ON THE ROSTER: LB –
KEY ADDITIONS: LB – Shaun Phillips (Free Agency), LB – Wesley Woodyard (Free Agency), DL - Al Woods (Free Agency), DL – DaQuan Jones (Draft, 4th Rnd. 112 Overall), LB – Avery Williamson (Draft, 5th Rnd. 151st Overall)
KEY DEPARTURES: None
New defensive coordinator Ray Horton has already implemented his 3-4 defensive scheme (three down linemen and four linebackers), a change from last year’s 4-3 defense (four down linemen and three linebackers). Four teams made a similar switch in 2013, including Horton’s Cleveland Browns. In his one season as defensive coordinator with the Browns, Horton took a 23rd-ranked defense from 2012 and turned it into the ninth-ranked defense in 2013. Other teams seeing success with the same change include the New Orleans Saints (32nd in ‘12 to 4th in ‘13) and Buffalo Bills (22nd in ’12 to 10th in ’13).
Depth at the linebacker position is vital in a 3-4 defense, something the Titans focused on during the offseason. Free agent signings Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard not only add depth, but proven veteran talent to the roster. The Titans also used a fifth-round pick on Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson. In addition, the club brings back veterans Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, Moise Fokou and Colin McCarthy, along with several younger players in the mix.
Wimbley and Morgan will have the leeway to play on the defensive line and at linebacker, an example of the potential moving pieces throughout the entire front seven.
Re-signing 6-foot-8, 298-pound defensive end Ropati Pitoitua was another key offseason move. He joins Jurrell Casey, who is coming off a mammoth season with 10.5 sacks, as important pieces of the defensive line. In addition, the Titans signed former Steeler Al Woods, drafted Penn State’s DaQuan Jones and return veterans Karl Klug, Sammie Hill, Antonio Johnson, Mike Martin and Lavar Edwards, among other prospects.
All said, it’s a deeper group in 2014 with positioning and playtime to be determined over the course of training camp and the preseason.
Casey was widely regarded as Tennessee’s best defensive player in 2013, recording career highs in sacks (10.5) and tackles (90). The 10.5 sacks ranked second among NFL defensive tackles last season, and Casey’s 16 total sacks from 2011-13 are the fifth most by a defensive tackle over that span (only Geno Atkins, Marcell Darius, Ndamukong Suh, and Justin Smith had more).
The Titans’ third-round pick from 2011 personally expects to build on those numbers within Horton’s defensive scheme. Showing he can dominate in a 3-4 defense would go a long way for Casey, who enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2014.
#91 Derrick Morgan – 5th NFL Season
Morgan enjoyed a productive 2013 season and continued to show the promise that made him the team's 2010 first-round draft choice. He played in 15 games at defensive end and ranked second on the team with six sacks and eight QB pressures. Morgan is an explosive defender equally adept at rushing the passer and stopping the run. He has the reputation as a gritty player with a non-stop motor, and can bounce back and forth between defensive line or outside linebacker.
Also in the final year of his contract, Morgan has a chance for a breakout season in Horton's defensive scheme.
It’s easy to argue that Shaun Phillips is one of the top additions to Tennessee’s defense in 2014. Phillips has spent over a decade in the league and continues to be one of the league’s elite pass rushers.
After starting out his first nine seasons in San Diego, Phillips spent the 2013 season as a defensive end with the AFC Champion Denver Broncos. Phillips led the Broncos with 10.5 sacks, marking his third season with double-digit sack totals. His 79.5 career sacks are the ninth-best in the NFL since he entered the league in 2004.
Phillips’ versatility to play multiple positions and experience in a 3-4 defense could prove to be just as valuable as his ability to get to the quarterback.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
#75 DaQuan Jones – Rookie
Rookies are often the wild cards of an NFL roster and can be the difference makers during a playoff run. The 6-foot 4-inch, 323-pound defensive lineman will have an opportunity to make an impact in the Titans’ front seven. The team used their first of two fourth-round picks on Jones in this year’s draft. He finished his senior year at Penn State with a career-high 56 tackles and three sacks, earning himself first-team All-Big Ten Conference honors.
The Titans selected the rookie linebacker in the fifth round (151st overall) of May’s draft. Williamson adds depth at linebacker and should provide value on special teams. The linebacker led the University of Kentucky in tackles in both 2012 and 2013 with 135 and 102 respectively. Williamson also has four sacks to his name from his time as a Wildcat.