from the 2013 Titans roster, the weakside linebackers and middle linebackers would likely fill the two inside linebacker spots. That probably means still one starting spot for the players who played MLB for the Titans in 2013. Will Horton think those players are good enough? After what we saw of those middle linebackers, Horton could easily answer "No" and opt for a high-impact addition at the position. From that perspective, yes, Karlos Dansby could very well be a Titans target. On the other hand, the Fokou and McCarthy pairing was not that bad and if Dansby or another high-impact player is not available, the Titans could be content with a more modest or even no addition to the current grouping.