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Revisiting the Titans’ Most Overlooked Need

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There is one particular position of importance that deserves more attention...

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Training Camp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the offseason, there has been a lot of focus on the Titans’ three biggest areas of need, all of which have been clear from the get-go (in no particular order): interior offensive line, edge rusher, and wide receiver. All three spots were addressed within the first 24 hours of the “legal tampering” period of free agency with the signings of Rodger Saffold, Cameron Wake, and Adam Humphries.

The back-up quarterback position also received its fair share of attention, but trade for Ryan Tannehill quieted those discussions.

There’s even been some focus on positions that aren’t really needs, including debates about the Iowa tight ends and this mock draft that actually had Tennessee going with a first-round cornerback.

However, one position that may not be receiving enough attention, at least from Titans’ fans, is interior defensive line.

Looking at the most recent tour of mock drafts put together by Jim Wyatt, it seems the collection of “experts” predict the Titans will draft the following positions: TE (6), DT (5), WR (4), EDGE (3), C (1), QB (1).

It’s not going unnoticed by the media that the Titans have a real need at interior defensive line, so let’s talk about it.

Current Players — 2019 and Beyond

There are currently six players on the Titans roster under contract for 2019 that would qualify as interior defensive linemen in the Titans’ multi-front scheme.

Of course there’s Jurrell Casey, a forever-underrated force who can stuff the run and get after the quarterback as well as almost anyone in the league. Casey will be coming off an MCL injury, but the 4-time Pro Bowler should be back to near-full strength when the offseason program begins on April 15th.

Beside Casey, DaQuan Jones and Austin Johnson are the currently projected opening day starters on the defensive line with the departure of Bennie Logan in free agency.

Johnson, a former 2016 second-round pick, will be playing out the final year of his rookie contract. As it stands now, he doesn’t seem a very likely candidate to return in 2020.

DaQuan Jones is entering the penultimate year of his recent contract extensionh, which is turning out to be relatively expensive considering production. Jones started all 16 games last year and recorded 34 total tackles (11th on the team), 0 sacks, and just 4 tackles for loss.

Which is why it’s a little crazy that Jones currently has the 6th-highest cap hit of any Titans player for 2019 at $7.33M with a dead money penalty this season. However, in 2020, that dead money number drops to $1.33M, making him financially expendable after this year.

Jones had a rather disappointing 2018 campaign, but he does deserve some benefit of the doubt after under going season-ending surgery to repair a torn bicep in 2017. Even so, Jones could fall victim to a Johnathan Cyprien-style release next offseason (barring a restructured deal) with his contract situation.

The other players currently on the team include journeyman and former 6th-round pick Darius Kilgo; Matt Dickerson, an UDFA the team signed last year out of UCLA; and Dee Liner, who spent the beginning of 2018 on the Chiefs’ practice squad before he was released in September. The Titans signed Liner, a space-eating nose tackle-type, to a two-year futures contract on January 1st.

The coaching staff appears to like Matt Dickerson as a developmental prospect, electing to keep him on the roster all season despite only activating him for 3 games. He flashed a little bit in the preseason last year, and for that reason I expect him to be a sleeper candidate for the final 53 yet again this summer.

Watch Matt Dickerson keep his hands active to work past the RG and take down Mason Rudolph in the third preseason game of 2018. | NFL Gamepass.

Dee Liner signed as an UDFA with the Chiefs after the 2018 draft but spent the season as a free agent before signing a futures contract with the Titans in January. Liner is far from a guarantee to make the team, but he’ll participate in the offseason program with the hopes of surviving cuts after training camp. Longtime Chiefs writer Matt Conner had this to say about Liner when he signed a couple months ago:

Liner was the heaviest player on the roster at 325 pounds, outweighing Kahlil McKenzie and Mitch Schwartz by five pounds each. His strength is his size and the Titans have to be enamored with the potential of having such a valuable space-eater up front if he can also fit well into the team’s defensive scheme. Typically such size or speed prospects are worth an offseason look, so this is a nice low-risk proposition by Jon Robinson.

As for Darius Kilgo, who is now entering his 5th NFL season, he might not even make the roster in September if the Titans address the position in the coming months. Tennessee signed Kilgo to the practice squad after he was released by the Texans following Week 2 last season. He hasn’t really managed to stick on a roster since entering the NFL in 2015.

Kilgo becomes a free agent after this season (if he makes the team at all), meaning that assuming my feelings are correct about Austin Johnson and DaQuan Jones, the Titans are currently positioned to enter the 2020 season with only three interior defensive linemen under contract: Matt Dickerson — who has appeared in 3 career games — Dee Liner, who has never actually made a 53-man roster in the NFL, and a 30-year-old Jurrell Casey.

Possible Strategies

Obviously, Jon Robinson is not going to enter the 2020 season with only two or three defensive tackles on the roster. So how might the Titans address this oft overlooked need?

Planning for the Future

To avoid relying on a rookie or overpriced free agent next year, it would be prudent to add a defensive tackle or two this offseason — ideally someone capable of supplanting Austin Johnson in the starting lineup sooner rather than later. That could mean drafting a player in April, signing another free agent before the season starts, or both.

The Titans did not appear to target any interior defensive linemen in the first wave of free agency, but the team has shown a good deal of interest in adding a difference-maker at that position for at least a couple of seasons now.

Swinging for the Fences

During the March 2017 free agency period, the Titans were big players in the sweepstakes for Brandon Williams, who ended up re-signing with the Ravens on a 5-year, $54M contract. Then last year, the Titans missed out on Ndamukong Suh when he chose to sign a one-year, $14M deal with the Los Angeles Rams over them and the Saints.

Rotating Cast of Characters

Beyond trying to hook those big fish, Robinson has routinely swapped out nose tackle-types, searching for a difference-maker to pair with Jurrell Casey and then over-paying to secure low-impact players.

In 2016, it was re-signing Al Woods to a 3-year deal. In 2017, Al Woods was cut and Sylvester Williams was signed to a 3-year contract. Last offseason, Sylvester Williams was cut and Bennie Logan was signed to a one-year deal.

Who will it be in 2019?

Building Through the Draft...?

Robinson also drafted Austin Johnson at No. 43 overall, showing that he’s not afraid to use a high pick on the position.

However, Johnson is the only draft pick Robinson has spent on the interior of the defensive line since taking over as Titans’ general manager. Other players, such as Mehdi Abdesmad and Dickerson, were added as UDFAs, while guys like Darius Kilgo and Julius Warmsley were signed after other teams released them. Robinson also traded a conditional 7th-round pick to the Chiefs for David King, who lasted one season on the roster before he was released in September.

The One Who Got Away...

One of the sadder stories of the Titans’ recent DL transactions is Antwaun Woods, who has grown into a pretty nice player for the Cowboys after the Titans released him in May of 2018. A former Titans’ UDFA, Woods spent 2016 and 2017 back and forth between the Titans’ active roster and practice squad before the Cowboys made him their starting nose tackle this season.

Remaining Free Agents

The Titans still have room to work in terms of cap space, and in fact Robinson has seemingly made a point to keep the 2019 cap hits fairly low for all the new additions. Perhaps he’s saving space to make another move?

There are a still few interesting interior defensive linemen on the market the Titans could look at in the second wave of free agency. My top targets would be the following:

Ndamukong Suh, Los Angeles Rams

The Titans couldn’t quite close the deal with Suh last offseason. Will they make another run at the superstar defensive tackle? Terrell Williams, the Titans’ defensive line coach, was Suh’s position coach in Miami from 2015-2017, and Williams reportedly loves the guy.

From 2017: Ndamukong Suh draws a double-team, which frees up Cameron Wake to exploit a one-on-one matchup on the edge. | NFL Gamepass.

I can’t help but wonder if the recent signing of Cameron Wake might have some influence on Suh’s decision. Could Suh be enticed to join his former running mate? If Suh is looking to play for a contender, perhaps Wake can convince him that Tennessee fits that description.

Robinson reportedly offered Suh a contract worth more than $14M/season last time around. What will the asking price be this year? And how soon (Suh-n?) is Suh looking to sign? He has expressed an interest in remaining on the West Coast, but if the Titans could work something out with him, Dean Pees would quite the pieces to play with.

Timmy Jernigan, Philadelphia Eagles

After a promising start to his young career in Baltimore, Jernigan was traded to Philadelphia in April of 2017. He signed a 4-year, $48M contract extension with the Eagles in November that year. But after starting 15 games in 2017, Jernigan underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back in May following the season. In his second year with the Eagles, Jernigan was limited to three regular-season games (plus two in the playoffs).

Timmy Jernigan collapses the pocket despite the double-team and gets to Drew Brees for the sack in January’s NFC Divisional Round Playoff Game. | NFL Gamepass.

Jernigan spent his first three years with Dean Pees in Baltimore after they drafted him in the 2nd round of 2014, where he totaled 13 sacks and 16 TFL. Still just 26 years old, if Jernigan is healthy, the Titans may think about reuniting him with defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

Allen Bailey, Kansas City Chiefs

Bailey just turned 30 but is coming off arguably the best season of his career. While he has traditionally been a run-stuffer since being drafted by the Chiefs in 2011, Bailey actually logged career-highs with 6 sacks and 10 quarterback hits last year.

Allen Bailey pushes the guard straight back with a powerful bull rush and devours Josh Rosen for the sack. | NFL Gamepass.

Bailey was averaging a little over $6M/year on his previous contract with Kansas City, but surpassing the age-30 threshold may suppress his price tag a bit. He could provide another veteran presence as a versatile piece on the defensive line.

Corey Liuget, Los Angeles Chargers

Another player who has dealt with unfortunate injuries is Corey Liuget. A former first-round pick of the Chargers, Liuget has spent his entire 8-year career with San Diego/Los Angeles but has missed 14 games over the past two seasons, including a four-game suspension last year for a PED violation followed by a torn quad that landed him on IR after Week 11.

Corey Liuget hits the guard with a dirty inside fake and blows past him into the backfield to drop the running back for a three-yard loss on 3rd-and-1. | NFL Gamepass.

Liuget signed a 5-year contract worth $58.5M four years ago, but the Chargers did not pick up his option for 2019, thus making him a free agent. Now at age 29, Liuget is another player that could sign a prove-it-type deal. If he stays healthy, he could prove to be a nice addition at a solid value.

Muhammad Wilkerson, Green Bay Packers

Muhammad Wilkerson has had an interesting road to free agency. The Jets selected him with the 30th overall pick in 2011, and in his first five years, he recorded multiple double-digit-sack seasons and two 2nd-team All Pro nods. Despite suffering a broken fibula at the end of 2015, the Jets re-signed Wilkerson to a mega-extension worth $86M over 5 years. He then had a down year in 2016 coming off of surgery, and the next year, things crumbled in New York.

Todd Bowles held Wilkerson out of the last three games of 2017 for disciplinary reasons, raising questions about his commitment to football when it was reported that Wilkerson had been late to multiple meetings. At the end of the season, Wilkerson was released, just two years into his five-year extension.

A year ago, he signed a one-year deal with the Packers for $5M. Unfortunately, he then suffered a gruesome ankle injury in the first half of Green Bay’s Week 3 matchup with Washington, forcing him to stay overnight at the hospital before undergoing surgery and ending his season very early.

He may be looking for a chance to show that he can still play. Also a 29-year-old veteran, it’s not impossible a team could get a healthy and motivated Muhammad Wilkerson for the upcoming season.

Rodney Gunter, Cardinals

A former fourth-round pick of the Cardinals, Rodney Gunter is a versatile defensive tackle capable of moving around a multiple-front defense like the Titans employ. Gunter has been mostly a rotational role player for Arizona, starting 15 games total in his first three years. However, he was inserted into the starting lineup for the final 10 games of 2018 and finished with career-highs in tackles (44), sacks (4.5), QB hits (12), and forced fumbles (2) despite playing less than 60 percent of the Cardinals’ defensive snaps.

Clip 1: Rodney Gunter works past the center to get to Patrick Mahomes. Clip 2: Gunter puts the moves on the right tackle and takes down Russell Wilson. | NFL Gamepass.

At 27 years old, Gunter is seeking his second NFL contract and profiles as a possible player with untapped potential given his limited role in Arizona. He could end up being an underrated signing wherever he lands.

Brent Urban, Ravens

Brent Urban is another guy who has had trouble staying healthy throughout his career, having missed 39 games compared to playing in 41 since he was drafted by the Ravens in 2014. Urban doesn’t offer much on passing downs — he has just 3.5 career sacks — but he does have familiarity with Dean Pees and is only 27 years old, so he has the possibility of joining the team as a rotational run stuffer with knowledge of the scheme.

Julius Warmsley, FA

And one more interesting “free agent” option - former Titans DL Julius Warmsley, who didn’t make it through roster cuts last September, but is currently playing for the nearby Memphis Express. Warmsley has 9 tackles and 2.5 sacks through 7 games for the Express.

Warmsley didn’t make an NFL roster in 2018, and will turn 29 years old in May... I’m not sure we’ll see him again.

Potential Draft Prospects

There are a multitude of intriguing interior defensive line prospects in the 2019 class.

Beyond Quinnen Williams and Ed Oliver (who will most likely be selected before the Titans are on the clock), here is a quick list of DL prospects who have future-NFL-starter (or better) potential: Jerry Tillery, Dre’Mont Jones, Gerald Willis III, Daniel Wise, Isaiah Buggs, Chris Slayton, Terry Beckner, Jr., Daylon Mack, Khalen Saunders, Greg Gaines, Renell Wren, Kingsley Keke, Demarcus Christmas, Dontavius Russell, Dexter Lawrence, Kevin Givens, Trysten Hill, Bert Huggins, Armon Watts, and more... Yes, it is a deep iDL class.

That said, I’m only going to focus on two prospects for the sake of this article: Christian Wilkins out of Clemson and Jeffery Simmons of Mississippi State.

Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson

Wilkins is being projected as a first-round pick by most prognosticators. He is widely considered to be the best among a deeply talented Clemson front.

We know Jon Robinson has traditionally valued production and college accolades, and in that regard, Wilkins fits the bill. In four years at Clemson, he totaled 40 tackles for loss and 16 sacks as a three-time All-American.

Clip 1: Christian Wilkins blows past the center with a nice swipe-rip and strips the quarterback. Clip 2: Wilkins throws an inside club and swims over the guard, too quick for the help, and gets to the quarterback for a sack.

I mentioned the recent tour of the mock drafts earlier that saw five “experts” select a defensive tackle for the Titans at pick 19. I should clarify that all five of those picks were specifically Christian Wilkins.

The Titans met with Wilkins during the combine, both formally and informally, and at Clemson’s Pro Day, Mike Vrabel was on the field putting Wilkins through positional drills.

There was a similar video that came out around this time last year showing Mike Vrabel working with Rashaan Evans at Alabama’s Pro Day. Of course the Titans went on to trade up for Evans in the first round of the 2018 draft. Could this be a sign of things to come?

I expect the Titans’ first pick to address either the offensive or defensive line. If Jon Robinson has a plan for the offensive side, Wilkins is a viable option at No. 19.

Jeffery Simmons, DT, Mississippi State

Jeffery Simmons is a rather unique prospect on multiple levels. First and foremost is the rumor that the notoriously tight-lipped Titans were “in love” with Simmons early on in the draft process, an unusual thing to hear about any player in the Jon Robinson era. Take a listen...

Miller says it was the “worst kept secret in the draft industry that the Tennessee Titans loved Jeffery Simmons” and that they “were really hoping that the video tape would push him down the board” before he tore his ACL.

Of course, there’s no telling if this is a rumor the Titans intentionally spread as a smokescreen or if they actually love Simmons, but it is interesting information nonetheless.

Miller brings up the other two points that make Simmons such a unique prospect. First, he recently tore his ACL training for the combine, which will cause him to miss most (if not all) of his rookie season.

For comparison, cornerback Sidney Jones was a projected first-round pick a couple of years ago until he tore his achilles at Washington’s Pro Day. The injury didn’t cause Jones to fall too far though — the Eagles scooped him up at pick No. 43 overall. Based on that recent example, Simmons has a good chance of going before the Titans’ second-round pick despite the injury.

However, there is one other factor that could cause some teams to take Simmons off their draft boards entirely, and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about...

But if you’re not aware, the “video tape” mentioned above in the quote from Matt Miller refers to an incident from March of 2016, back when Simmons was a senior in high school.

I’m going to spend a bit of time explaining the context of this situation because the Titans reportedly “loved” him before he tore his ACL, so I think it’s important to closely examine his background.

And we should also note the difference in how teams are reportedly viewing Simmons compared to someone like Preston Williams of Colorado State, who allegedly shoved a former girlfriend multiple times during an argument in 2017 and followed that up by violating his restraining order three weeks later, for which Williams was arrested.

Apparently, the Simmons incident began as a fight between Simmons’ younger sister and another woman. In fact, based on Facebook comments and forum posts, it appears that the two families had been fighting for some time. This particular incident started as a verbal dispute but quickly escalated into a physical altercation.

Simmons initially jumped in to break up the fight. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but reports are that the woman made an insulting comment about Simmons’ deceased nephews — his sister’s sons — angering Simmons and prompting him to hit the woman multiple times. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of simple assault and was found guilty of malicious mischief.

Simmons issued an apology via Facebook shortly after the incident occurred:

Where do I start? Where do I begin? Wow! ... I take full responsibility for my actions that occurred on Thursday evening. My apology goes out to the Taylor Family and especially to Sophia Taylor. What was I thinking? Honestly, I wasn’t thinking, all I could think was this is my family and I am supposed to defend my family. Many know my deceased nephews were my pride and joy, I do everything I do in honor of the life they never got the chance to live, and to listen to someone speak so terrible about them really caused me to make choices, decisions and act in a manner that was out of character for me. Is that an excuse?... NO! I truly hope that you will find it in your hearts to forgive me for my actions. (Excerpted from Simmons’ Facebook, March 26, 2016)

If you’re curious to see the video, here’s the link. Warning: it’s ugly.

Before I go further, let me be clear that there is no excuse for Simmons’ disgusting actions. Violence of any kind is unacceptable. That said, by all accounts, this incident was very much, as he puts it, “out of character” for Simmons.

This video obviously put his status with the Bulldogs in jeopardy. Mississippi State’s athletic director at the time, Scott Stricklin, decided to travel to Macon, Georgia, Simmons’ hometown, to investigate. He spoke with the people in the community, his school leaders, and even members of his church, to learn more about the 18-year-old’s past. Stricklin spoke of his findings in a press conference:

“Based on conversations our staff has had with school, community and church leaders in Noxubee County, this incident appears to be uncharacteristic of Jeffery... We expect the structure and discipline Jeffery will be a part of in our football program to benefit him. Jeffery will be held accountable for his actions while at MSU, and there will be consequences for any future incidents.”

Sadly, it’s not surprising that an athletic director would investigate on behalf of his 5-star recruit, and of course it’s possible that Simmons was given a second chance because of his abilities on the football field. That said, Simmons has been credited with working hard to turn his image around.

After serving a one-game suspension, he finished his first full semester with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Simmons represented Mississippi State at the Black Student-Athlete Summit in Austin in January of 2018, he made the SEC Academic Honor Roll twice, and he won Mississippi State’s Newsom Award in the spring of 2018 for his combined work on the field, in the community, and in the classroom. On Simmons’ official bio page on the Hail State site, he is described as a “team leader in community service.”

Justin Strawn, who covers Mississippi State sports for Fansided, had this to say about Simmons when he was awarded the C-Spire Conerly Trophy, recognizing the best player in the state of Mississippi each season, earlier this year:

Since that awful incident in March of 2016, the only thing Simmons could do was to be a model student and citizen. There’s nothing he will ever be able to do to make that moment go away, but he had the choice to not let this one moment become the moment that defines him throughout his life and football career. Jeffery Simmons has done just that. Simmons has been an honor student in the classroom, and there has not been one whiff of trouble in his three seasons as a Bulldog.

It can be argued whether or not Simmons deserved to be given a “second chance” in the first place, but regardless of where you stand on that issue, we should all agree that Simmons made the most of his opportunity.

The above context is important in understanding why and how the Titans — who have placed a premium on “character” under Jon Robinson’s tenure — would be so in love with a guy like Simmons despite his past. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after leaving no stone unturned, the front office concluded that Simmons has no red flags or character concerns to be worried about.

To further that point, take a listen to this clip from the March 14 episode of the Official Titans Podcast (OTP), when Mike Keith and Amie Wells spoke with Jim Wyatt and coach Dave McGinnis about the defensive linemen in this draft. The group gushed over both Christian Wilkins and Jeffery Simmons. Here’s the audio excerpted from that podcast...

Purely from his play on the field, it’s quite easy to see why teams love what Simmons can do. In his last two seasons at Mississippi State, he recorded 30 tackles for loss and 7 sacks. In addition to the above-mentioned awards, his page on the team site lists the following achievements:

2018 Bednarik Award Semifinalist; 2018 Conerly Trophy Winner (top player in Mississippi); 2018 Second-Team All-American (AP, The Athletic); 2018 Fourth-Team All-American (Phil Steele); 2018 First-Team All-SEC (AP, Coaches); 2018 ESPN All-Bowl Team; 2018 SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (vs. Ole Miss); 2017 First-Team All-SEC (AP, Coaches, PFF); 2017 Bednarik Award Semifinalist; 2017 SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week (x2, vs. LA Tech, LSU); 2017 SEC Academic Honor Roll; 2016 SEC All-Freshman Team (Coaches); 2016 SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll.

Clip 1: Jeffery Simmons swims by the guard and pushes through the tackle to take down the running back for a loss. Clip 2: Simmons throws a club-rip combo at the center and bends inside to take down the quarterback. (Don’t be afraid to switch that above GIF from “SD” to “HD”)

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but the Titans’ own media staff talking up interior defensive linemen could be a clue about the kinds of conversations that are taking place at Titans HQ.

Regardless, I do think Simmons is in play for the Titans at No. 19 overall or after a trade down.

What Will Jon Robinson Do?

Robinson has lots of options at his disposal.

Ultimately, I expect the Titans to add multiple players to the mix sometime over the next few weeks, including a possible free agent, a draft pick, and probably some guys to compete in training camp. I would be shocked if Tennessee came out of the draft empty-handed along the defensive line.

Most interesting to me is will the Titans spend a first-round pick here or wait until later to address the position? That, of course, is to be determined...