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.
Of course, that was the general disclaimer. Jerry Gray brought a new concept of what being an outside linebacker meant to the Titans, bringing in the team's first real strongside linebacker after a decade or so of playing two players who both fit more into a weakside/off-the-ball flow-and-chase linebacker. Horton's arrival seems likely to bring a broader overhaul of what being an outside linebacker means. That means, inevitably, that some of the players on the roster will fit the new concept, some of the players will not, and some may fit a different positional concept. In other words, I'm not expecting to write about all of the players in this post when it comes time to do the preseason OLB positional analysis in six months or whatever.
Of the outside linebackers on the roster right now, Akeem Ayers is the one who seems to fit closest to the profile of a Horton outside linebacker. He played plenty of on the line of scrimmage strongside linebacker, like a Horton outside backer in a 5-2 look and also kicked down some, though not quite as much as I thought, to a true defensive end role.
On the whole, it's hard to consider the Titans outside linebackers as anything other than a disappointment as a position group as a whole, and Ayers exemplified that as much about as much as anybody. He's a difficult player to fully grasp, as he seems like a very talented player yet too often doesn't play like one. His pass defense still seems lacking to me in both man and zone coverage; I'm not sure how many of his difficulties in coverage come because of technique flaws and how many are just he isn't as good of an athlete as he seems. If he plays outside linebacker in Horton's scheme, he probably will not be asked to coverage much-I noted in the DE post OLB Sam Acho played 92% of the time for Horton's 2012 Arizona D, and Football Outsiders numbers had him with 14 targets in coverage all season.
The good news about Ayers in his more likely pass-rushing role is he's improved since I wrote about him after his rookie season. The bad news is, he's still not the player I think the Titans thought he would be. After 2012, it seemed like he might be on the verge of better things, but he only had 1.0 sack and 4 quarterback pressures (per the Titans) in 2013 and didn't seem to be as involved rushing the passer as I think I and many others expected he would be. The result was he left the game plenty of times in sub package situations and ended up only playing 722 snaps (68%) despite being healthy all season.
A brief note on Ayers' potential role in Horton's defense: The general suggestion has been that Ayers will continue to be an outside linebacker. I noted on Twitter a while back that I thought Ayers might be a better fit as a 3-4 SILB, partly because I think he's used to playing against players and being physical and partly because I think he could be a more dynamic pass rusher on the inside. Thinking more about how Horton's defense works and recognizing it likely will not be a "traditional" two-gap 3-4, I expect him to play OLB. Will he play OLB well? That's Horton's challenge, and let's just say I might not have posted what the Jets thought if I believed Ayers' play on the field in 2013 was consistent with what I expected from him. Further, 2014 is the final year of his rookie deal and I would not expect the Titans to have extensive negotiations with him this offseason about a contract extension.
If Ayers were not the poster child for "what the heck is going on with Titans linebackers in 2013," then it is Zach Brown. I named him the Titans' 2012 rookie of the year even though he only played half the season because of just how impressive he was and how he played nothing like the avoid contact player he was sometimes in college. 2013 was not the type of onward and upward season I expected from him after that.
The big question with Brown's 2013 season was how much of it was his fault, and what were those faults? Take, for instance, the Arizona game where he only played 6 snaps. On one of those plays, he could have been a little more aggressive in zone coverage and possibly prevented a completion, though it may not have been his area. He also made a pursuit tackle on a running play to the far side of the field. That was enough to get him benched for the rest of the game, for some reason. Of course, what the Titans did with that weakside linebacker spot made no sense. I variously thought of as either "spitballing" or "throwing stuff at a wall to see if anything sticks.". A week after playing they benched Brown, he split time with normal middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, who'd never played WLB in his NFL career, then the week after that Brown was the only WLB to play. I almost wish the season had gone on another week just to see what they would have done, and if there was any sort of incredibly convoluted, completely opaque to outsiders plan. Perhaps Chet Parlavecchio was less inspiring to NFL players than he was to people who listened to his radio spots.
Brown finished the season playing 756 snaps (71%). He led all linebackers with 117 tackles (80 solo), 4.0 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss, plus tied Ayers with 4 quarterback pressures. I would expect him to continue to be primarily a run-and-chase linebacker. In Horton's defense, that means he is likely an ILB.
To repeat something from the preseason positional analysis: the Titans drafted Zaviar Gooden in the third round last year because they did not have a backup to Brown at weakside linebacker and needed one. He was banged up early in the season and a healthy inactive at other times, then made his season debut with a start Week 14 against the Broncos when the Titans took defensive packaging to the extreme and played entirely different linebackers in their 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 nickel packages (mostly). He played for Brown after the next week, then was a healthy inactive the following week.
When he was on the field in defense (only 74 snaps, 7%), he was, briefly, not very good. His worst moment was when he attacked the wrong gap and allowed Rashard Mendenhall's 15-yard run in overtime against the Cardinals to set up the game-winning field goal. His best moment was, um, well, uh, he probably had one, I guess? He did not show me anything as a rookie to make me think he should have had the playing time he got, let alone deserve more in his second season. My tentative expectation is for him to be Brown's backup again, though getting Rennie Curran'd would not shock me.
Patrick Bailey is nominally Ayers' backup, but really he is a pure special teams player (3 defensive snaps in 2013, I believe all as the fourth linebacker in goalline situations). I was surprised the Titans kept him over Tim Shaw, who had been more durable, and a balky hamstring injury left Bailey on the wrong side of the questionable fence for 3 games. He was a solid special teams player when he was in the lineup. 2014 is the final season of his current contract, I consider Bailey's roster spot at least in question notwithstanding a reasonable salary of $1.2 million given the change at defensive coordinator, his lack of role on defense, and his injury problems.
The Titans also signed two linebackers who spent time on their practice squad to futures contracts. Jonathan "Tig" Willard was definitely an outside linebacker in 2013, though my suspicion is Horton would consider him an off-the-ball linebacker/ILB. Brandon Copeland spent time with the Ravens in the preseason and is a more interesting player. A collegiate defensive end, the Ravens had him as an MLB conversion project. Listed at 6'3, 260 pounds, that's a heck of a lot of middle linebacker. For the Titans, my guess was more developmental SLB so Ayers could possibly have a real backup. They also signed David Hinds to a futures contract. He spent time in training camp with the Dolphins, where he played outside linebacker. Listed by the Titans at 6'0, 234 pounds, he would be another off-the-ball linebacker. My expectations for these three players, as it is for all players signed to futures contracts, are nil.
Akeem Ayers will have a role. Zach Brown will have a role, though probably not at outside linebacker. There is an obvious candidate for another outside linebacker, which could be filled in free agency (Redskins, do you really want to sign Brian Orakpo?) or the draft (Anthony Barr is a serious contender for #11). Other players? Well, the change in defensive philosophy will undoubtedly result in a certain amount of turnover, and that may affect OLB more than any other position on defense. For Horton and new linebackers coach Lou Spanos, your challenge is to get Ayers and Brown to play more effectively than they did in 2013.