For the first time since 2013, the Titans opening day starters at inside linebacker won’t be Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson. The team let Williamson walk in free agency and now must replace him in the starting lineup.
There are three primary competitors to take the spot next to Woodyard in the starting lineup. The most notable is rookie first round pick Rashaan Evans. Evans’ talent level and status as a 1st round pick should give him a shot at the starting lineup as early as Week 1, but I don’t think that should be considered a foredrawn conclusion at this point. In minicamp Mike Vrabel commented that Evans “is not where he needs to be to start for our defense, and that’s OK. ... I think he’s improved. We all have a long way to go.”
While nothing has been definitively reported on this, it appears from clips of OTAs that free agent addition Will Compton was working with the starting group alongside Woodyard. We will see if that was really the case when camp opens on Thursday, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him there at least initially. Compton has 5 years of NFL experience and 33 starts under his belt from his time in Washington. He also spent most of that time as the defense’s primary signal caller so it would not be surprising to see him out ahead of the pack early as the new scheme is getting installed.
Jayon Brown is the other guy that factors in to this mix. He played a lot during his rookie season, primarily as a coverage specialist — something he does very well. I would expect Brown to have a significant role in the defense again in 2018, but the question is whether he can step beyond the passing down role and become a true contender for a starting role. To do that, he will need to demonstrate the ability to hold up at the point of attack in the running game. Brown has once again drawn rave reviews from the coaches and media during offseason work and seems to be a lock to have at least some role in this defense in 2018.
Another wild card at this position — at least in sub-packages — could be backup safety and special teams ace Brynden Trawick. Last season Trawick got very little action on defense, playing just 4 snaps total outside of special teams, but a new staff could bring new ideas. One meeting room scene from the most recent Igniting the Fire episode appeared to show a potential nickel package with players numbers in various positions on defense. The most interesting part of that package was the appearance of “41” — Trawick’s number — penciled in as a backup Will linebacker behind Jayon Brown. New Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees used a converted safety as his Will linebacker last season to great success.
Patrick Onwuasor, a 6’-0”, 217 pound safety who went undrafted in 2016, was moved to inside linebacker by the Ravens and by the end of his second training camp became a starter next to C.J. Mosley. He was the team’s second-leading tackler behind just Mosley last season.
“He’s grown every week,” Pees said before Wednesday’s practice. “He’s just going to get better and better, and I hope he gets bigger and bigger. We just took a guy who really had not played the position and stuck him in there, and kind of thought he was going to be a backup, then kind of won the job. I think each week, he gets better and better.”
I don’t know that I would expect the same success for Trawick, but at 6’-2” and 225 pounds, he’s even bigger than Onwuasor. It’s an interesting idea that could give Trawick a more viable route to getting on the field on defense, though it’s hard to see him taking snaps away from Brown if everyone is healthy.
Rounding this position group are Daren Bates, Nate Palmer, Nick DeLuca, and Robert Spillane. Bates and Palmer have been around, but are primarily special teams contributors. DeLuca and Spillane are UDFAs who will have a really tough road to making the roster given the talent and experience of the 6 guys ahead of them — 7 if you count Trawick.
If I’m guessing today, I expect that Woodyard is likely to be the 3-down linebacker wearing the green dot communication helmet at least to start the season. It is only a matter of time until Evans takes that role though. Whether that time comes in camp or during the season or even next offseason will depend primarily on how quickly the rookie is able to show Mike Vrabel that he “knows what to do and can play fast and aggressive”. If Evans is not quite ready for that level of responsibility right away, that’s OK. He will have a chance to contribute as another rush option on 3rd downs at the very least while he gets up to speed.
So I would expect that Woodyard and Compton are the top unit in base defense with Compton coming off for Brown in nickel packages for the start of camp with Evans pushing to force his way on the field as quickly as possible. Again, that’s not a slight at Evans. I think he’s going to be an excellent player — you can get my full thoughts on him here — and expect him to have a major role by the end of the season, but for a team expected to contend it could benefit them to bring Evans along slowly.
How the team balances the snaps between those 4 will be among the more interesting storylines in camp and leading up to the season.