We continue our look around the Titans position by position as we approach the 2012 regular season with a look at the defensive ends.
The Titans weren't good enough at defensive end in 2011. That's not a bold statement. The primary job of the defensive end for pretty much every 4-3 team is to rush the passer. The Titans were terrible at rushing the passer last year, ranking 31st in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate. I wrote about how the Titans sacked the quarterback over the offseason. For purposes of this post, though, it's worth noting that hardly any of those sacks came as the result of a defensive end winning a 1v1 battle.
The Titans of course recognized their weakness at the position and return only one of their top four players at the position. William Hayes followed Jeff Fisher to St. Louis when his contract expired. Jason Jones, primarily a defensive end last year after spending his first two seasons at defensive tackle, departed for Seattle at the end of his rookie deal. Dave Ball was the one holdover, re-signed in April, but a concussion cost him almost all of training camp and sent him to injured reserve.
The Titans added reinforcements at the position in the offense, but the key to their fate this year may be the one holdover.
That holdover is of course Derrick Morgan, the 2010 first-round pick who was supposed to solve the Titans' then-woes at the position. He only had 2.5 total sacks out of 17 total pressures. With that amount of pressure, you'd expect slightly more sacks, perhaps 4-5. In Jerry Gray's preferred 4-3 under defensive scheme, that defensive end isn't expected to be as much of a rusher as the other defensive end, but Morgan in his first season back from the ACL injury that cost him most of 2010 didn't do a particularly good job of winning those aforementioned one on one battles. The Titans will looking for him to do more in his third season. Frankly, I never thought Morgan would be much of a pass rusher, with maybe his best season around 8 sacks, and am not expecting much more out of him this year than we saw last year.
Free agent addition Kamerion Wimbley is the defensive end in the slot opposite Morgan, the man who is expected to rush the passer a lot and get there a lot. I wrote about Wimbley when the Titans signed him and again more recently, but it's worth hitting those high points again. He's played a lot of linebacker the last couple years, first in Cleveland's 3-4 and then in Oakland's 4-3, but also lined up at defensive end in a four-man line both places in extra-DB situations. He'll be playing full-time DE for the first time this year, and it's the position where he's been most productive the last couple years. I'm concerned he could get swallowed up by offensive tackles, and his signature shoulder dip move could get him pushed wide an awful lot.
Wimbley's nominal backup is Keyunta Dawson, who spent a few years as Dwight Freeney's rarely-used backup. Though he had a couple sacks this preseason, he has one regular season sack in his career. I don't expect him to play much or doing much when he's in the lineup.
Morgan's nominal backup is Pannel Egboh. Egboh basically has no NFL experience, but has bounced around the fringes of various rosters for a few years. The Titans like him as a run-stuffer. Like Dawson, I'm not expecting him to play much or do much when he's in the lineup. He'll probably play more on early downs than on passing downs.
This year's seventh-round pick Scott Solomon played most left defensive end in the preseason but is listed as the third-string backup behind Wimbley and Dawson at the right end spot. I didn't see a lot for him in preseason and am likewise not expecting much from him.
For the Titans to have a good defensive end group this year, they'll need Wimbley to be the kind of player who draws and can sometimes beat double teams and Morgan to be the kind of player who can reliably take advantage of one-on-one matchups. I doubt either happens, in which case opposing quarterbacks will likely again have too much time to throw against the Titans' secondary.