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Titans Offseason Positional Analysis – Linebackers

Once again, the linebacker corps should be the strength of the defense this year.
The Titans are fortunate to have two very good outside linebackers in Keith Bulluck and David Thornton under contract for the next three and four years, respectively. The duo gives the defense good speed and pursuit from sideline to sideline.
The Titans are also fortunate to have Dave McGinnis as their linebackers coach. After defensive coordinator and head coaching gigs with the hapless Arizona Cardinals, McGinnis succeeded Gunther Cunningham, now the defensive coordinator with the Chiefs.
The linebacking corps is without question the strongest of the Titans’ defensive positional groups. Here’s a look at them individually:
Keith Bulluck – One of the Titans’ captains, as voted on by his teammates, the Pro Bowl linebacker is the grizzled veteran of the defense, preparing for his eighth campaign. A prototypical weakside backer, Bulluck’s game is based on speed and pursuit, not shedding blockers. The Titans must like it, because they signed Thornton, who has similar traits, to cover the other side of the field last year. Bulluck has led the Titans in tackles for five straight years. With the likely departure of Peter Sirmon, Bulluck should assume the signal-calling role for the D.
David Thornton – The former Colt impressed the Titans on the field and on film in his first four years in the league. He also impressed the Colts enough to be selected as one of their captains in only his third year. When Thornton became a free agent, Tennessee was quick to court him. Thornton played both Sam and Willie in Indianapolis and has found a home on the Titans’ left side, where he fit right in right away. His best two games last year were against his former team. Hampered by a shoulder injury, he still started 13 games and was third on the team in tackles with 107. Thornton had offseason surgery and should be ready to go in team workouts and OTAs this spring.
Peter Sirmon – It would appear that Sirmon’s time with the Titans is over, at least as a starter. A seven-year veteran, Sirmon spent his first six years as their strongside backer, except for 2004, when he was sidelined with a torn ACL. A good enough player to receive an extension on his first contract, Sirmon’s skills declined after the injury. The quarterback of the defense, he moved to the middle last year, where he played better than expected and accumulated 88 tackles. Sirmon becomes an unrestricted free agent in March and the Titans will probably let him test the waters, looking to replace him with a younger, quicker man. He’d make a quality veteran backup if the Titans choose to re-sign him.
Stephen Tulloch – The second-year man looks to be the front-runner for the middle linebacker position this year, although it’s not inconceivable the Titans might seek to upgrade the position through free agency. When he was selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft, then-GM Floyd Reese said the MLB job would be Tulloch’s to lose. He’s strong and instinctive, able to fill holes and make plays, although his instincts sometimes betray him, leaving him out of position. That’s something which should improve with experience.
Rob Reynolds – At one time, Reynolds had worked his way up the depth chart to become the fourth LB. Able to play both inside and outside, he saw his share of playing time and was also a key special teams player. Reynolds got himself into Jeff Fisher’s doghouse for an off-the-field incident last year and then spent the rest of the season on Injured Reserve. Reynolds will be a restricted free agent this year and should be tendered. He can also serve as the backup long-snapper.
Colby Buckwoldt – Another restricted free agent who should be tendered, Buckwoldt worked his way up the depth chart to become the backup to Bulluck. He turned out to be a good special teams player with 21 tackles and could make the team again this year in the same role.
LeVar Woods – Acquired in midseason last year, Woods was a teammate of Kyle Vanden Bosch both in high school and with the Arizona Cardinals. KVB said that Woods was the best special teams player he had ever played with, though he didn’t show it last year. Besides hoping to contribute on special teams, Woods will also compete at OLB. The Titans are Woods’ third team in six years.
Ken Amato – No matter how many LBs the Titans will keep on the roster this year, Amato will be one of them, since he serves as the Titans’ long-snapper. Amato signed a new contract last year which runs through 2009. Besides his STs work, Amato also plays in certain defensive packages.
Terna Nande – Because the Titans were out of salary cap hell last year, they were able to cut a mid-round draft pick for the first time in a while. Nande didn’t make the final 53-man cut last year, went unclaimed off the waiver wire, and was signed to the Titans’ practice squad. A workout warrior, Nande has all the physical tools and is probably the strongest man on the team pound for pound, but is thought to be slow at learning his responsibilities in different schemes and packages. He’ll be in camp again this summer, competing for one of the OLB spots.
Spencer Toone – Like Nande, Toone was also a rookie draft pick who was released and resigned to the practice squad last year. Unlike Nande, Toone doesn’t have the raw physical skills for the NFL game.
If the Titans don’t pick up any free agents, I can see the following next year:
Starters – OLBs Bulluck and Thornton, MLB Tulloch
Reserves – OLBs Buckwoldt and Woods, MLB Reynolds or Sirmon
Reserve/Specialist – Amato
Practice Squad – Nande, Toone
That’s likely to change if the Titans draft any rookies and I’d expect them to select at least one in their ten picks.