As the Titans continue with training camp and the preseason, we continue looking at the team position by position. Today we review a position group with several dynamics in play, outside linebacker.
The Titans have arguably the best pair of OLBs in the division, in Keith Bulluck and David Thornton. Bulluck has led the team in tackles six of the last seven years, with Thornton achieving that for one year as well. Since becoming full-time starters, Bulluck has averaged 126 tackles per year and Thornton 104. That works out to a combined average of over 14 tackles per game, meaning they’ve been very active defenders.
They’ll start together for the fourth year in a row and very possibly the last year. This is the final year on the 32-year old Bulluck’s contract and he’s said he doesn’t expect to be a Titan following this season.
Bulluck has the highest cap number on the roster and while it’s manageable this year, he’ll be wanting a nice raise by February. It’s hard for me to imagine Mike Reinfeldt offering Bulluck the kind of big payday he’ll be looking for in what will probably be his final contract as a player.
Thornton’s future appears quite similar, albeit one year removed. He’ll be 32 years old in 2010 and also in the final season of his contract. So it seems that Bulluck will be here just one more season and Thornton two.
It also seems there is a promising player waiting in the wings, Stanford Keglar. He’s reportedly improved over the summer, especially in filling gaps, and is able to play both the strong and weak sides. Keglar looked good in the HoF game Sunday night, where he saw extended playing time. He’s the next OLB in line after Bulluck and Thornton and the heir apparent to Bulluck, but here’s where some of those interesting dynamics come into play.
What happens if either of the starters are injured? There are two ways the Titans can go and each looks like a viable option.
A year ago, the best option, in my opinion, would have been to move MLB Stephen Tulloch
outside and let Ryan Fowler
play the middle. (For more on the middle linebackers, see Tom’s review
of a week ago.)
Given Keglar’s improvement, keeping Tulloch at Mike now has more credence than it did six months ago.
But whichever way the Titans decide to go, it will impact a roster spot. If their contingency plan is to move Tulloch outside, then you need one less OLB on the roster.
These are the guys in the mix for roles which are on special teams as well as depth at the position group.
Josh Stamer is more of a special teamer than a linebacker, which is good for him since the coverage units are primarily composed of LBs and DBs. He’s also Thornton’s backup at Sam.
Colin Allred, who signed with Tennessee as an UDFA, is beginning his third year with the team. After a year on the practice squad he spent last season as Bulluck’s backup at Will. Allred is a much better special teamer than people give him credit for and tied for the most special teams tackles last year with 11.
Gerald McRath was drafted in the fourth round and although he was a Mike in college, LB coach Dave McGinnis said right after the draft that he had no plans to keep McRath there. McRath will challenge Stamer for the backup spot at Sam but despite McGinnis’ preference to use him outside, he could be moved back inside in case of injury to Tulloch or Fowler.
One guy who doesn’t have to worry about a roster spot is snapper Ken Amato, who also plays a little linebacker. Amato has been a Sam and used there on occasion but for some reason is now on the depth chart at Mike. I haven’t noticed him there in camp but haven’t been looking at the MLBs either. I’ll try to remember to do that.
That’s seven OLBs, not including Tulloch, competing for roster spots. Bulluck, Thornton, Keglar and Amato are obviously safe. McRath has upside and should have that edge over Stamer and Allred.
Do the Titans keep all seven? I’d have to say there’s a good chance of it, since those guys are relied upon so heavily for teams. It will be another positional group battle to keep an eye on.
Note: I’ll also be doing an analysis on the various special teams units, so many of these guys will be examined again in that upcoming article.