The next stop on our tour around the Titans position by position on the eve of the 2012 regular season is defensive tackle.
Like the defensive end grouping, defensive tackle has been a bit of a work in progress under defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. The makeover started last season, as the Titans signed Shaun Smith, a 3-4 nose tackle, in free agency and installed him as a starter. It continued in the draft, as the Titans drafted in the third round a collegiate 4-3 nose tackle who'd drawn comparison to 49ers standout nose tackle Michael Carter. The seventh round saw another collegiate 4-3 nose tackle. Size was the order of the day as undersized penetrator Jason Jones was moved to defensive end, though he still played some snaps at tackle. Then again, the Titans drafted an even more undersized penetrator in the fifth round. To say I was somewhat confused by these moves was a bit of a puzzle.
Of those five players, only two made the team this year. Jones departed as a free agent, and Smith was cut during training camp after year one of a three-year deal. The seventh-round pick also failed to make the 53-man roster, though he's still around and I'll get to him later. The other two players appear to be keepers, and the Titans are trying out two new rookies to see if they might be as well.
That third-round pick was of course Jurrell Casey, who moved into the starting lineup in Week 1 and stayed there the entire season. While he wasn't a great pass rusher, with only 2.5 sacks, he was by far the Titans' most active defensive lineman. That production wasn't just garbage either-he had 42 Defeats, plays where the offense was stopped short of a success. That was 17 more than any other Titans defensive lineman and only five off the total team lead. He's a ways off from being a superstar, but is the Titans' best player at the position and should start all 16 games once again.
The other new addition who seems likely to stick around for a while was fifth-round pick Karl Klug. I was fairly dismissive when the Titans drafted him. Beyond the philosophical conclusion noted above, Klug reminded me entirely too much of Mitch King, a priority UDFA who was also an undersized penetrating defensive tackle from Iowa, but one who didn't make the team and has struggled to find consistent playing time in the NFL. Klug's excellent hand use, thanks in part to a wrestling background, helped him have success, though. Playing often in obvious passing situations, he ended up leading the team with 7.0 sacks.
That sack production has led some people to forecast greatness for Klug, but I'm pretty skeptical. One thing research at Football Outsiders has shown is that players don't seem to have a special knack for generating sacks. Instead, players get pressure and sometimes that pressure results in sacks. On occasions, a player can have a particularly high or particularly low percentage of sacks, but that doesn't seem to be sustainable. Take, for instance, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who had 8.5 and 9.5 sacks, respectively, on 34.5 and 37.5 combined sacks, hits, and hurries. Klug's 7 sacks came on only 13 total pressures. If he has that many pressures again, expect only 3-4 sacks.
The only returning player who was a member of the Titans in 2010 is Sen'Derrick Marks. I freely admit I've long struggled with Marks; I thought the Titans made a mistake when they drafted him in the second round in 2009, both in picking a defensive tackle and in drafting Marks in particular. He started 2011 as the same sort of rarely-used backup he'd been his first two seasons, but began playing a lot more when Shaun Smith's star started to fade and ended up with 9 starts. I have a hard time seeing him as more than "just a guy", and expect 2012 to be his final season with the Titans. It wouldn't shock me to see him lose his starting job by the end of the year, possibly to Klug but more likely to the next man.
That next man is this year's third-round pick out of Michigan, Mike Martin, who for the Wolverines played ... nose tackle! My thought when the Titans drafted him is that he was a great fit as Casey's backup, a non-oversized 4-3 nose tackle with some penetrating ability. Since drafting him, though, the Titans have noted he's quicker than they thought and suggested he could play some as a 3-tech/under tackle. He didn't get into most preseason games early, and I'm not sure how much he'll play the first half of the season. If he catches on quickly, though, and learns to match his outstanding collegiate production, he could be a starter by the end of the year.
The fifth defensive tackle on the 53-man roster is rookie undrafted free agent DaJohn Harris, who was a teammate of and played next to Casey at USC. Harris was considered a possible mid-round pick before a medical check at the Combine discovered a heart defect. He earned clearance from his cardiologist, though, and the Titans found him promising enough they kept him over Zach Clayton. (My struggle to understand their affection for Clayton was validated by his clearing waivers, and he's now on their practice squad because apparently you need five, not just four, defensive tackles in their first or second year in the league.)
On the whole, I would say defensive tackle is a position that remains in a bit of flux for the Titans. Casey is the only guy I really like. Klug is a useful player, but one best used in a particular role. Martin was a really good player in college, though of course not every college player is able to translate that level of performance to the NFL. I didn't think the defensive tackle grouping was nearly good enough last year, with deleterious consequences for the rest of the team. The Titans' return their top three players from the end of the year, but I think this group still remains a work in progress.