Next up on our series as we move around the Titans position by position as we approach the 2010 season is the outside linebackers.
After being a strength of the team for the last several seasons, with Keith Bulluck and David Thornton manning the positions, outside linebacker looked like a position of change for the Titans in 2010, as age and injury had robbed both players of some of their talents. That period of change began last year, when rookie Gerald McRath started when Thornton went out, and then accelerated when the Titans signed Will Witherspoon to occupy the weakside linebacker spot previously occupied by the man who were jersey #53 for a decade.
This sort of clean transition was upset a little when the news of Gerald McRath's 4-game suspension came down. Who starts for those first four weeks, and what happens if Witherspoon gets injured during that game? Right now, it looks like the Titans may be searching for answers to those questions.
Will Witherspoon was the Titans' biggest free agent acquisition this season, signing a 3 year, $11 million deal. Between salary, signing bonus, and roster bonus, he's making $5 million of that this season, so he'll start unless he's terrible. Early returns are that he's been anything but, with the sort of professionalism you'd expect from an NFL veteran. At 30, he'll probably only start until somebody else is ready, but he should be a good fit for 2010.
Gerald McRath, frankly, struggled at times as a rookie, getting lost in coverage and overwhelmed at times in run defense. He also played hardly at all on passing downs. With Witherspoon joining the team and Tulloch in the fold, I'd expect him to continue to come out when the Titans bring in an extra defensive back again this year.
Colin Allred is one of the candidates to take McRath's starting spot for the first 4 games. Primarily a special teams player, Allred did start the final two games of last season at OLB after Bulluck's injury. Personally, I'd rate him as a career special teams player, but per Andrew's reports, he's been getting the second-most work with the first team opposite Witherspoon.
Veteran and ex-Vandy man Jamie Winborn is another candidate to start in McRath's absence. I actually thought he might start for Bulluck at the end of last season, but the Titans apparently chose team experience over overall or scheme experience. As a veteran, he may be in the category of "if he's not starting, he's leaving," which is why I left him off my initial roster projection.
Rookie third-round draft pick Rennie Curran does not seem to be in the mix as a starter. I speculated he might be Tulloch's future replacement, but practice reports have him working on the outside only and better suited for that position. He will be the one to watch to take Witherspoon's spot, but, barring multiple injuries, expect his primary contributions in 2010 to come on special teams.
Stanford Keglar feels like the Paul Williams of the Titans defense. The former 4th round draft pick out of Purdue has actually been active for 25 games over the past two seasons, but only has 18 tackles, all or almost all of them on special teams. He's apparently been alternating with Winborn as the #2 weakside linebacker behind Witherspoon. That he couldn't beat out Allred last year was disappointing, and he feels more and more like a draft bust. In my roster prediction, I thought he'd be the beneficiary of McRath's suspension and draw a game check for four weeks to be depth and possibly spend some more time on special teams.
Patrick Trahan is a camp body only.
Last but not least is David Thornton. The veteran missed 5 games in 2009 with the shoulder injury, and that shoulder injury continues to bother him, as he won't be playing this weekend at Seattle. I thought he was a goner for sure because of the injury and the question of whether or not he'd ever be fully healthy, but McRath's suspension may give him a longer lease on NFL life. He's still scheduled to make over $4 million this year, and that's money the Titans don't have to pay if they cut him. He may end up being one of the harder roster calls to make. I had him on the team in my prediction, but wouldn't be surprised to see him end up on the street. If he does make the team, I have little confidence he can be healthy, and fear he'd be blocking McRath's development by continuing to start.
On the whole, I'm seeing one name I feel pretty comfortable with in Witherspoon, one that we as fans can reasonably have decent expectations for in McRath, another promising young guy who won't be ready this year in Curran, an injury-prone veteran of dubious reliability in Thornton, and a couple other names I don't want to see in the starting lineup.
Lack of quality depth at outside linebacker was one of the things that hurt the Titans in 2009. The situation should be a little better in 2010, but it's still not enough to make me feel comfortable. Will Witherspoon, please don't get injured.