The Tennessee Titans defense may not be getting an extreme makeover this offseason, but it is safe to say that it is getting an upgrade and an overhaul in certain areas.
The Titans have made no secret of the fact that they need to improve a pass rush that ranked 31st overall last season, even going so far as to hire Keith Millard as an assistant coach to specifically work as a pass-rush specialist.
Tennessee has plenty of work to do on the back end of the defense as well, and new general manager Ruston Webster made no secret of the fact that he would like to find at least one more young linebacker to go with mike linebacker Colin McCarthy and sam linebacker Akeem Ayers, who both wound up starting as rookies and playing pretty well.
About the only place that won't be getting some sort of makeover on defense is defensive tackle, and that is because it underwent major changes last year. Rookies Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey quickly established themselves as solid players, who should only get better with more experience and a full off-season to learn Jerry Gray's system. Veteran Shaun Smith was also brought in as part of the package, but was somewhat of a disappointment in his first year on the Titans roster.
At end, the Titans have free agents in Dave Ball, William Hayes and Jason Jones. Of that trio, the Titans are trying hardest to bring back Jones, but it may be as a pass-rush tackle more so than as an end. Hayes is probably out the door, though Ball might come back on a veteran minimum deal if his balky back allows him to play.
The player the Titans are waiting to show big things is end Derrick Morgan, who played a full season coming back from ACL surgery in his rookie year of 2010. Morgan was a first-round pick, taken one choice after the New York Giants rolled the dice on a project with upside named Jason Pierre-Paul.
Needless to say, due to injuries and other factors, Morgan has not come close to being the dominant player Pierre-Paul has become. Morgan was considered far more NFL ready coming out of Georgia Tech, but the setbacks now have him at a crossroads already in his career.
It's the major reason the Titans may have to spend another pick on a defensive end or even tinkering with the thought of making a rare splash on a difference-maker in free agency - say on a Mario Williams or Dwight Freeney, should either reach the open market.
There is work to be done in the secondary as well where three starters are free agents. Cortland Finnegan might well price himself out of the Titans' future plans if he wants 10 million a season, and Tennessee does not franchise him. Safety Michael Griffin, who has had his ups and downs, is also a player the Titans have to make a decision on regarding long-term plans. Right now, the most likely of the three starters to return is newcomer Jordan Babineaux, who signed a one-year deal after the lockout and led the team in tackles.
It is all part of how Webster, coach Mike Munchak and the Titans decide to rework a puzzle for a defense that has been solid, but unspectacular now for a number of years and needs a true difference-maker to build around.
The Titans locked up a pair of role players who were scheduled to be free agents next month. Tennessee agreed to a new 3.2 million contract with backup tackle Mike Otto that included a 750,000 signing bonus. Otto is the third tackle behind starters Michael Roos and David Stewart.
In addition to that, the Titans also re-signed wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins to a three-year contract extension. TitanInsider.com reported that Hawkins' deal was worth 7.2 million, and included a 2 million signing bonus. Hawkins had just 19 career catches entering 2011, but blossomed with 47 receptions in 2011, stepping up when Kenny Britt was injured.
The Titans also signed a street free agent, bringing in a local product in DT Lamar Divens, who played college football first at Vanderbilt and then at Tennessee State, both of which are in Nashville. Divens also played high school football at Lincoln County in Tennessee. He has spent time on the Baltimore Ravens roster, but ended 2011 out of the NFL.
Former Seahawks LB Lofa Tatupu, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who was out of the league last season, visited the Titans as he tries to get back into the NFL. Tatupu, who also visited the New Orleans Saints prior to the Titans, is a middle linebacker, and if he came to Tennessee would be a reserve behind Colin McCarthy.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We expect to have him out there for training camp. The good thing about his injury, if there is a good thing, is it happened early, and he's a very strong young and bounces back very quickly. We're hoping and planning to have him back for training camp." - Titans GM Ruston Webster on WR Kenny Britt's knee injury.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Titans took steps toward bringing back a pair of role players when they re-signed T Mike Otto to a two-year contract worth 3.2 million. Otto was the top backup to starters Michael Roos and David Stewart last season.
Also, the Titans brought back wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins with a three-year contract worth 7.2 million. The deal contains a 2 million bonus, and whittled the number of free agents the Titans have to 15.
Tennessee also has had talks with DL Jason Jones and S Jordan Babineaux about a possible return, in addition to special teams linebackers Tim Shaw and Patrick Bailey.