We continue our series of positional analyses with the defensive end group, which was considered the Titans' #1 priority to be addressed in the offseason.
The Titans were 25th in the league rushing the passer last year, according to Football Outsiders. The DEs haven't shown me anything yet in training camp which makes me believe that rating will improve this year. Ditto for the run defense, which was ranked 20th by FO.
With only a month left before the season opener against the Raiders, the situation with the DEs is not promising.
Three DEs are certain to be on the opening day roster, health permitting. However, the health of William Hayes, Derrick Morgan and Jacob Ford is not the best at the moment, though all have a chance to be ready by then.
After taking over as the starter at LDE in Week Five last year, Hayes returned this year as the only DE who was certain to start this season. Pretty solid as a run defender, Hayes hasn't yet displayed the ability to generate a pass rush. It seemed to me that in his first two seasons, most of his sacks and QB hits have been the result of being the beneficiary of plays made by others.
The good news, which could have been much worse, is Jim Wyatt reports that Hayes' injury is only a sprained MCL and not a torn ACL. He's expected to miss 2-4 weeks.
Morgan, the Titans' first-round pick, #16 overall, was considered the most complete DE in the draft. I've never watched as much film before the draft as I did this year, and virtually all of it was on DEs. Though Morgan was not as highly regarded as a pass-rusher as others in the draft, I was pleased he fell to the Titans.
Since then, Morgan has missed most of minicamps, OTAs and training camp with a calf injury. With all of the time he's missed, I don't envision him being very effective when he finally does return, whenever that may be.
Ford has also missed some days in camp but the good news is he practiced again Wednesday. He seems to be the only DE who can be counted on to provide a pass rush and is my odds-on favorite to lead the DEs in sacks, QB hits and pressures. Problem is, he's a pretty one-dimensional player as an edge rusher, as Tom wrote in this piece about Ford being rated the second-best "prospect" (non-starter) in the league by FO. Ford should be the starter at RDE in Week One.
That's it for the top tier. Not especially encouraging, is it? That doesn't say a lot for the guys behind them.
Dave Ball is better as a run stopper than a pass rusher and is no more than a backup at best. He didn't do much last year after a fairly good 2008 season.
Jason Babin, a former first-round draft pick by the Texans, turned out to be a bust who couldn't make it either as a 3-4 OLB or 4-3 DE. The Titans are the fifth stop in seven years for the once promising star turned journeyman.
The best things I can say about Babin after watching him for nearly two weeks are that he does have a motor and he does have some ability as an edge rusher. I don't see him as being able to contribute more than four or five sacks, though. Babin looks like the type who should get more pressure on his secondary rush than on his primary rush. He is an effort guy, more so than I recall from his time in Houston, though that's been a few years.
Ball and Babin will battle for the fourth DE spot, which may be all the Titans keep, though I suspect it will be five. If they do keep five, Ball and Babin should be the ones who join Hayes, Ford and Morgan.
Where's the pass rush coming from? I don't see much of one coming from those five guys. Titans fans may see the same problem this year as they did last year, not much of a pass rush off the edge.
Ford - 7
Babin - 5
Ball - 4½ (also his career total)
Hayes - 4
Eric Bakhtiari is the sixth DE on the roster. He should see plenty of playing time during the preseason because of the injuries but it's hard to project him as a survivor of the final roster cutdown. Prior to joining the Titans last year, he was a 3-4 OLB on the Chargers' and 49ers' practice squads. From what I've seen of him in camp, he's mostly a speed rusher. I don't think he'll hold up well as a 4-3 DE against the run. Another Jacob Ford type, though not as good as Ford. If he does make the final 53-man this year, it may be because of his added value as a special teams punt/kick coverage guy.
Marcus Howard is one of the smallest DEs I've ever seen. If someone told you a 244-pound DE was a fifth-round draft pick in 2008, you'd be right in thinking it must have been the Colts who selected him. Howard failed to make the Colts' 2009 roster and had been on the street until the Titans picked him up earlier this year. A telling situation about him: he's also been injured (tricep, severity unknown) and he hasn't been missed, other than as another body. His chances of making the roster are near to nil.
The Titans are short-handed of able-bodied d-linemen, and even though they're a little short at defensive tackle as well, a few of them took some reps at DE in Wednesday's practice. I imagine we'll see much of the same Saturday night against Seattle.
Speaking of DTs, it wouldn't surprise me if the Titans get a better interior pass rush than from the edge this year. Tony Brown and Jason Jones could be the team's top two pass rushers. Ouch.
It seems pretty clear to me that the Titans' #1 weakness before the draft is still their top weakness.