After covering the defensive ends and tackles, we turn our position to the next level of the defense, specifically the middle linebackers, as we continue our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position heading into the 2013 offseason.
Things didn't go so well for the Tennessee Titans at the middle linebacker position in 2012. The player who'd looked like a potential star in the making the second half of 2011 got hurt, then got healthy but looked less like a star in the making, then got hurt again. The backup played a few snaps, then got hurt again. The third-stringer came in, and, well, played like a third-stringer, resulting in outside linebackers taking snaps.
Suddenly, a position that seemed solid suddenly seemed much less so, especially because it wasn't the potential star in the making's first injury issue. What, then, should the Titans do this offseason? Will they hope the young player can stay healthy and retain his 2011 form, or do they need reinforcements at the position again?
The young player who seemed like a star in the making was 2011 fourth-round pick Colin McCarthy. If the dominant theme of his rookie season was "hey, this guy's a lot more active than Barrett Ruud," then his second season was defined by "this guy can't stay on the field." He suffered an ankle injury in the season opener against the Patriots and missed the next three games. He played two games, then sat out against the Bills. He played four more games, then sat the reason of the season with a concussion, going to injured reserve Week 17. He played a lot in most of the games he played, finishing with 385 total snaps (34% of the total), but was only active for 7 games.
When he was on the field, he started to remind me at times of former Titans middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch. He continued to attack downhill aggressively much of the time. Like Tulloch and unlike his play as a rookie, I thought he got fooled, both by play-action and by running backs, than he did as a rookie. There's a fine line between being instinctive and just being aggressive, and I thought McCarthy was too often just aggressive last year. Football Outsiders individual defensive statistics indicate that when he made the tackle on a run play, it was successful, but he made that tackle a bit less frequently than he did last year. The Titans credited him with 45 tackles (32 solo). That's a lower tackle rate per snap than each of Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, and Will Witherspoon. Football Outsiders charting data also suggests he wasn't particularly effective in coverage either, albeit in a pretty modest sample size.
I suspect a lot of the mistakes I saw came from a combination of the ankle injury and inexperience. The injuries, both the ankle and the concussion, are a bit of a concern though. One of the reasons McCarthy fell to the fourth round was collegiate shoulder injuries that took him off at least one team's board entirely. Ankle, shoulder, and concussion injuries are completely different, I know. The shoulder is supposed to be healed. The ankle injury should be fine by training camp 2012. Concussions can be a "you never know" thing, but I expect him to be fine by training camp or well before then. Still, I admit I'm at least minorly concerned.
The man who was supposed to be McCarthy's backup in 2012 was Zac Diles. The former pupil of since-fired linebackers coach Frank Bush in Houston ended up playing significant snaps in only one of the games McCarthy missed, then was lost for the season against Buffalo in Week 7. A free agent, it's tough for me to see the Titans having too much interest in bringing back a player they gave only 68 snaps to, especially when the man likely responsible for his presence in Nashville is now gone himself.
I wrote before the season that if third-stringer Tim Shaw ended up playing significant snaps, he could fairly be regarded as a major downgrade. Sometimes I hate being right. He ended up playing 224 snaps (20%), most of them over the final five games. He spent a lot of time looking like a third-stringer who was out there doing his best. He finished the season with 38 tackles (30 solo) on defense and 13 more on special teams. The Titans tried to keep him off the field in nickel, but he ended up playing some snaps there. Tim Shaw should never play in the nickel package. He's a fine special teams player, but is not a starting-caliber middle linebacker.
In the games Shaw started, Will Witherspoon generally played all of the nickel linebacker spots. He also played at middle linebacker in Week 2 against San Diego. I'll discuss him in detail when I talk about the outside linebackers. The Titans last week waived Kevin Malast, who was primarily a special teams player and spent 2012 on injured reserve, so he's not part of their 2013 plans.
In some ways, middle linebacker reminds me of a bit of wide receiver, in the Titans have a player who's looked pretty good at times but who did not look so good in 2012. If the player recovers his form, which is somewhere between possible and likely, that player will play an overwhelming amount of the time and there's no need for reinforcements at the position. Then again, there's reason to believe from that player's history that's not that likely to actually happen. It's a bit of a pickle to be in, with no great solution.
I think we saw last season the Titans clearly need a better MLB2 than Tim Shaw (who's a valuable enough special teams player he should and will make the roster again). At the same time, though, that's not a huge need and isn't a position they should invest a lot of resources in, especially with how often Jerry Gray likes to line up in the nickel package. What makes the most sense to me is for the Titans to find another Zac Diles, a modestly-priced veteran capable of stepping in and playing competently, if not great, should be he called up, but most of the time to play special teams or not at all. I don't expect that to be Diles, but it'll be another guy in the same mold.