We continue our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2013 regular season with a look at the defensive ends.
One thing approximately everybody who follows the Titans in any capacity can agree with is that the two starting defensive ends played entirely too much in 2012. One of those players managed a pretty good season, or at least a very encouraging one, while the other was a bit of a disappointment after getting a big free agent contract. Even beyond the merits of the two players, the Titans had major defensive problems that would inevitably lead to a reshaping of, and the bringing of more balance to, the defensive end grouping.
I when looked at the ends back in February, I noted a clear need for a least a key rotational piece who could play on passing downs but was ambivalent on how great the Titans would see their need at the position beyond that. Anything from a major addition to a more modest one seemed possible. The Titans in the end added that rotational run-stopper and also a player in the draft, as well as repurposing another player on the roster for Jerry Gray's (and Gregg Williams') conception of what a defensive end can be.
Will those additions, and the way the help the returning players, be enough for the Titans to finally be satisfied with their defensive end grouping?
Derrick Morgan had what felt like a breakthrough year in 2013. While he may not play over 900 snaps like he did in 2012, he'll still play plenty. After playing overwhelming at left defensive end his first couple years, the indications from the first preseason game is he might instead be playing weakside defensive end, as he played both left and right when the Titans were in base personnel. He's not dominant, but he'd be an upgrade on what they trotted out there last year.
The bigger question about Morgan comes in terms of rushing the passer. He lined up exclusively at his normal LDE spot in the first preseason game. The question is instead whether he can convert some of his surplus of hurries into sacks. By Football Outsiders numbers, he had 28.5 hurries to go with 6.5 sacks. Having 35 total pressures is more typically associated with a double-digit sack season. One of my questions about Morgan coming out, though, was whether he had the necessary closing ability to convert pressures into sacks. Will he again be a high-pressure, low-sack player, or will he get to double-digit sacks?
While Morgan seems poised to play a lot again, Kamerion Wimbley very likely will not. He's in a bit of an odd spot. 2012 was his first season as a full-time defensive end after spending his first six seasons as an outside linebacker in both the 4-3 and 3-4, and the results were unimpressive. Despite playing over 900 snaps, he was hardly a factor at all against the run, with only 22 tackles on run plays all year. He played right defensive end, and the Titans were below average at stopping runs marked left end and left tackle. He only had 6.0 sacks, his fewest since 2008, and his 14.5 hurries suggest he didn't have many sacks because he didn't get much pressure.
Overwhelmed in the run game and not getting enough pressure, seemingly because he's over-reliant on his (very good) shoulder dip and lacks an effective counter, he might seem to be a possible cap candidate. That would be in another world though, as a reported salary guarantee of 2 of his $4 million and a remaining $7.2 million in signing bonus proration make that very unlikely. The Titans will likely look to make him much more of a rotational pass rusher.
The man who seems poised to steal many of Wimbley's snaps, at least on early downs, is Ropati Pitoitua. A 3-4 end in Kansas City, Jerry Gray can't stop singing praises for his bulk and particularly the ability to set the edge against the run his 6'8" frame provides. On the other hand, Pannel Egboh. Gray clearly sees a role for a player like this in his defense, as Jarius Wynn, who played rotationally last year, was another 3-4 end Gray turned into something like a strongside defensive end. The 5-tech is more or less what J.J. Watt plays in Wade Phillips' 3-4 in Houston (in base personnel), so it's a natural transition. It's a bit odd to hear Gray praise to the skies cheaper free agents like Pitoitua and Antonio Johnson. I'm all for the Titans getting contributions from cheaper players, but after the Pannel Egboh and Shaun Smith experiences I'm a touch skeptical about both Gray's effusive praise and the merits of bigness. Plus, the Titans might be better against the run in base personnel, but their biggest problem was in sub last year and Pitoitua isn't a pass-rusher and won't play sub.
Jerry Gray seems to love the tweener, and the move of Karl Klug to 5-tech is the latest sign of it. Pitoitua at SDE makes sense. Klug doesn't, at least to me. Far from 6'8", he's only 6'3" and has tiny little arms. Joke notwithstanding, the issue is the ability to reach and control offensive tackles. Otherwise they'll do the same to him and it makes it particularly hard to set the edge in the way Gray is looking for. Klug's excellent hand use and ability to win in short spaces counteract that fundamental physical limitation to some extent, but will it be enough? Jason Jones, as much as he didn't like this role, was at least much better suited for it physically. I like Klug much more in the other role he may fill, as an undersized 3-tech pass rusher in a rotational role. The problem there is the aforementioned sub package run defense problem; it led to the Titans keeping Klug almost glued to the bench much of last season. I've gone back and forth on whether the Titans agree with me he's pretty much a 4A player.
Lavar Edwards was LSU's DE3 last year, and I'll be curious to see how the Titans use him. As he did at LSU, he played inside at defensive tackle in sub package in the first preseason game while spending his time on regular downs at RDE (the Titans seemed to stop playing SDE and WDE late in favor of LDE and RDE). I covered him in more detail after the draft, and both Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar really liked him. I'll be curious to see how he does. His roster spot is not in jeopardy, but he could be anything from a spare part who struggles to find the 46 to play close to half the time without it surprising me too much.
In the world where cutting Kamerion Wimbley is a viable option, Keyunta Dawson would be the player who might push him off the team. His pressure off the edge led to the Titans' only sack in the first preseason game. Like Wimbley, he's a weakside rusher who's play overwhelmingly on the right side for the Titans. I don't think he's more than a rotational player and he's probably sixth in the DE pecking order. I put him on my 53 in June, but I'm now leaning toward Klug for that spot.
Nigel Nicholas is a camp body who got some time at LDE in the first preseason game and didn't set the world on fire. I wish him the best of luck in the future.
Akeem Ayers and Scott Solomon played defensive end in sub package situations. I covered both of them in more detail when I looked at the outside linebackers. Ayers played RDE as part of the first-team nickel package, while Solomon played the LDE spot he played last year with a reserve unit.
How good can Derrick Morgan be? We're still waiting to see if 2012 was the peak of his ability or a sign of even greater things to come?
Beyond Morgan, the Titans will be bigger on the defensive line, but I'm not sure they're much better. Pitoitua is a cog. Edwards is a rookie picked on day three. Wimbley is still who he is and not likely to change significantly in the eighth season of his career. Then, apart from Morgan mediocrity might have been an improvement, and mediocrity isn't an unreasonable expectation for this grouping. Plus, that means next offseason we can write again about how the Titans aren't yet happy with their defensive end grouping and want to get better.
Wimbley will be a bigger factor with a year of putting his hand in the dirt and less snaps. Ropati's presence on run downs is a huge improvement to keep Wimbley and Morgan from wearing down. Sacks come in bunches and I expect someone of Wimbleys veteran status to up his game to around 9 sacks. Klugs lack of arms is ridiculous people slammed him in the draft process yet somehow he went on to lead rookies in sacks from DT? Wonder if Bundts arms were "long" enough to reach up to cover his face in shock.
Edwards is a underrated stud who unfortunately probably won't get a ton of first year snaps but he could find time sharing Ropati's role as an early down run stuffer.
The biggest thing ironically will be Ayers ability to rush the passer when he rushes. I hope last years second half of the season explosion of Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers wasn't a freak thing and is actually the start of things to come.