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2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: DL

After concluding the offensive half of our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position with center before the first preseason game, we continue with the defense, specifically the defensive line.

The first question with a defensive positional analysis is, just how should I approach the defensive half of the ball? In the offseason, I went with traditional defensive end and defensive tackle analyses, since the Titans had played a 4-3 the previous season and new defensive coordinator Ray Horton hadn’t announced or shown the Titans would be playing a 3-4 (though as I noted back in February, that was my assumption). Now we’ve seen the Titans play in a 3-4, and the question of how to approach these positional analyses is clearer. There still is a question of whether there should be one or two defensive line analyses, one for defensive ends and one for nose tackles.

At least for now, I’m going to cover all of the players in one grouping, for a couple reasons. First, it’s not clear to me there will necessarily be a distinct separation between the two roles. Second, NFL teams play a lot of sub package defense, where the Titans will play primarily two defensive linemen. Splitting those players up doesn’t necessarily make sense, especially when their role in sub isn’t necessarily distinct, and we saw in the first preseason game that player could be either a nose man or an end in a three man line. I may do things differently in February, once we’ve seen it play out for a full season, but for now I’m going to clump them together even if it does end up unbearably long like the wide receiver analysis always does.

Back in February, I wasn’t sure which players would be playing what position, and it was a matter of great speculation. I wrote I thought Derrick Morgan would be a defensive end; he’s an outside linebacker, something I definitively came to grips with only in March after free agency began. Now, we know not just the basics but some of the details from that first preseason game.

With the first preseason game in the books and a good look at at least an initial depth chart, that seems like the best way to cover it. Jurrell Casey remains the best and most important player on the defensive line. He’ll play defensive end in base situations and defensive tackle in base packages. Horton is too smart to have him two-gap regularly. I’m not counting on double-digit sacks or anything close to it. First, per the Football Outsiders game charting project (I write for FO perma-disclaimer), he only had 14.0 hurries. That number of total pressures (24.5 with the 10.5 sacks) normally results in more like 7 or 8 sacks. Second, Horton likes to rotate his defensive linemen more than the departed Jerry Gray (and Gregg Williams) did. Casey played 870 snaps, 86.5% in the 15 games he was active. As I keep noting, no Browns defensive lineman last year played more than 55% of snaps. In Arizona in 2012 Darnell Dockett and Calais Campell played more than that (when healthy), but my guess is Casey’s playtime is 75% or less in 2014.

The other defensive end in base situations and tackle in sub with the first team was Ropati Pitoitua, who is much closer to the “traditional” two-gap 3-4 non-rushing defensive lineman. I really like Casey as a penetrator, on both run and passing downs. Pitoitua’s a solid run-stopper, but I don’t see him as the kind of pass rusher you like to have on the field in sub packages. We’ll see how much he plays, but I’m guessing a lot less than Casey.

The nose tackle with the first team was Sammie Hill. For my take on how he’ll fit in the new scheme, I go back to what I wrote about his Detroit play before the joined the Titans last offseason. That great strength should serve him well as a nose tackle. Like Pitoitua, I’m not sure he’s much of a pass rusher, only even less so (0 sacks and 2 hurries per FO charting for Hill, compared to 4/6 for Pitoitua). I wondered if his salary could make him vulnerable, but that was just idly guessing. He’ll probably play more a fair amount on run downs, maybe a little bit on passing downs.

DaQuan Jones and Al Woods were the second-team defensive tackles in sub. Woods played mostly nose in the few snaps of base they played, while Jones played mostly end, but they flip-flopped for a series. I went more in depth about free agent addition Woods and draft pick Jones in July, who kept getting compared to Woods when the Titans talked about him. Both are strong, I question them as penetrators, and both seem likely to serve time in 2014 mostly as interior backups at multiple positions and play a modest amount.

I rate those five players as the locks to make the team barring something weird happening. Then it gets a lot more questionable. When I did my 53-man roster prediction at the start of training camp, I had only six defensive linemen and Antonio Johnson as the sixth. He missed the first preseason game due to injury. Even before his injury, though, I second-guessed myself, finding him a bit too similar in what he brings to Jones and Woods, being a similar sort of non-penetrating big body with experience playing multiple positions in a three-man front. Depending on how many defensive linemen the Titans keep, and other people have them keeping more than six, he still has a chance to make the team, but I wonder just how good his odds are.

If I were to redo my roster prediction right now (I won’t until next week, after Friday’s second preseason game at New Orleans), the sixth defensive lineman on the team would be Karl Klug, who fits the sub package 3-tech penetrator mold much more than any player I’ve listed other than Casey. It feels like I’m a bit lower on Klug than most other people, seeing him as more like a AAAA penetrator, able to give subpar offensive linemen fits with his quickness and hand usage but struggling against the league’s better guards and too easily overwhelmed by brute force when he doesn’t win with technique. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, I think the former fifth-round pick should be back for another year of the same kind of role-playing perhaps a third of the time, often in sub packages, and contributing on special teams as well.

Whither Mike Martin? Coming into the league, I thought Klug was another Mitch King, an under-talented, under-sized Iowa player who would be exposed in the NFL. Obviously, he’s exceeded my expectations. While I didn’t think of him particularly as a Titans target, I thought Martin was a worthy third-fourth round pick as a non-plus-size one-tech nose tackle, maybe for a team like the Texans in Wade Phillips’ 3-4. He hasn’t been the NFL player I thought he’d be, not as effective in pass rush and too easily pushed back in run defense. Also injured, he missed the first preseason game and I feel like I’ve been mentally questioning whether there’s a role on the team for him since March’s free agency additions. That he’s technically listed as Casey’s backup, ahead of Klug, on the unofficial depth chart, suggests there is. My mental model is more skeptical, thinking he needs to be healthy and show what he can do on the field in preseason to win that roster spot. If there is a third “penetrator” spot, which likely means the Titans are keeping at least seven defensive linemen, he’s the favorite, but I’m not sure the Titans will fill the need to create that spot.

I kind of liked Lavar Edwards coming out of LSU, and Greg Cosell liked him even more. I liked his prospects of being a rotational lineman back in February, then the Titans went and added Jones and Woods and brought back Johnson. Currently listed at third-string on the depth chart behind Pitoitua and Woods (and rookie Jones is technically behind him), I think they drafted him to be Morgan’s backup, and in the new scheme Morgan’s a tweener playing OLB and he may be a tweener without an opportunity. I think there could be something here, but I’m not sure we’re likely to see it in Tennessee.

Chigbo Anunoby was the exception to the rule, the nose tackle (listed on the third team behind Hill and Johnson) who also played in sub last night. Then again, considering the absences, I’m not sure how much to read into that since by that point of the game there weren’t many other options to play with Edwards. My guess is among the big bodies he’s behind Pitoitua, Hill, Woods, Jones, and Johnson, and I’m now questioning whether there’s a space for five, let alone six. Then again, the Titans could easily like him for reasons I’m not seeing, because I’m bad at evaluating defensive line technique play.

Marcus Dixon was activated off PUP yesterday. I was skeptical of his chances in February and see him as an extreme longshot to make the team. Lanier Coleman is probably more of a longshot, as they didn’t add him until Johnson and Martin got hurt and they weren’t sure they’d have enough players to practice the way they wanted.

Conclusion-Type Things

There are some roster battles here, and the Titans will have some decisions in terms of how many spots there are and what type of players fit those spots best. My concern is the same one I have for the Titans defense as a whole, the lack of top-level talent outside of Casey. Green Bay’s first drive in the preseason was reminiscent of too many opposing drives against the Titans in the recent years, when a non-great defensive line couldn’t keep linebackers clean and the opposing offense had success on the ground. That’s a big macro-level question for a defense that has ranked in the bottom ten in FO’s Adjusted Line Yards statistic the past two seasons, including bottom six both years on runs marked middle/guard in the play by play. The Titans will need some of those wide bodies to play particularly well in 2014 to avoid a third consecutive season like that.