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What defender can the Titans least afford to lose?

On Thursday, the Denver Broncos lost OLB Elvis Dumervil to a torn pectoral injury that almost certainly knocked him out of the entire 2010 season.  Dumervil provided by far the better part of the Broncos’ pass rushing threat in 2009, and his loss is a serious blow to a team Football Outsiders already projected to have a bad defense.  The Titans have a marginally better projection than the Broncos did, but still one below average.  Still, Dumervil’s question got me thinking: which defensive player could the Titans least afford to lose?

In some ways, we got the answer to what happens when you lose a key player like Dumervil last season when the former #92 went to Washington and the players left were unable to hold the defense together.  I don’t think there’s any single player whose loss would impact the defense anywhere near that badly.

Still, there were two names that to me immediately stood out as candidates for the defenders the Titans would miss the most: DT Tony Brown and CB Cortland Finnegan.

Both Brown and Finnegan are in fairly similar situations, as clearly the most reliable player at their position, but surrounded by question marks.  Beyond Brown, the Titans have the oft-injured Jason Jones, young and unproven SenDerrick Marks, Jovan Haye, who was lousy in 2009, and some guys with no experience.  Behind Finnegan, the Titans have the quartet that’s currently auditioning for the other starting job at cornerback: second-year men Jason McCourty and Ryan Mouton, plus rookie Alterraun Verner, journeyman Tye Hill, and eh.  That cast at defensive tackle is probably better, but either way, it’s tough to be confident in any duo at either position group starting.

I think we have to look at the positions in a little broader context: the defensive tackles should be looked at in combination with the defensive ends, while cornerbacks should be looked at with safeties.  Here, I think the equation is clearly reversed: the safeties are clearly better than the defensive ends.  I have what I think is a slightly contrarian opinion of Chris Hope’s play, namely that while he didn’t play quite as well as in 2008, most of any perceived decline in his play came from the stresses the secondary faced in 2009: covering for Nick Harper, Michael Griffin, and the injury replacements.  Michael Griffin was lousy in 2009, but now that he’s healthy and seems to have his head on straight, I’m cautiously optimistic he can again be an above average starter at free safety.  I think it’s an optimistic but realistic expectation that the Titans should be the beneficiary of above-average safety play this fall.

I don’t have quite the same expectation at defensive end, alas.  William Hayes is a serviceable starter, but not a particularly good one.  I’ve already written that I don’t think Jacob Ford will ever be more than a nickel edge rusher.  I’m also not optimistic about Derrick Morgan-he should be solid, but I don’t see him as a major threat as a pass rusher.  I could obviously be wrong about that, and I hope I am, but expecting 8 to 10 sacks from him as a rookie strikes me as being at the wild edge of optimism.  Jason Babin and David Ball have enough NFL experience that I can’t see them creating threats on their own.  If the defensive ends are going to play well in 2010, they’ll need help from the defensive tackles.  As detailed above, without Brown, I have no confidence that happens.

For that reason, I think Tony Brown, not Cortland Finnegan as Paul Kuharsky thinks, is the player the Titans’ defense can lease afford to lose this season.

Who do you think it is?  Is it Brown or Finnegan, or is there someone else whose case I’ve neglected?