We continue the defensive part of our tour around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2014 regular season with a look at the inside linebackers.
As is the case with the outside linebackers, the inside linebacker group in Ray Horton’s new 3-4 defense combines players from a couple different positions in this past offseason’s positional analyses. In this case, the contributing position groups were middle linebacker and outside linebacker. Horton’s concept of inside linebackers has two distinct roles; while outside linebackers and defensive ends (in the base 3-man front) play sides, the inside linebackers will adjust some to the strength of the offensive formation. Putting them in the more familiar 4-3 context, the two inside linebacker roles could be roughly analogized to middle linebacker and weakside linebacker. Unlike the “true” two-gap 3-4, both ILBs are generally both off-the-ball, flow-and-chase players rather than one SILB, often an oversized player expected to take on and defeat blockers; that’s an “on paper” statement, of course, while the actual world of the NFL on the field is sometimes much messier.
Let’s start with the first known. Wesley Woodyard will be one of the starters at inside linebacker. Since the Titans are listing him on the roster (at least the online version thereof; dynamic link that may update at any time) at MLB, it seems reasonable to think of him as playing the MLB-like position. He played MLB for the Broncos in their 4-3 last year, and has also played outside linebacker in the past. He’s definitely a flow-and-chase player, not what I think of as a take-on guy. If the defensive line is not able to protect him and let him flow, he is unlikely to be a particularly effective run player; I’ve compared him to Barrett Ruud in that regard, though N.B. (a) I thought more of Ruud’s work in two-tone blue than most Titans observers and (b) I like Woodyard more than I did Ruud. It’s worth nothing, though, that for the last third or so of the 2013 regular season and continuing on into the playoffs Paris Lenon, a more physical player, replaced him in base personnel situations.
Woodyard continued to play in the Broncos’ nickel package, as he had earlier in the season. He is generally a pretty effective player there. He’s not at the absolute top class of linebackers when it comes to athleticism, but he moves well enough and has been in the league long enough to know what he’s doing and do it well. Because Horton is willing to use his inside linebackers as rushers, it’s worth also nothing Woodyard had 5.5 sacks in 2012; I don’t think he’s a particularly dynamic rusher, but Horton’s a schemer and Woodyard can take advantage of opportunities if he’s given them.
Bottom line: I’m not worried about Woodyard as a starter. There’s no guarantee he’ll be as effective as you or I want him to be, but I don’t think it will be primarily his fault if he is not.
It looked like there would be a battle for this job, but Zach Brown now seems pretty locked in as the other starting inside linebacker. One of the fastest linebackers in the league, Brown has provided his fair share of splash plays but is still trying to find the keys to consistent execution on and off the field. He got into the doghouse with 2013′s coaching staff, then didn’t start the first preseason game after a non-curfew violation of a team rule Ken Whisenhunt would describe as “pissing me off, so that has to be more significant than minor.” (Other people to use “pissed off” or variants thereof in my highly incomplete two-plus years of notes on Titans coaches and player interviews: Bernard Pollard (multiple times), former DL coach Tracy Rocker.) He’s shown some of that splash plays in preseason games, but the key for him will be to play with consistent execution and physicality. Brown can be really, really good and an incredibly valuable player in nickel situations as both a rusher and a pass defender, or he could find himself sent to the bench again.
Zaviar Gooden started that first preseason game in Brown’s stead and was the player who would have been the competitor for that starting spot, if there had been a competition. I’ve struggled with him since the Titans drafted him in the third round last year; I didn’t think he was worth taking there and the Titans forced the pick because they didn’t have a backup weakside linebacker to Brown, who had a shoulder injury. Gooden got to play a little bit last year, against the Broncos and the Cardinals, and didn’t do anything that caused me to think that he’s anything other than Just A Guy. I left him off my initial 53-man roster prediction for that reason, but the Titans seem to like him as Brown’s backup, which is why he’s on my latest 53. I hope he doesn’t have to play, and if he does that he proves me wrong.
I covered this year’s fifth-round pick Avery Williamson in some detail before training camp began. I won’t repeat all of that here, but will note he was a collegiate middle linebacker and has the potential to be a good take-on player, unlike Woodyard, Brown, or Gooden. The unofficial depth chart in the media release for the Falcons game currently has him fourth on the depth chart at Woodyard’s spot, but that’s what you do with rookies; he played with the second-team defense in the second preseason game. He will make the team and, barring injury, will play almost exclusively special teams in 2014, where he has a chance to be pretty good.
I included Moise Fokou in my initial 53 because of his past 3-4 experience, versatility, and general NFL experience in a position group that has a couple pretty young players. I left him off my latest 53 even though the depth chart has him as Woodyard’s primary backup because (a) the Titans like Gooden more than I do, and (b) I thought more about whether Fokou’s level of performance meant that I should find a spot for him, and decided that it didn’t. He was definitely a useful player for the 2013 Titans, but the Titans added Woodyard in the offseason because they wanted an upgrade over him, and I don’t see a role for him on the 2014 teams.
There were a couple of things I thought about saying about Colin McCarthy. His shoulder injury, for which he had surgery when Whisenhunt thought he was still seeking a second opinion, renders most of those moot, but I still want to quote what FO colleague Rivers McCown write in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 (still available in PDF and print, and newly available on Kindle!): “McCarthy is also a candidate to see time, but tape, statistics, and common sense should keep that from happening.” Heading into the final year of his rookie deal, my guess is there’s no chance he’s a Titan beyond this season and the most likely outcome for him is the Titans send him to injured reserve and reach an injury settlement with him as quickly as possible.
David Hinds has gotten to play late in the first two preseason games, and Jonathan “Tig” Willard even later in the second one. Willard was on the practice squad last year. Given the recent expansion of the practice squad from eight players to ten, there might be a space there for another inside backer, but it’s not guaranteed.
First key question: will the defensive line keep the inside linebackers clean? Second key question: will Zach Brown be a consistent performer instead of a guy who continues to mix one splash play with three others where you’d like to see him be better? If the answers to those questions are both no, inside linebacker will probably look like a big liability for the 2014 Titans and a position in need of more investment next offseason in terms of free agents and/or draft picks. If the answers are both questions are yes, then inside linebacker could be a needed strength for Ray Horton’s first Titans defense. The most likely result is something in between, a position group effective at times, less so at others, on a defense that fits that same profile.