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Titans Offseason Positional Analysis – Defensive Tackles

What happens in the front office in February will determine how good the Titans will be at defensive tackle this year. Three DTs from last year’s team are scheduled to become free agents in March, and a fourth has a salary cap issue which will require a restructured contract. All this in a year when free agency doesn’t have much to offer in upgrading a position in need of an upgrade.
The Titans were 30th in the league against the run last year, giving up an average of 145 yards a game. It was even worse earlier in the season, when the Titans were dead last. In the first four games, Tennessee yielded 708 yards on the ground, or 177 per game. Two of those games were atrocious, with 241 rushing yards surrendered to the Chargers and 217 ceded to the Cowboys.
San Diego put 40 points on the board and Dallas scored 45 against the Titans. They looked like grown men playing against boys, running the ball down the Titans’ throat. Until the Titans can stop the run, they can’t be considered legitimate contenders. Stopping the run all starts with the defensive tackles.
Here’s something that will surprise most people. The Titans were best at stopping the run without Albert Haynesworth last year. When Albert was out with a five-game suspension, the Titans gave up only 130 yards per game. In the eleven games with Albert, the Titans yielded 151 yards per game.
Here’s a look at the guys who are now in the mix:
Albert Haynesworth – When healthy, in shape, and motivated, Big Al can be one of the most dominating players in the league. I recall the 2005 Baltimore game, which the Titans won 25-10, as Big Al spent the afternoon blowing up the Ravens’ line. All Pro 2000-yard running back Jamal Lewis was held to nine yards and his backup, Chester Taylor, gained only five. It was perhaps the best performance by a defensive tackle I have ever witnessed and it was a pleasure to train my binoculars on him in that game. Until he sprained his knee.
The problem is that Albert is usually not healthy or in shape or motivated, all at the same time. He frequently takes plays off when he’s on the field.
2007 is the last year on Big Al’s contract, and his base salary balloons to $5.6 million this year. That’s more than just a little excessive and the new general manager will have to try to restructure Albert’s contract with an extension. I’d like to see the Titans do that, and I’d also like to see Albert keep his playing weight down to around 320 pounds. It’s been over 350 in recent years and rumored to be as high as 375 at one time.
Robaire Smith – A former draft pick of the Titans, Robeast left to accept a better offer from the Texans, which the Titans couldn’t match because of their salary cap problems at the time. When Houston released him last year, he was welcomed back home with open arms. Unfortunately, he signed only a one-year contract and will be an unrestricted free agent. The new GM needs to make re-signing him a priority. Robaire may not make as many big plays as Haynesworth, but he makes more good plays. His consistency makes him the best DT the Titans have.
Rien Long – He missed all of last year with a severed Achilles’ tendon and will also be an unrestricted free agent this year. A former Outland Trophy winner, Long was by far the Titans’ best DT at rushing the passer. The lack of a strong pass rush last year hurt Tennessee, and they need Long on the field this year in every passing situation. Re-signing Long should also be high on the Titans’ priority list.
Jesse Mahelona – With one start in ten appearances last year, Mahelona had a decent rookie year, registering eleven tackles and a sack. A little on the small side at 6′ 1″ and 311 pounds, he’s best at playing gaps and depending on his quickness and foot speed to make penetration. The amount of playing time he gets this year will depend a lot on what happens in the front office and free agency. At worst, he should be the last in the four-man rotation.
Randy Starks – This guy continues to fail to impress me. After a decent rookie year in 2004, he hasn’t progressed at all. No improvement. None. In my view, this means he has no upside and no chance of getting better. This has to be driving D-line coach Jim Washburn nuts. Starks will be a restricted free agent this year, and I’m sure the Titans will tender him for insurance purposes in case the Titans lose Robaire or Long. If Smith and Long stay, I keep Mahelona ahead of Starks, because Mahelona at least has some upside.
Tony Brown – The smallest of the Titans’ DTs, Brown has the dual designation of DT/DE. I’d like to see him make the team this year as the fourth DE, who could fill in at DT if necessary. Brown was a street free agent who was signed to fill in after Haynesworth’s suspension.
The four I’d like to see in the rotation this year are Haynesworth (the slimmed down version), Smith, Long, and Mahelona, with Brown also making the team as a DE.