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Tennessee Titans Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

With camp set to begin, what does the Titans defensive line group look like?

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

The Players

Under 2/3-Tech DE

#1: Jurrell Casey - 54 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble 1 fumble recovery, 2 passes defensed.

Heading into the final year of his rookie deal, Jurrell Casey stands alone at the top of the Titans defensive pyramid. A top-tier NFL talent, he exploded in 2013 to the tune of 10.5 sacks and was a constant presence against both the run and the pass. He enters camp as the unquestioned starter at the 2/3-Tech DT/DE spot, a role similar to the one he played last season with success. Beyond this, Horton's new scheme should give Casey far more one-on-one opportunities than in the past. Whether he reaches his goal of 20 sacks I can't say, but he'll get a fair shot.

Extension talks are ongoing with Casey, and GM Ruston Webster said that he "expects to get an extension worked out", with the outstanding defensive lineman. One things is certain; the Titans defensive line goes as Casey does.

#2: Mike Martin - 15 tackles, 1 sack

Martin doesn't fit the Titans "get bigger in the trenches" program over the past few years, and hasn't had a ton of opportunities to shine. Maybe he gets a better shot with the new coaching staff. He was a relentless player in college, and his strength at the point of attack is nothing short of impressive. He is best suited to the under 2/3-Tech DE spot, being shy of 300 lbs, but should get a chance to rotate in at a higher rate this season.

#3: Chigbo Anunoby

The 325 lb Anunoby gives the Titans an extra body at either the 2/3-Tech DE or 0/1-Tech NT spot. He spent last season on the Titans practice squad. It is unlikely he makes the final cut for the coming season.

0/1-Tech NT

#1: Sammie Hill - 25 tackles, 1 fumble recovery.

Hill was brought in from Detroit last season to start on the Titans 4-3 defensive line. His size makes him an ideal fit at NT in Horton's hybrid 3-4. That said, Hill was a severe under-performer last year, rotating in and out of the lineup with injuries, and generally playing little role in the Titans' defensive efforts. He will get a chance to prove he wasn't a mistake free agency move to the new coaching staff, but his size alone won't be enough to keep him on the roster, especially with a $3.3 million cap hit hanging over his head.

I expect a fierce fight for snaps at the 01/-Tech NT position. I'm not convinced Hill is the answer.

#2: Al Woods - 16 tackles, 2 sacks

Woods is a transplant from the Steelers pure 3-4. His size should give Horton an ideal NT backup should Hill not impress in camp, or DaQuan Jones step up in his stead. Woods was expensive for a role player, at $2.5 million a year, but Steelers fans and coaches were upset with losing him. He's a young talent who should be given every chance to shine in Horton's defense. With 0/1-Tech spot with relatively few locks, Woods could carve out a role if he can impress in camp.

#3: Antonio Johnson - 22 tackles, 3 sacks.

Johnson was a late addition to the Titans roster last season, and played well above his pay grade when given the opportunity. While not a starting talent, Johnson proved he was a valuable asset who will likely see reserve snaps at multiple defensive line positions in 2014, after earning a 2 year deal from the Titans. It's unclear whether he plays more End or Tackle, but I would err on the side of NT due to his size.

Johnson has good size and a hard working motor. He should be a roster lock as a primary backup/rotational player.

#4: DaQuan Jones {R}

Without ideal speed to be a pass rusher at the NFL level, Jones plays with plenty of power. He fits as a 2-down run stopper at NT in Horton's 3-4. While I wouldn't expect early returns, I view Jones as somewhat of a draft steal for the Titans. He'll be one to watch during camp, and may earn a good number of snaps later on in the coming season. His physicality is a perfect fit on the inside of this newly designed defensive line.

#5: Marcus Dixon - 1 tackle

Dixon is an added camp body for the Titans. It is doubtful he makes the initial wave of cuts as part of a clogged DT group.

5/6-Tech DE

#1: Ropati Pitoitua - 44 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 passes defensed.

Pitoitua was a great addition to the roster last season. After beating out Kamerion Wimbley for the starting role at DE, Pitoitua posted a strong season both against the run, and more surprisingly against the pass as well. While not a dynamic pass rushing end by any means, Pitoitua gives Horton a strong end who can set the edge against the run and rush the QB in a pinch. The Titans were wise to re-sign him long term, and his size and style should be a marriage made in heaven for Horton's 3-4. At this point, Pitoitua is the "starter" at the 5/6-Tech DE spot for the 2014 season, but will be part of a heavy rotation.

#2: Karl Klug - 14 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 2 passes defensed.

Klug will get a final chance to prove his worth to the new staff. The prior staff could not find ways to get the undersized tackle onto the field, despite his excellent pass rushing abilities. I don't expect Horton to have the same problem. With Morgan gone from the lineup at DE (after a move to OLB), Klug should get a fair share of snaps as a pass rushing end, the perfect complement to Pitoitua. He'll need to impress to stick around after his rookie deal expires this season.

#3: Lavar Edwards - 9 tackles

Edwards didn't get much game-time action last season as a rookie, but he was getting favorable reviews both this year and last during camp and OTA's. Whether he can progress to earn more snaps in his second year is yet to be seen, but he is a prototypical end for the Titans at this juncture.

{For added reference on why I slotted certain players where I did, I linked an article of mine from earlier in the season.}

What's Changed?

The Titans made plenty of changes schematically, but few in the personnel department. It could be argued that players like Pitoitua, Klug, and Casey could see a bump in production with a scheme that fits their talents. Horton's multiple 3-4 allows for plenty of one-on-one looks across the defensive front, which should bode well for the Titans in their efforts to build on the improved pass rush of last season. Hopefully it also allows other players besides Casey to generate some pressure on the passer as well.

The Big Question?

Do the Titans have their "man" at NT? The switch to Horton's front was a natural fit for most, expect at the nose tackle spot. I'm not convinced Sammie Hill is a legitimate answer, and Woods is too inexperienced to be relied upon. DaQuan Jones is only a rookie. So there are some legitimate concerns at that spot, which is extremely important in this scheme.

Worst Case Scenario

The aforementioned strain at nose tackle proves too much to overcome, and the Titans struggle to contain the run. Injuries to prominent players like Casey and Pitoitua further derail the Titans defensive efforts, and the team repeats the problems they had way back in 2012.

Best Case Scenario

The increased talent at the coaching roles proves effective, and players shine in their new roles. The Titans prove they are able to effectively play the multiple 3-4 front, contain the run, and rush the passer with increased success. Casey break the sack record for a defensive tackle.

Summary

Just as we saw with the linebacker position groups, there are schematic changes to take into account. While plenty of those changes are in nomenclature only, the Titans will look very different in 2014 than in the past. With a proven group of coaches at the helm and a legitimate "blue-chip" defender in Casey, the Titans defensive line should be a more difficult animal for opposing offenses to handle in the 2014 campaign.