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Who’s Safe After the Titans Coaching Change? (Defense)

Which Titans May No Longer Be Fits Under the New Regime?

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Press Conference Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

From last week’s article on the offense:

One of the lingering questions surrounding this Titans offseason will be: How much of the current roster is Jon Robinson’s vs. how much was it Mike Mularkey’s? Of course, the roster construction was Robinson’s task, but how much was he bringing in/retaining players specifically for Mularkey’s scheme? No matter who a GM’s coach is at any given time, he should be attempting to balance both rostering players he evaluates highly and rostering players he believes can function within specific roles in that coach’s scheme. Robinson mentioned several times after he was hired that his approach would be to draft, sign, and retain players based on specific roles. Naturally, when the roles change in conjunction with a coaching reboot, the players must change too.

Now, the answer to this question could be anybody’s best guess. It’s likely that Robinson and the new coaching staff don’t even have it, yet. Still, if Robinson’s background in New England can provide us any hint, no one is safe, outside of the QB and young, high-level performers. More than ever, Titans fans should be cautious about getting too attached to players until they seriously cement themselves as cornerstones.

With roughly a month until moves start pouring in, I thought it would be interesting to work through each position group and try to weed out who may be playing for the competition come next season.

Here’s the defense:


Safe: Jurrell Casey (10/10), Austin Johnson (8/10)

Casey signed a massive, unexpectedly early contract extension just before the start of last season. A stalwart along the base of the defense since 2011, Casey deserved that reward. The hope is that he continues playing at a high level, thereby making his large cap number look like a value as time goes on. Over the next two seasons, I believe the Titans should make it a priority to add more top-end talent along the DL, to complement Casey and make his life easier as he starts to wind down from the peak of his career (he may not quite be in wind-down mode yet). Beyond the huge payday, Casey also deserves a season or two of not being nearly the sole focus of opposing interior offensive lineman.

Johnson began to deliver on his 2nd-round draft status last season, after DaQuan Jones went down with a season-ending injury. That uptick in performance is a good sign, whether or not the Titans decide to retain Jones. Ideally, Johnson either has a fantastic offseason and comes in looking like a future star, or the Titans add more pieces along the DL and allow him to fit in as part of a larger rotation. Based on what we’ve seen so far from him, the latter seems more likely, and probably the better route. Still, at such a low salary, Johnson is a great value and worth attempting to develop further. The only scenario I can see in which Johnson isn’t a Titan in 2018 is him being included in a trade package for a significant asset.

Feeling a Little Pressure?: Karl Klug (6/10), Sylvester Williams (5/10)

Klug’s low cap number and status as a fan favorite make it unlikely he’ll be let go as part of the Titans’ roster adjustments due to scheme changes. I think a lot will depend on how he looks physically during offseason activities. As the Titans’ new staff looks back on 2017 tape, they are going to see a player, in Klug, who took some time to get his proverbial feet back under him after suffering an Achilles’ injury the year prior. He did show signs of life towards the end of last season, so there’s a reasonable chance that he just needed a little while longer to get back to normal. Let’s be real though: Klug has always been a highly-rotational, pass-rushing DL—a pretty good one. If spots on the 53 are dwindling come September, as the Titans acquire new talent and bring in other depth players the new coaches are familiar with, Klug could be firmly on the bubble.

Sly had what I would call an average 2017 season, based on the expectations we had of him coming from Denver. Some thought he would stink, others thought LeBeau could cast voodoo magic and turn him into a space eater at the center of our DL. Neither of those things happened. Williams’ contract isn’t horrendous, but it’s not an exceptional value either. As you can see, in my eyes, Sly basically lives in the gray area. I’d like to think the “new” Titans don’t have time for that gray area, but if he’s retained, I’m not going to lambast Jon Robinson; we could do worse.

Contract Questions: DaQuan Jones: (4/10)

Jones really showed up and out during his last few healthy games in 2017. There are two ways to look at that small sample size of excellent play: 1) Something suddenly clicked in for him and he revealed a new ceiling of play 2) It was coincidental that a few stat-heavy games lined up in a row. Listen: I really like DaQuan Jones. He’s been underrated overall and solid in the run game since we drafted him. I appreciate his demeanor. However, it’s hard for me to convince myself of the likelihood of “option” 1 above. I’d love him back at a salary that would place him between the top-15 to top-20 highest paid 3-4 DEs. Before you say I’m crazy, check out this list, and also remember that positional contract value is cyclically reset every year. With that being said, 5-6 million per year makes sense to me. Much higher, and I think I’d rather roll with Austin Johnson and spend the savings on a premiere FA signing.

Meh: David King (4/10), Antwuan Woods (2/10), Johnny Maxey (1/10), Julius Warmsley (1/10)

The Titans traded what likely amounted to an extra practice squad player to the Cardinals for King after last preseason. If you go out and target someone like that, there’s a chance you really like them, but my guess is that the move was for the purpose of depth only. I see King as a player who will stick around until the final round of roster cuts, but not have enough to get over the hump.

Woods has been in Tennessee for a while now. The old coaching staff liked him enough to keep him rotating between the active roster (but not dressing on game day), the practice squad, and the street. If he makes this roster and earns playing time, you’ll have to wonder what the hell prevented it in the past. Likely, he’s a fringe guy who will be looking for a new opportunity elsewhere.

Don’t ask me about Maxey or Warmsley. They sound like they could form a cool duo. It probably won’t be on the Titans.


The Old Guard: Brian Orakpo (9/10), Derrick Morgan (8/10)

Both of these guys fit the same profile: been here, produced here (but haven’t left an awe-inducing statistical legacy), getting old(er). That isn’t meant to be harsh, but it’s the truth. OLB has been a spot the Titans have been good-not-great at for several years. Both Orakpo and Morgan are leaders in the locker room, and neither is producing so far beneath their salary level as to make them likely expendable. However, if the Titans decide to get aggressive in FA, cutting 8.5 to 9 million off the books to make room for it isn’t completely out of the question, given that neither would count as significant dead money.

The Young Pups: Aaron Wallace (6/10), Josh Carraway (5/10), Kevin Dodd (5/10)

Wallace is an athletic specimen, with an NFL pedigree to boot. With my two-toned-blue-colored glasses on, I see him as a player Dean Pees should be able to help tremendously. He seems like a smart, put-together kid, so it’s unlikely you can pin his lack of ascension so far on immaturity, etc. I think unrefined technique combined with injuries have held him back more than anything. Hopefully, Pees can indeed guide him in the right direction technique-wise and he can stay healthy for the offseason and the season, so that we can see what we really have in him.

Carraway actually surprised us a bit in his rookie season by being more NFL-ready than we thought. He didn’t do anything spectacular, but he looked more viable in the run game than most of us expected. The question is: What has he been doing and what will he be doing to improve day by day?

Call him Dodd, call him Dudd, call him whatever you want. Dodd is not a player I care to spend much time ridiculing—I feel bad for the guy. The Kevin Dodd seen at Clemson in 2015 vanished when he suffered his foot injury during his rookie season. People like to talk about how we over-drafted him, but we drafted him where he was expected to go. I believe we may never know whether he was a scheme fit, because his injury made him a shell of his former self athletically. If he has any chances left in Tennessee, this offseason is his last one. If he wants it, he should relish in the fact that a new coaching staff is here, and do everything he can to clean his slate and impress them.

Not Likely: Erik Walden (4/10), Victor Ochi (1/10)

I don’t think it’s an impossibility for the Titans to bring back Walden on another one or two-year deal. I don’t necessarily want that to be “Plan A”, or even “B”, but depending on how things shake out, we at least know what we’re getting in him.

Ochi has been around for a couple seasons as a bottom-dweller. He hasn’t given us much to go on, so I’d have to assume he’ll be trying to stick elsewhere, considering the new staff has no connections to him.


Ironclad: Jayon Brown (10/10)

Brown wasn’t perfect as a rookie, but we saw clear potential, on the field, in regular season and playoff games. A candidate for a breakout season if he can add size and maintain his quickness. At the very least, he should be a member of our 3rd-down and most Nickel packages for years to come.

Hugely Probable: Wesley Woodyard (9/10)

Coming off perhaps his best season as a pro, it’s very hard to argue against WW having a spot on the 2018 Titans. He’s on an incredibly reasonable contract given his performance, so the only thing that would put him in jeopardy would be a steep drop-off in athleticism, which is fairly unlikely, given his health in recent years.

Special Teams Specialization: Daren Bates (7/10)

Bates never got to show us whether he provides adequate depth as an ILB, but he was certainly a key part of solidifying the special teams. Being a recent multi-year JRob signing, I have a sense he’s safe going into 2018.

Contract Questions, Pt. II: Avery Williamson (5/10)

Williamson is a hometown-ish kid, who could ideally still have a rotational role on this team. The question everyone is asking is: does he think he deserves to be, or be paid like, an every-down ILB? The crazy thing: Williamson actually probably should be just outside the top-10 highest paid ILBs after this FA is finished. A deal similar to what I was proposing for DaQuan Jones (5-6 mil. per season) would be reasonable. Beyond that I think both sides should agree to see whether the grass is greener.

Shouldn’t Be: Nate Palmer (3/10)

If the Titans make a sufficient number of additions defensively, and in the process show that they are serious about continuing their upward trend, Nate Palmer shouldn’t be in Tennessee next year. By all accounts, he’s a hard-working, good dude who is an alright backup LB. However, he’s not young, has no untapped potential, and doesn’t do any one thing well enough to deserve consideration for a multi-year-playoff-run-worthy roster (which is what the Titans should be trying to construct). We need to start developing young talent at ILB, so, personally, I’d rather roster two rookies with unknown potential than one average, aging veteran.


Safe With Upside: Logan Ryan (10/10), Adoree Jackson (10/10), LeShaun Sims (7/10)

Surprisingly, given the their status even as of last offseason, the CB group is one of the more solidified units on the roster. All three of these guys have shown enough to evade the crosshairs going into 2018. We know Ryan and Jackson will be starters of some kind. Sims will be on this roster and either the 3rd or 4th-ranked CB, barring an unexpected trade involving him.

Wouldn’t Be Opposed to It: Tye Smith (5/10), Kalan Reed (5/10)

Smith overtook Reed on the depth chart at some point last season. It’s hard to say whether the new coaching staff will rank depth players the same way. I see Reed as having more long-term potential, but Smith proved he could avoid being abused by opposing QBs when called upon. Of course, there’s a chance both players are off the 53-man roster if the Titans go after a FA CB and/or the draft board falls a certain way. I think there are bigger fish to fry, so to speak, and expect at least one of these players to round out the CB group.

Gotta Go: Brice McCain (2/10)

I just can’t anymore. Thanks for all your hard work and may you find a roster spot (or a secondary passion, in retirement) elsewhere!

Do Better: Demontre Hurst (2/10), Jeremy Boykins (1/10)

There’s just no reason for either of these players to make the roster this season, in my eyes. Hurst has been around the block, on many rosters, so I can’t imagine that he’d have PS eligibility remaining. We’ve heard nothing about Boykins since he was signed. If neither of these guys can outpace Tye Smith or Kalan Reed, why retain them? Keep looking for a hidden gem by bringing in new prospects.


Straight Cash, Homie: Kevin Byard (11/10)

A top-5 S still on his 3rd-round rookie deal. Next.

Some Kind of Value: Johnathan Cyprien (9/10)

Don’t take his “safety rating” as a sign that I think he’s amazing. He’s good, not great. In a perfect world, he would be a 3rd safety brought in for specific defensive packages. In my opinion, he’d still be an acceptable value contract-wise if we found that type of niche role for him. We’ll see whether Dean Pees makes a push for Jon Robinson/Mike Vrabel to upgrade the starting spot opposite Byard.

Special Teams Specialization, Pt. II: Brynden Trawick (9/10)

It would appear that Trawick has the 4th S spot on lockdown, given his Pro-Bowl-caliber special teams contributions. I truly can’t see a scenario in which he’s cut or traded.

Domino Effect: Da’Norris Searcy (3/10)

If we do upgrade the SS position, moving Cyprien to S #3, Da’Norris Searcy won’t be on this roster, period. If we decide to stay put with Cyp as a starter, Searcy could come back. Would he be willing to restructure his already restructured contract? The odds are not in his favor, I don’t think.

New Coach, Who Dis?: Denzel Johnson (3/10)

A 2017 Undrafted FA that seemed to have at least some upside, Johnson will need to set the world ablaze to make the 53-man roster. I won’t be surprised to see him on the practice squad, though.


Thanks for reading!