As I noted in the offseason positional analysis, this was a position of strength for the Titans, back when mainstays Keith Bulluck and David Thornton roamed the position. David Thornton and Keith Bulluck got old and hurt, though, and it became a bit of a wasteland. Will Witherspoon did the best he could, but it wasn't enough as NFL tight ends continued to give the Titans some fits.
The arrival of defensive coordinator Jerry Gray brought a new philosophy to the position. No longer would the Titans have two run-and-chase linebackers who played best in space, traditional Will linebackers. The Titans would still have one Will linebacker, of course, but they would have as well a traditional Sam linebacker, a bigger player who stood on the line of scrimmage and ate up blocks. The Will linebacker would be more traditional, but might do things Titans will linebackers didn't used to do, like rush the passer more than, say, twice a month.
With Gray's arrival has come personnel changeover at the position. Will Witherspoon remained the starter at one position and seems poised to hold on to his job this offseason, but change has abounded elsewhere in the corps. The second round of the 2011 draft brought Akeem Ayers to be that Sam and training camp last year saw the departure of 2010 third-round pick Rennie Curran, a player who fit the old Will model but not Gray's modified concept of the position.
I've already written about Ayers in some detail this offseason. Jerry Gray has spoken of wanting him to be a pass rush threat. The biggest problem with that is Ayers was awful rushing the passer in 2011, because he simply wasn't very good at it. He's been spending a lot of time with pass rush coach Keith Millard this offseason trying to remedy that problem. Will that work translate to regular season success? Will he make fewer of the kind of rookie mistakes he made at times last season? We shall see.
Witherspoon is Will Witherspoon, a veteran who won't make many mistakes but doesn't have the range he did earlier in his career. His role on the team last year dropped off sharply following a blown assignment against the Texans that resulted in an easy long score for Arian Foster. He'll open the year as the starter at Will linebacker, and may even end the year as the starter. He's unlikely to regain the nickel spot he lost to Ayers last season, though, and will be in some way the least important of the 11 nominal starters on defense.
Witherspoon's eventual replacement, and Ayers' counterpart in Gray's attempt to remaking the outside linebacking corps in his preferred image is 2012 second-round pick Zach Brown. Brown is fast, very fast for a linebacker, and ran the best 40 time for the position at the Combine. He'll have trouble shedding a well-earned college reputation for being a bit of an avoid-contact player. Like third-round pick Mike Martin, he was a state wrestling champ in high school, so he has some experience going against other people in close quarters; translating that into his game in a way that was too often missing in college will be a process, though, and the preseason results tend to be mixed.
Gerald McRath is a player who once appeared to have a future with the Titans. Yeah, not so much. Witherspoon was the better Will, and Ayers displaced him as a starter. He played some in the nickel early in 2011, but not that many snaps and eventually went to not seeing the field that often. Heading into the final year of the deal he signed when the Titans picked him in the fourth round of the 2009, he probably needed a big season to earn a multli-year contract anywhere next offseason and will instead miss the entire regular season with a knee injury.
Patrick Bailey is officially Ayers' backup at the Sam position. He was set to be a free agent this offseason, but re-upped with the Titans for another three years. I wouldn't expect him to play very many snaps on defense, but he is a valuable special teams player. When he missed the Titans' second preseason game, normal MLB Tim Shaw played at Sam in his stead.
Alex Watkins went on injured reserve with an ankle injury suffered in the pre-preseason scrimmage against the Falcons. He cleared waivers and went on injured reserve, where he'll rehab for the year and still probably be a longshot to make the team next training camp.
The Titans have starters in place, though I'm sure they'd like to see Brown take over for Witherspoon sooner rather than later. Ayers will play in the nickel. The biggest problem as I see it is the lack of anything resembling a suitable backup for Ayers. What the Titans would really do if Ayers was lost for an extended period of time in the regular season is something I'm not sure of, but I suspect more nickel would be the most-prevalent solution.
Witherspoon is in the decline phase of his career, but Ayers and Brown should be in the ascension phase of theirs; many more players been in the ascending phase of their careers, though, than have ever actually ascended. For outside linebacker to be a strength again, the Titans need those ascensions to happen sooner rather than later. It's certainly possible, but as a former Missouri resident I need to see it to believe it.