This is a definitive statement of fact. Read below to see the method to my madness.
Bold prediction numero uno: The Tennessee Titans will have a very good group of linebackers in 2011. I fully expect this unit to be head and shoulders above last year's group which is kind of like Houston's secondary being better than it was last year, but still, when I look at this unit, I like what I see very, very much. Everyone remembers how infuriating last year was when it was basically a given that any given tight end would run roughshod all over our defense. It's tough to put all of the blame on the linebackers, but at the same time we all knew it the problem was stemming from an inability to cover from most, if not all, of the players we had at the position. This year, that's not so. Barrett Ruud was probably the best coverage MLB on the market and, as you all know, we've got him. Honestly, I don't care if he's slightly below average as a run defender. He's a very intelligent player and has come in to fill a huge hole in the defense.
I've also raved about the selection of Akeem Ayers for awhile now, and while pad-less, contact-less, and most of all, kind of meaningless practices offer very little for me to back up my thoughts, he looked like a beast out there. Coverage, instincts, attitude, you name it, he had it. Ayers taking on big ol' Dave Stewart was the equivalent of the new inmate walking up to the biggest, baddest dude in the prison yard and beating him senseless on his first day there. This was Ayers' second practice ever and he went toe-to-toe with an established veteran whose nickname is Big Country. It's taking all of my restraint to not just gush about this guy in his own post, he's earned it.
Bold prediction numero dos: Akeem Ayers will be the defensive Rookie of the Year. This one may seem a lot more like going out on a limb, but I think that the combination of early playing time and raw play making ability should earn him some serious consideration for the award. Also consider this; since the beginning of the millennium, only two DRoY's have not been linebackers. Those two were Julius Peppers in 2002 and Ndamukong Suh last year. So unless anyone thinks that any of the top D-linemen in this year's draft are poised for double-digit sacks, the award will most likely go to a linebacker who is either a tackling machine in the middle or excels at rushing the passer. Ayers is the latter, but also adds great coverage skills which should result in a lot of takeaways stemming from his side of the field. What you have here is a winning combination. For all of the optimism I have for this season concerning Ayers, I also am aware that in the last twenty years, only three players not drafted in the first round have won the DRoY. Hugh Douglas in 1995, Kendrell Bell in 2000, and DeMeco Ryans in 2006. All but Bell went on to make Pro Bowl Appearances. However, it should also be noted that Ayers will, in all likelihood, be starting from day one. That fact alone pretty much levels the playing field with, or may even give him an early advantage over more highly drafted players like Von Miller, Patrick Peterson, and Nick Fairley.
Bold Prediction numero tres: Will Witherspoon will be the worst linebacker among starters. This is actually a good thing. To me, this basically means that he'll be more or less the same player he was last year, pretty darn average, but that Barrett Ruud will contribute more with his game managing skills and coverage ability and that Gerald McRath will find a way to return to some semblance of the form that made him so exciting in the first place. In retrospect, this doesn't seem like that bold of a prediction, but if I had told you that Spoon would be the worst starting LB on the team two weeks ago I doubt you would have believed me.
So there it is. Three reasons that I think will lead to a big A on the end of the year report card for our linebackers. They've also got a whole lot to gain from being a great unit. I share the feeling with many of you that the secondary might be the best unit on the defense next year with the continued maturation of Verner and McCourty and a regression to career norms from Griffin and Finnegan. We all know it all starts up front, but having two-thirds of the defense play well might just lead to this team upsetting a few opponents in their first year under together.