We continue our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the offseason with a look at the defensive ends.
Will the Titans ever be happy with their defensive end grouping? As Andrew wrote last offseason, two (now three) years ago, defensive end was the biggest offseason need, and the Titans addressed the position in the first round of the NFL draft. It was one of the biggest needs of last offseason, and the Titans addressed the position with a big money free agent contract (and in the draft as well, albeit at the end of the draft).
By at least one measure, the defensive end grouping was much improved in 2012. Both starting defensive ends had more sacks than any defensive end did in 2011, and the Titans went from the second-worst Adjusted Sack Rate in the league to a league-average one. At the same time, the big free agent was widely regarded as somewhere between a bit of a disappointment and an outright bust, and there's still something of a need at the position.
The free agent disappointment was, of course, Kamerion Wimbley. Signed to a five year, $35 million contract after the Raiders released him, the 2006 first-round pick was converted to a defensive end after spending much of his career playing with his hand up as an outside linebacker in base personnel packages and only playing defensive end with his hand in the dirt in sub package situations. For the Titans, he lined up with his hand in the dirt all but a very modest number of his 911 total snaps (81% of the total).
The move to full-time defensive end did not seem to improve Wimbley's results as a pass rusher. His 6.0 sacks were fewer than the 7.0 he had for the Raiders last offseason playing a mix of strongside linebacker and defensive end, and was his lowest total since 2008. By team statistics, he had 38 totals (18 solo). That's an average of just over one solo tackle a game and fewer overall tackles than, for instance, defensive tackle Mike Martin, who played over 480 fewer snaps. That's not very many. His invisibility was particularly apparent on run downs, and it's reflected in the Titans' run defense numbers. Opponents ran more often to their left, the Titans' right, where Wimbley regularly lined up, and had more success doing so.
Should this have been much of a surprise? My expectations for Wimbley's contributions were relatively muted. A more moderate-sized end, listed at 255 pounds, he didn't seem like he'd be stout against the run, and I didn't think he really was. As I wrote about Wimbley last offseason, he's a pure outside speed rusher, overly reliant on his shoulder dip move and without too much of an effective counter. He can have the occasional successful rush against them, but he tends to get shut out by offensive tackles with the kickstep to handle that move while dominating those who cannot. By this point in his career, I don't expect him to change who he is. Due $4 million in salary, $2 million of which is fully guaranteed, there's no chance he's not on the roster this year. That means it will be on Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams to use him more effectively if he is to have a better 2013 than 2012.
The other starting defensive end was Derrick Morgan. Like Wimbley, he played an overwhelming majority of the time (914 snaps, 81% of the time). He had the best season of his young career in 2012, leading the team with 6.5 sacks. I named him the Titans' defensive MVP and their biggest surprise as well. The Titans credited him with 59 tackles (35 solo). In addition to his 6.5 sacks, he had 19 quarterback hits and a similarly large number of hurries. In some sense, those ancillary numbers suggest perhaps he should have had more than the 6.5 sacks he got, though maybe he just doesn't have a great closing burst. Then again, maybe not; he created some sacks he didn't get, while at the same time getting some sacks he didn't earn (like approximately every player does).
Even after 2012's greater success, I'm not sure Morgan will ever be a great pass rusher. At the same time, though, he took the leap forward from being a bad pass rusher for a starter to being certainly at least a qualified one. Combining that with his stronger run defense, the result is a player the Titans will probably happily let play 80% or so of the defensive snaps once again in 2013.
Sorting out who was the third defensive end in 2012 is kind of tricky, which was one of the reasons both Morgan and Wimbley played more than any other front seven player. Rookie seventh-round pick Scott Solomon played the next-most snaps, 168 over the 13 games he was active. He didn't have much of an impact, with the Titans crediting him with 9 tackles (3 solo) and not really anything in terms of pass rush production. After playing 31 snaps against the Chargers and 22 the next week in the marathon 96 snap game against the Lions, he didn't play more than 16 snaps in any subsequent game. His production and play were very much like that of a fourth defensive end, and I don't see him as much more than that for 2013. I'm not in love with him as a run defender, and with Wimbley as a starter, the Titans don't have much need for a Klug-like player in that fourth spot. Maybe they like him more than I think they do, but I can't think he's a major part of any plans.
The defensive end spot other than Solomon was a bit of a revolving door. Keyunta Dawson started the year as the other backup defensive end, playing almost exclusively RDE for Wimbley in the wide role before he went on injured reserve after Week 3. Set to be a free agent this offseason, I can't see him back with the Titans in 2013.
Pannel Egboh, more of an end/tackle tweener, was Dawson's immediate successor as the other defensive end, lasted six games, playing 53 snaps, before the Titans released him and picked up Jarius Wynn. Like Egboh, he's more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher, though he did pick up 2.0 sacks. After not playing much his first couple games, he had most of his 124 total snaps in the final five games, playing 26% of the time in those contests. Set to be a free agent, I think it's possible the Titans try to retain him for the right, modest price to fill the same early down run-stopping role he played late in 2012. More likely, though, I think they may look at another, probably better player to fill that role, with Wynn as a Plan B to that.
Leger Douzable seemed to be a candidate for that third defensive end run-stuffer spot, but a preseason shoulder injury sent him to injured reserve. Set to be a free agent, I doubt the Titans look to sign him. Then again, he's been doing videos for the official site, so you never know.
Dave Ball also spent the entire season on injured reserve with yet another concussion. He may still want to play, but with his concussion history, I doubt he finds a team willing to take the plunge, and really can't see the Titans being the team to do so.
Thaddeus Gibson spent most of the 2012 on the practice squad and was signed to a futures contract after the season. A 2010 fourth-round pick out of Ohio State by the Steelers as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he's also been with the 49ers, Redskins, Texans, and Bears. He may be a candidate for Solomon's DE4 edge rusher role. He seems to have the athletic ability to play that role well, but his brief and well-traveled NFL experience suggests there's good reason to suspect he'll never do anything.
The two starters, Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan, are in place. Both should play significant roles in 2013 again. There are some candidates for a DE4 edge rusher role. There's a huge gaping hole at DE3, for a player better against the run than Wimbley who could play a modest to significant role in the defense. We saw Jarius Wynn fill this role a bit late in 2012, playing about 25% of the time. I think this player could play even more than that in some games next year. This could be Wynn again, but I think the Titans could look for a better player, more likely a more accomplished veteran though possibly a draft pick with more total potential,
That said, given their modest results from their investment in Wimbley, it's possible the Titans could think defensive end is a much more significant need. With Morgan a quality starter and Wimbley earning big dollars, I don't expect the Titans to look to add a big-dollar edge rusher in free agency again. They might, though, look to the draft for an edge rusher with great potential. This could happen as early as the tenth pick with a player like Barkevious Mingo. In that case, I think their fourth defensive tackle is likelier to be a cheaper run-stuffer like Wynn. In my mind, this is less likely than the former scenario, but I have to acknowledge it's possible.
In either case, I expect the Titans to invest at least some resources in improving the defensive end grouping this offseason. Maybe, then, next offseason, we can write something about how the Titans are actually pretty happy with their defensive ends for a change.