It’s Training Camp Week!!! With camp officially starting this Saturday, July 29th, let’s take a look at how things are shaping on the defensive line.
Returning: Jurrell Casey, DaQuan Jones, Austin Johnson, Angelo Blackson, Karl Klug, Mehdi Abdesmad, Antwaun Woods
Departures: Al Woods (signed with Colts)
Additions: Sylvester Williams (FA), DeAngelo Brown (UDFA), Cameron Robbins (UDFA), Jimmy Staten (FA)
The Titans return 90.1% of their defensive snaps from 2016 after losing on Al Woods during the offseason. While Woods was viewed as a “starter” for much of the 2016 season, he logged just the 5th most snaps among the defensive line behind Casey, Jones, Klug, and Blackson. Replacing those snaps in 2017 will likely be free agent addition Sylvester Williams who came over from the Broncos on a 3 year, $17.5M deal with $9.5M guaranteed. Given that contract I would expect the former 1st round pick to eat up more than the 22.8% of defensive snaps that Woods got last season, but if we’ve learned anything about Mularkey training camps from last season it’s that snaps are earned based on merit, not draft position or contract value.
The group is clearly led by Jurrell Casey who continues to be one of the most criminally underrated players in the NFL. He is a special player who deserves to be mentioned in the Aaron Donald-Geno Atkins-Fletcher Cox-Ndamukong Suh class of elite interior defenders in my opinion. Check out some of his 2016 highlights in this Twitter thread below courtesy of our very own Justin Graver.
Casey’s PFF pass rush grade of 86.7 ranks 4th in the NFL among interior defenders — which includes 4-3 DTs, 3-4 NTs, and most 3-4 DEs (the line between this category and EDGE is kind of blurry for 3-4 teams). While rushing the passer is what makes Casey special, he’s also an above average run defender.
Opposite Casey is DaQuan Jones, the third year defensive lineman from Penn State. While Casey is underrated nationally, I actually think Jones is underrated locally. He’s a more traditional 3-4 defensive end who stacks in the run game and wins with strength. His 83.6 run defense grade on PFF ranked him 18th in the NFL for interior defenders, one spot ahead of Brandon Williams who just got paid $54M by the Ravens to be a run stopper. Jones isn’t going to offer the pass rush ability that Casey does, that’s not his game, but he is a big part of why the Titans run defense was so good in 2016 and that’s valuable. In fact, Football Outsiders has a stat called Adjusted Line Yards that attempts to isolate the impact of line play in the running game in various categories based on direction of the run. Here is the Titans defense’s Adjusted Line Yards for 2016:
Left End: 5.33 (30th)
Left Tackle: 3.60 (12th)
Mid/Guard: 3.84 (15th)
Right Tackle: 2.45 (2nd)
Right End: 2.88 (9th)
DaQuan Jones is the anchor in the right side of that equation and you can pretty clearly see his impact when you look at these numbers.
This seems like a good place to point something out that needs to be kept in mind when we talk about “starters” in the defensive line. While we are considered a base 3-4 team, the Titans run a ton of 40 fronts. I may go back and chart this at some point to see what the percentage was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we found them in 40 fronts more often than 30 fronts last season. When they go to a 40 front you see Casey and Jones working as defensive tackles and Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan functioning as 4-3 defensive ends taking the nose tackle off the field, often for nickel corner or a third safety. Given the addition of Johnathan Cyprien to this defense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more of this in 2017.
Sylvester Williams will likely serve as the early down nose tackle when we do line up in our base 3-4 alignment and it’s possible that you see him in some 40 fronts every now and then as well. He is going to be listed as a starter, but I don’t think we see his snap share get over the 50% mark most weeks.
Klug will almost certainly reprise his role as Casey’s primary backup and 3rd down pass rush specialist. He’s a perfect replacement for Casey and I’m really glad that the Titans were able to bring him back this offseason. The Titans favorite 3rd and long personnel package last year featured Casey and Klug rushing with Orakpo and Morgan so he has an important role on this team. According to the most recent update on his injury recovery from Jim Wyatt, he may or may not be ready for the start of camp this weekend, but it sounds like expectations are that he is good to go by the start of the season.
I wrote a lot about Austin Johnson last week. You can check that out here if you missed it, but I think Johnson fits the mold as a DaQuan Jones type in this scheme. His playing time was on the rise at the end of last year and I would expect him to become Jones’ primary backup this season and he can pitch in a few snaps at nose tackle as well when needed.
Angelo Blackson is guy who should probably be feeling the heat during camp. He was pretty clearly passed by Johnson on the depth chart late last season which led to a few healthy scratches for Blackson down the stretch. I would expect the Titans to keep a minimum of 6 defensive linemen with a chance they keep 7. I thought Blackson played pretty well last year, but it is hard to see Blackson beating out any of the 5 guys above him so his spot is the one that guys like Abdesmad, Woods, and others will be gunning for.
The rest of these guys are clearly going to find themselves in a battle to make the roster. Abdesmad made the 53 man roster last season before spending the year yo-yoing between the roster and the practice squad. Woods was a camp darling for much of last year, but narrowly missed the cut. He stuck on the practice squad for most of the year and got a cameo in Week 17 against Houston where he actually flashed a couple times.
Woods is a true nose tackle type in this defense and I’m not sure the team will be able to justify keeping more than one nose on the 53 given how rarely they use the position and the fact that guys like Johnson and Blackson can competently fill in if Williams were to miss time or need a break.
Same goes for DeAngelo Brown, probably the Titans most high-profile UDFA this season. He profiles as a true nose and will obviously need to really impress in camp to make the team.
Jimmy Staten is a former MTSU player who was a 5th round pick for the Seahawks in 2015. He has bounced around the NFL for the last few years and spent most of last year on the Falcons practice squad. He is more of a defensive end type in the Titans scheme. Cameron Robbins is likely just a camp body.
Overall, the Titans defensive line is probably the best unit on the defense. It features the Titans best defender in Jurrell Casey and offers great depth and experience throughout.