For several years, this was a spot to build around on the Titans defense, as Keith Bulluck was an anchor and a star, and David Thornton arrived in free agency to give the Titans perhaps the best pair of cover linebackers in the league. Then, alas, Bulluck and Thornton aged and got hurt, and it was time for the next wave at the position. 2010 ended up as sort of a transition year. There were new starters, but one clearly was going to be a short-term fill-in, and the other, well, the jury was out at the start of the year and was still out, but looked to be trending downward at the end of the year.
In 2011, Jerry Gray arrived, and a new day dawned. The concept of what an outside linebacker was changed. No longer would the Titans look for two pursuit outside linebackers, space players like converted collegiate safety Bulluck. The Titans would still have one of those players, but a bigger player to set the edge against the edge and man up against opposite tight ends was called for. Last year's draft saw the first of those players, the man of legend, a Sam linebacker, while at what was now just a single Will linebacker the days of upheaval continued.
Can the Titans find more stability at Will in 2012? What does that even mean? What are the prospects at Sam? Who comes up with these dumb names anyway?
Akeem Ayers is of course that Sam linebacker. The 2011 second-round pick out of UCLA started all 16 games, and ended up with 76 tackles (88 according to the team), two sacks, two passes defensed, and one forced fumble. For a rookie, it was a reasonable season, sounder than I expected, but the general feeling seems to be he didn't deliver as many splash plays as the Titans were expecting, which was along the lines of a knock on him in college and why he fell to the Titans in the first place. The offseason fluff indicates he wasn't in prime football shape until late in the season, which will assuredly change by the time the start of 2012 rolls around.
Frankly, I'm not sure I have an absolute lock on how Ayers played in 2011. He was for the most part very sound, but I thought he bit too much on play-action, and offhand recall Steelers and Falcons touchdowns there were at minimum a lot easier because he wasn't there I thought he should have been. He's a great candidate for a post or three taking an in-depth look at his play come the second half of May or thereabouts when there's not much news going on. However exactly he did play last year, though, barring injury, he's a virtual lock to start all sixteen games again.
Will Witherspoon did play all 16 games last year, starting 14 of them, but after a missed assignment resulted in a long touchdown pass to Arian Foster in the first Texans game seemed to be on the field less and less. He did end up with 56 tackles, two sacks, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, and an interception. While I didn't keep track of snaps, it felt like Ayers more and more supplanted him in the nickel, and Jerry Gray played an awful lot of nickel. He's entering into the third and final year of the deal he signed to join the Titans, and with a $3.5 million base salary and a diminishing role as last year went on, I'm not sure what his future with the Titans will be.
Gerald McRath is the man who in an ideal would be Witherspoon's replacement, but did not make much of an impact in 2011. He played in twelve games, starting none, and only had 15 tackles. He didn't see many defensive snaps, and memory tells me most of them were in the nickel in the first half of the season. Not starting a game after a handful of starts his first two seasons has to be considered a disappointment for him. Enterting into the final year of his rookie contract, his cheap salary and experience, plus the need for linebackers on special teams, means I don't see the Titans cutting him, but I don't know that he has much of a long-term future.
Patrick Bailey was officially on the depth chart behind Ayers at Sam linebacker, but saw very, very few snaps on defense and a lot more extensive action on special teams. He only had nine tackles, though, and is therefore officially the second-worst human being in the history of the planet, behind Donnie Nickey. Seriously, though, it's tough to judge special teams players, but I thought Bailey did more or less exactly what the Titans were looking for on special teams, but was not a factor on defense. He's an unrestricted free agent, and depending on how much the Titans like him and what his other offers are, may have a shot at another contract.
That feels like a shorter cast of characters at the position than normal. Bailey's fellow special teamers Tim Shaw and Kevin Malast were both listed at Mike, so the Titans are officially carrying as many middle as outside linebackers. Kind of unusual, given that they nominally start one of the former and two of the latter. Ayers is pretty much locked in at the starter at another position. Given the options, while it seems like Witherspoon is a cap cut candidate, I expect him to stick around for another year. The Titans should plan for the future, though, and consider drafting a weakside linebacker with the ability to start in 2013 in the third or fourth round this year. Lavonte David probably won't make it that far, but Sean Spence might and with Colin McCarthy already in the fold, Titans linebackers might take on a very Miami Hurricanes look going forward.