We continue our series of training camp previews with the Outside Linebacker position group. The Titans have undergone plenty of changes at this spot with the arrival of Horton's "Hybrid" 3-4 defense. How does the corps stack up heading into the 2014 training camp?
#1: Akeem Ayers - 48 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble.
Akeem ayers was, without doubt, the Tennessee Titans most reliable linebacker in 2013. That said, he also took a big dip in production from the year before, when he topped 100 tackles and 6 sacks. He is a classic "jack of all trades, master of none" at this point for the Titans. Resilient at the point of attack, Ayers made himself an important member of the linebacking corps. But the Titans staff tried to employ him more as a "hand in the dirt" pass rusher, a strategy that backfired.
Ayers was more a home standing up, and occasionally rushing from the Sam linebacker spot than he ever was lining up at end. With him likely back where he belongs at that Sam role, Ayers will be charged with doing a bit of everything, including covering the pass and rushing the QB off the edge.
He enters training camp as the starter at Sam OLB, but after bilateral knee surgeries in the off-season, his readiness to go at 100% at camp's beginning is in doubt. Al said and done, it's unlikely anyone dethrones him from that starting spot in 2014 if he can come back ready to play, or near to it.
#3: Shaun Phillips - 37 tackles, 10 sacks, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles.
The transplant from the Denver Broncos (after many good seasons in San Diego), Shaun Phillips comes on board to an ideal situation in Nashville. Despite being 33 years old, Phillips has been a consistently productive player over the past two seasons, notching an impressive 19 sacks to go along with a good count of other "splash" plays. While he's not an every down starter at this point, he will likely continue to be productive on the outside of Horton's 3-4 defense.
Whether he slots in as a backup for Sam, Leo, or both, is yet to be seen, but we'll have a better idea when the coaches put the group on the field during camp.
#4: Derrick Morgan - 35 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery.
Coming in to the final season on his rookie deal, Morgan is making the big leap from 4-3 end to rush outside linebacker. Horton has already commented on how "smooth" the transition has been, but concerns remain about his ability to play any sort of coverage. In college, Morgan was moved around successfully to create mismatches, and it appears the Titans staff has the same idea. This is, in my opinion, the biggest change up on defense from last year to now.
Morgan will slot into the Leo spot, and likely see some defensive end work on nickel sets and goal line situations. Whether he has the athletic ability to carry over and have success at outside linebacker is yet to be seen, but initial impressions have been overwhelmingly positive.
#5: Kamerion Wimbley - 11 tackles, 3 sacks
Last season was an epic drop-off for Wimbley. He saw both his snap, and consequently, his tackle count diminish to career low levels. While still managing to nap a trio of sacks, his usage and cost was a mismatch in Tennessee last season. With a newly restructured, team-friendly deal, Wimbley enters camp as a rotational rush linebacker, likely at the Leo spot behind Morgan. I wrote earlier in the year about how Wimbley has fared in the 3-4, standing up, as opposed to being a pure 4-3 end. Hopefully being back on his feet will give Wimbley some rejuvenation and the opportunity to improve in 2014.
While he's no longer on the roster bubble due to an imbalanced contract, Wimbley will be fighting for snaps in an increasingly talented linebacker group.
#6: Jonathan "Tig" Willard
Willard gained fame last season after rescuing a family from a burning car on I-40, on his way to training camp. Unfortunately he didn't make the final cut that season, and spent the year on the practice squad. "Tig" comes into camp again this year in an equally difficult position to win a roster spot, but with an added year of NFL practice under his belt. It will depend on how many backers Ray Horton wants to carry, but he'll be in the mix on the outside or even on the inside for a linebacker spot.
#7: David Gilbert
A rookie linebacker out of Miami and Wisconsin, Gilbert amassed some impressive college stats before entering the league as a undrafted free agent. An athletic product with prototypical size, Gilbert could be in the mix, but is more likely a practice squad candidate at this point. If he can impress during camp though, a special teams spot could have his name on it.
The biggest change is no doubt schematic in nature. With guys like Derrick Morgan now being asked to play a different role in Ray Horton's defensive alignment, the makeup of the group has been shaken up. The plus side is that the Titans have been hoarding athletic talent at the linebacker spots over the past few years, and now the group is potentially the division's deepest, in terms of talent. The responsibilities and rotations will also be different under the new coaching staff.
The Big Question
Can Morgan make the transition to stand-up linebacker cleanly? I say he does. As I mentioned earlier, he played multiple spots in his college days with success, and his pass rushing savvy could be even more dangerous when he's able to exploit gaps in the line from the linebacker spot. He could also help solidify the Titans woes against defensing the run, as he has proven a balanced edge-setter in past seasons. My biggest concern lies in his ability to turn his hips and cover. Hopefully it's something he won't be asked to do as often as teammates like Wesley Woodyard and Zach Brown, who are inherently more fluid athletes.
Best Case Scenario
Morgan makes a big splash at his new linebacker spot. Akeem Ayers gets back to getting after the quarterback, and Shaun Phillips makes a big impact on helping the Titans improve their pass rush as well. Wimbley returns to form and posts improved numbers, and the Titans effectively address their issues against the run.
Worst Case Scenario
Phillips regresses with age, and Wimbley fails to improve on last year's showing. Morgan is unsuited to the athletic demands of the linebacker role, and Akeem Ayers falls to injury. This would put the Titans in a bind, and maybe force them to recruit help from the inside players like Zach Brown or Zaviar Gooden to plug the holes.
The Titans enter the 2014 training camp with more outside linebacker talent than they've boasted in 5+ years. With mastermind Horton at the helm, the unit should be able to capitalize on that talent and depth. For this group, getting to the quarterback and setting the edges against the run will be of paramount importance, along with improving on some suspect gap control from last season. I think that Ayers, Wimbley, Phillips, and Morgan are up to the task.