We continue our positional analysis today with a look at the outside linebackers.
The Titans have been fortunate for the last four years, going into those seasons knowing who would be starting at both OLB spots. That won't be the case this year, as the starters at each spot are not yet set and one may not yet be on the roster.
Keith Bulluck, the weakside starter for the last eight seasons, will be missed, as I wrote in my last article. He's blown out a knee and will be 33 years old when the season starts. It's not just his immediate future that's in doubt; his career may well be over.
David Thornton has been the starting strongside backer for the last four years. 2010 is the final year on his contract but he's not a lock to repeat as the starter this year. I thought Thornton had a poor 2009 season, as I indicated by giving him a grade of "D" in my report card for the defense.
To be fair, it should be noted that part of his problem last year was a bum shoulder. It seems like Thornton has a difficult time staying healthy. He missed only one game in his first three years in Tennessee but was slowed by injuries (mainly shoulder) in many of the games he did play. Last year, he missed five games.
Thornton's history as a Titan has two constants. (1) He's injury prone and (2) he can be counted on to play two good games a year, both against the Colts. Thornton will be too expensive to keep as a backup, so if he's not going to start, he won't be on the team at all.
Gerald McRath, a fourth-round draft pick last year, started five games in Thornton's absence and seems to be a future regular starter. I'm more impressed by McRath's potential than I am by his play so far, but I'm hoping he'll make that big sophomore jump. The thing I like most about him is the fact that his position coach, Dave McGinnis, likes him so much.
I can see McRath challenging, and beating out, Thornton for the job at Sam. McRath is quicker and younger and now has some experience to go with his physical superiority over Thornton. I can also see McRath and Thornton being the two starting outside backers. If that turns out to be the case, it makes sense that McRath would be the Will and Thornton the Sam.
Colin Allred was just resigned as an ERFA but I don't expect much from him beyond being a backup and special teams player. Not that there's anything wrong with that, every team needs them. I don't see Allred, an UDFA three years ago, as being starting material. I do see him making the roster again this year. He can play all three LB positions and has good value.
Stanford Keglar, what happened to you? We heard a lot from the Titans during the last offseason about the strides Keglar was making and he showed it in training camp. Keglar was Bulluck's backup and the #3 overall OLB at that time but when Bulluck went down, Allred was the man called upon. I don't know what happened to Keglar between camp and the Dolphins game to fall behind Allred in the pecking order. It wasn't an injury, Keglar had a hamstring problem early in the season but was healthy since the bye week. Keglar is signed through 2011.
Ken Amato is an UFA and his agent is reportedly in talks with the Titans. Amato, the team's snapper, is listed on the roster as a LS/LB since he used to actually get on the field on defense on a few occasions but it's been several years since he's done that. I don't know why the Titans continue to attach the LB to his position since he only plays there in practice. The only reason I include him in this analysis is because the Titans still designate him as a LB. I'll have more to say about Amato the Snapper in my special teams analysis.
Jamie Winborn was brought in late last season after Thornton and Bulluck were placed on IR. Winborn played a little against the Chargers and Amato didn't, even though Winborn was fresh off the street. This also raises the question of why Amato is still designated as a LB. It was Winborn's only action of the year and may have been his last NFL game.
Mike Rivera is a project who can play either strongside or middle LB. He was on the Titans practice squad last year and was recently re-signed to a futures contract.
Those are the players in the picture at the moment. Even if Thornton hangs on for one more season, the Titans will need to upgrade the position since McRath is the only player who seems like a starter in 2011 and beyond.
There's no doubt the Titans will address the position this offseason. Tom opined that Pisa Tinoisamoa could be targeted by the Titans and I agree that he's the most realistic possibility in the free agent market.
However, assuming the position isn't addressed in free agency, there is another option.
Stephen Tulloch could be moved outside from his middle linebacker position. Remember that the Titans brought two middle linebackers, Rey Maualuga and James Laurinaitis, in for a visit prior to the 2009 draft. Why did the Titans have interest in them? Well, it wasn't because Jeff Fisher changed his philosophy and wanted to go with a 3-4 defense.
If Maualuga or Laurinaitis had been drafted instead of Kenny Britt, it would have been to play Mike while Tulloch was moved outside. (Note: Maualuga was projected to be a Mike but the Bengals moved him to Sam.) Remember also that Tulloch was an OLB in college and entering the draft was projected to play weakside linebacker.
I hope that doesn't happen, I don't believe Tulloch is a three-down player, but I mention that simply because it's a realistic possibility. I'd prefer to see the Titans draft a weakside backer somewhere in the middle of the draft, assuming they don't pick one up in free agency.
That's it for me. What are your thoughts on the Titans' outside linebackers?