The Titans go into 2008 with the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker looking the same as it did at the end of 2008. That's not, however, the same as it looked at the beginning of 2008, as Ryan Fowler became one of the few starters to lose his job on performance. Third year man Stephen Tulloch stepped in, and started for the rest of the season.
Ryan Fowler announced this offseason, though, that he's looking to regain his starting position. Does he have a chance, and what else could 2009 hold for the Titans' middle linebacker? Some possible answers after the jump.
Fowler, a former Duke Blue Devil, was acquired as a free restricted free agent from the Dallas Cowboys prior to the 2007 season. He started 14 games his first season as a Titan and the first 3 of last season before Tulloch replaced him as a starter in the game against the Vikings. After that, though, he was relegated primarily to a bench and special teams role. He's signed through 2010, with base salaries of $2.25 million for this season and $2 million for next one. While more expensive than most NFL backups, the Titans are currently well-positioned under the salary cap, plus cutting him would result in cap dead space of $1.5 million.
Stephen Tulloch was the man who replaced Fowler. The former NC State Wolfpack, who was teammates of 2006 first rounders Mario Williams and Manny Lawson, checks in four inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter than the man he beat out. He also demonstrated more speed and coverage ability than the Titans had seen at the middle linebacker position in quite some time, and played pretty well in his starts. Per the data collected in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, he had a Stop Rate of 68% on running plays, nearly the same as David Thornton's, though further downfield, and had the best pass defense metrics of any Titans linebacker.
On pass plays, though, he faced fewer than half as many thrown in his direction as did Thornton or Bulluck. That's perhaps the biggest question. The Titans under Jim Schwartz were frequently in nickel defense with the outside linebackers on the field and the middle linebacker sitting on the bench. That made sense with Fowler, Brad Kassell, and a post-ACL Peter Sirmon manning the middle, but Tulloch's speed is a dimension those guys didn't have. Schwartz adapted a little, running more Tampa-2 (with the MLB dropping deep) in a 4-3 package than he'd done in the past, and it'll be interesting to see if Chuck Cecil does more of the same. The interesting question could be if Tulloch manages to displace Thornton or Bulluck in nickel situations.
Beyond Tulloch and Fowler, the third and only other name on the depth chart is that of Ken Amato. Amato's primarily been the long-snapper since being acquired, though he does make occasional but persistent appearances as part of the Titans' goalline defense. If both Tulloch and Fowler do go down, though, the best bet to step in may be Gerald McRath, a fourth-round selection who played in the middle at Southern Miss last season.
And, a little unusually, that's it. Floyd Reese loved drafting and collecting linebackers, and bringing them to training camp, but there's not much fat at the position this time around. Tulloch will make the team, Fowler in my mind will almost certainly make the team, Amato will be around for long-snapping purposes, and while McRath's future is probably on the outside, he may end up on the inside if needed.
What say you, Titans fans? Does Fowler have any shot of winning his job back? Could Tulloch stay on the field in the nickel? Will MLB finally be a "real" starting position for the Titans?