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Sorting through the Titans’ defensive line pieces

I did a Titans draft preview by position for the offense a couple days ago, but I’m having a bit more trouble with the defensive one, for reasons I’ll outline in this post. The reason for that is, I’m having more trouble than usual thinking about like Jerry Gray. Now I’ve documented my difficulty understanding Gray before, but I’m prepared to accept he has a vision of what he wants in a defense. I’m just not sure exactly what it looks like.

We do know a couple things. He runs a 4-3 Under with a true Sam linebacker. He likes bigger defensive ends (and, at least to some extent, defensive tackles). He’s talked a good bit about wanting one player who can rush the passer with his hand in the dirt. At least in public, he belives deeply flawed conventional yardage metrics are a good method of jduging a defense. Fine, that last part isn’t exactly relevant to this little project, but we all have our own little hobbyhorses and that’s mine.

Conventional wisdom has been that even with the addition of Kamerion Wimbley and re-signing of Dave Ball, the Titans are still looking for a defensive end and could draft a player like Whitney Mercilus or Nick Perry with their first-round pick. If you put a gun to my head, I’d still say that, but I’m starting to seriously second-guess myself. Since this is all super-speculative, it’s going after the jump.

The puzzle at the core of my problem is how the Titans will use Kam Wimbley. Jerry Gray had a film segment on the official site where he highlighted Wimbley’s play as an RDE for the Raiders. Wimbley’s an interesting piece because he’s done some different things. He was a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Browns for most of his career, then played both Sam linebacker and defensive end for the Raiders. He actually spent the early part of last season as an LDE for the Raiders, then moved to RDE after normal RDE Matt Shaughnessy was lost for the season. As an RDE, he’s more of a pure speed rusher, but knowledgable Raiders people say he plays with better power as a stand-up rusher. Gray talked about him as a rusher, but didn’t specify he’ll necessarily be playing with his hand in the dirt. It makes sense that he’ll play mostly RDE in base packages, but where will Jerry Gray use him in sub packages?

Derrick Morgan. LDE in base packages, LDE in sub packages? Is he the guy Gray wants to be able to rush the passer with his hand in the dirt, because I haven’t seen him be that guy, and I wasn’t sure he could be that guy coming out of college? If Wimbley is the guy with his hand in the dirt, does Morgan play in sub packages at all?

Dave Ball. He’s not a player who affects your short- or long-range planning in a serious way. The Titans could do worse than putting him at RDE in sub packages with Wimbley as a stand-up LDE or movable piece. Notwithstanding that, no guarantee he makes the team.

Leger Douzable. I’m not sure he even makes the team, but he seems to be the player to fill the 2011 Jason Jones role, playing perhaps two-thirds of his snaps as a defensive end and kicking inside the rest of the time, probably more in sub packages.

Pannel Egboh. Near-mandatory offseason puff piece for player who’s never played a snap in an NFL regular season game? Thanks to John Glennon. Like Ball, not a player who affects your short- or long-range planning. Unlikely to play in sub packages, at least at defensive end. Unless, of course, the Titans are looking at something different than what we’ve been led to believe. Really, he’s sized much more like a 3-4 two-gap defensive end.

Malcom Sheppard. Is it him or Leger Douzable for a spot? Him and Egboh? One of the three? How many players do they Titans keep on the defensive line anyway? He’s the sixth defensive end I’ve listed.

Shaun Smith. He thanks Daniel Graham for preventing him from being clearly the worst free agency acqusition last offseason. He seemed to wear out his welcome. I already linked to Gray’s bizarre talk about how he needs to be more of a penetrator. Does he make the team? As I recall, Jovan Haye was the first veteran the Titans who played for them the year before and didn’t have any injury issues. Was Reinfelt responsible for his acquisition? Gray? Is whoever made the call willing to admit picking him up seemed to be a mistake?

Jurrell Casey. Like Akeem Ayers, his play as a rookie is worth of a more in-depth look in the months to come. I don’t have a good enough answer as to what he was last year, let alone what he will be going forward.

Karl Klug. Is a sub-package three-tech DT. Please don’t make him a defensive end. Thanks.

Sen’Derrick Marks. I was never a fan of his. Was his increased playing time as last year went on more a sign of what they thought of Smith or what they thought of him? He’s playing to earn a contract next year; will he, or does he go on the list of semi-wasted second round selections?

Zach Clayton. Played the first game and was rarely seen in the lineup after that. Looked understrength for a defensive tackle under Gray, which is the kind of thing a year on the fringes of the roster can but won’t necessarily fix. Some of that’s technique, too, and I’m not a good judge of that. Where does he fit?

Lamar Divens. Another plus-sized body. Do the Titans want a size for size’s sake? Do they want a big nose? Is he just a camp body with no roster expectations?

If roster cutdown day was tomorrow, here’s be my guess for what the Titans would go with: Wimbley, Ball, Morgan, Douzable, Sheppard, Casey, Klug, Marks, Smith. The conventional wisdom is that the Titans need another defensive end, even with the signing of Wimbley. I concur he looks like the only particularly decent edge rusher among that group (though I continue my affection for Ball as a secondary rusher). The bigger issue to me looks like defensive tackle, where the Titans have one player who looks like he’ll be solid in Casey, a decent player in a limited role in Klug, a mediocre player heading into the final year of his contract in Marks, and a mediocre player who has a good chance of getting cut anyway.

I’m not sure how much this is just my contrarian nature coming into play, but as we rapidly approach draft day, my thinking is more and more the Titans will look defensive tackle with their first-round pick even over defensive end.