After defensive line, our second stop on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2014 regular season is outside linebacker.
Remember when I wrote about the outside linebackers in the offseason positional analysis six months ago, and I wrote, “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”? Boy, I’m sometimes good at pointing out the obvious. Of the seven players I wrote about then, all of whom are still on the team, only three of them will be covered in this installment, and none of those is likely to be a starter.
Instead, the two starters both come from among last year’s defensive ends, as Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley will be transitioning from playing with their hand in the dirt regularly to standing up a good bit of the time. Based on past Ray Horton defenses, they’ll be in a two-point stance basically all the time when the Titans are in base personnel and some of the time in sub personnel, with some of the sub personnel mix based on how successfully they are able to navigate that transition.
For Wimbley, it’s actually a familiar position, as he’s spent plenty of time at linebacker in the past. With the Browns after he was drafted in a 3-4, and continuing on with the Raiders in a 4-3, he spent base personnel situations standing up. I’m not sure he was ever a particularly strong cover player in those years (his 2011 Oakland season was the only time I watched him closely enough to develop an informed opinion on such things), but he does have a basic familiarity with it. You may recall, though, that when I broke down how he got his sacks in the previous couple seasons before joining the Titans, they’d come from a DE-like position, not as a stand-up edge rusher in a 3-4. He looks like the Titans’ primary right outside linebacker because he’s the best player they have for the position, not because he’ll be great there. I’m expecting him to finish with reasonable number of snaps, somewhere between last year’s 352 and 2012’s 911. Just how many he plays in that range will vary based on his level of performance and the play of the other contenders for his position. Oh, yeah, and after April’s restructure he’s not getting cut.
A brief disquisition on Ray Horton’s use and substitution of his outside linebackers: In 2012 with the Cardinals, Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield (until he got hurt) played the vast majority of the time (85+%). In 2013 with the Browns, he regularly used three, and they played 76%, 58%, and 57% of the time. As I noted in the offseason and again in my first preseason game review, he has a strong tendency to play strict sides rather than flip-flopping the outside linebackers based on strength of the formation. A substitution pattern like Cleveland’s in 2013, though, means at least one player will be playing both outside linebacker spots. Whether a player works at both ROLB and LOLB is definitely something to watch in the preseason.
For Morgan, outside linebacker is an entirely new position, and not the one I thought he’d play back in February. He was considered perhaps a bit of a 4-3 DE/3-4 OLB “tweener” when the Titans made him the 16th overall pick out of Georgia Tech. He’ll probably be asked to do similar things, especially in sub package as an LOLB/LDE, where he will probably be able to put his hand down if he wants to/is more effective that way. Reviews of his first work in pass coverage, where he was the player in coverage twice, were positive enough. He’ll probably once again have too many hurries and not enough sacks, or at least after a couple seasons of that I’m not expecting a position change to have much of a positive effect on him.
The big wild card in the outside linebacker mix is Akeem Ayers. Like Wimbley he’s done the same sort of thing he’ll probably be asked to do this year, namely play on the line standing up and rushing the passer from a down or down-like position while sometimes dropping into coverage. The problem with Ayers is who knows just how effectively he’ll do that. The optimistic note is that (a) he was hampered by bad knees that eventually required offseason surgery and (b) per Football Outsiders game charting stats (I write for FO perma-disclaimer; this stat and many more available in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, now available as a PDF and physical book!), he had 16 hurries, more than Jurrell Casey and behind only Morgan’s 19, so his 1.0 sack represented an incomplete view of his actual pass rushing productivity. The pessimistic note is that there have been concerns about transforming his physical gifts into on-field production since he was coming out of UCLA. I’ve named him my “surprise cut” candidate, due to last year’s lack of impact plays and what seem like some possible continuing issues with consistency, but he’s also on the list of players who could really blossom with the coaching and scheme change. Currently listed at and working behind Wimbley at ROLB, he could end up anywhere from playing more often than Wimbley does to not making the team.
Back in March, I wrote I was surprised the Titans hadn’t signed Shaun Phillips yet, the same day the Titans actually did sign him. A longtime 3-4 outside linebacker with a versatile skill set and some remaining pass rush chops, as I broke down, he was a logical fit even though he’s likely only a supporting player likely to play most consistently in sub package situations. My expectations for him in terms of playing time and production are modest, notwithstanding his 2013 work.
Patrick Bailey is a special teams player who also has the ability to play linebacker, not that he actually will play linebacker if he does make the team outside of perhaps because of an in-game injury. I left him off my 53-man roster prediction at the start of training camp, but like most amateur/fan roster productions I probably undervalued special teams play and didn’t think enough about constructing a 46-man roster in creating my 53. As I noted in the DL positional analysis, the Titans will have some interesting choices to make in terms of how many players they keep at each defensive position. Bailey’s part of that calculation.
If Akeem Ayers is pushed off the roster bubble after finding himself there, Brandon Copeland seems like the player to do it. He came in and played with Ayers and Bailey (with whom he switched sides, though I’m not really counting that for the challenge I noted earlier). I don’t know much more about him than the soft impression I got off that game. I know even less about new addition Kendrick Adams; heck, I’m not even absolutely 100% sure the Titans consider him an outside linebacker rather than an inside linebacker. The Titans just signed him. He was with Horton in Cleveland last training camp and with the Giants earlier this training camp as a defensive end, which is where he played at LSU. My expectations for him are nil.
If Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley were an unimpressive and non-threatening defensive end pairing in 2012, they’ll probably be that sort of outside linebacker pairing in 2014, especially when it’s Morgan’s first time playing the position. As far as “building an NFL team” ideas go, this is better than “reuniting the Jaguars tackles from five years ago” (hello, 2013 Raiders) or “drafting a punter in the third round” (hello, former Jaguars GM Gene Smith), but I’m not loving it. Akeem Ayers is your positional “X factor”; I’m out of Ayers-related optimism by this point. Phillips can be effective in the right role, with the right players around him; the Titans may have the former, but don’t have the latter. There’s a reason I spent so much time thinking about Anthony Barr in the pre-draft process: it’s nice to have really good outside linebackers in a 3-4. As I wrote in the Oakland chapter of FOA2014, though, the NFL isn’t going to suspend games until you have the team you want. As an analyst, I see a bunch of question marks and doubtful and a weakness. As a fan, I really hope I’m wrong about that.