Linebacker surplus should help Titans' transition to 3-4 defense
JUN 02, 2014 6:18p ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- They might need to add a few more seats to the crowded Titans linebackers room.
Two free-agent signees, one draft pick and two position changes -- plus the return of a slew of veterans -- has the competition for linebacker roster spots shaping up to be the tightest on the team.
So it goes for the Titans as they transition from a 4-3 basic defensive set to a 3-4 look that adds another linebacker to the middle and has three linemen.
"I don't think you ever have enough," said Whisenhunt of depth at linebacker following Monday's Organized Team Activity session. "You just never know how it is going to go. We're trying to give everybody an equal amount of reps, so we can assess them as well as trying to get work for everybody.
"It's a good problem to have."
That development and assessment on the practice field occur twice more this week (Tuesday and Thursday) and four times next week (Monday-Thursday), as the Titans wrap up 10 voluntary OTA sessions over a three-week period.
After a mandatory minicamp on June 17-19, the Titans break until training camp in late July.
"We have a lot of good football players," said linebackers coach Lou Spanos of his position group. "We are trying to put our best players in the best positions. It's good having OTAs now, experimenting and trying out different players."
One part of the experimentation: Transitioning returning veterans Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley from defensive end to outside linebacker. Each defender has experience playing the position in college and/or the pros; and the change has been so far, so good, although the team will not go to full pads and contact until training camp.
"I've done it before in the past," said Wimbley, who once transitioned from defensive end out of Florida State to outside linebacker his first few years in the NFL (Cleveland Browns). "Getting back to it is not anything too uncomfortable."
Playing defensive end for the Titans in their 4-3, Wimbley's production went from six sacks in 2012 to only three last season. But Wimbley re-signed with Tennessee and can play both defensive end and outside linebacker -- the latter being better suited to his 6-foot-4, 258-pound frame.
"I feel very good out there moving around, dropping back into coverage and rushing from a two-point stance," Wimbley said. "So, being outside linebacker as opposed to a straight (defensive) lineman, of course you are going to have more drops than rushing out of a two-point stance. But I feel comfortable doing either or."
Free agent signee Shaun Phillips can relate to Wimbley's transition. After playing outside linebacker for the Chargers for nine seasons, he helped the Broncos make the Super Bowl last year with 10 sacks at defensive end.
Phillips is expected to return to outside linebacker for the Titans.
"(There are) pros and cons," Phillips said of playing the two positions. "Not about the defense, but about what I do best. When I was at Denver, I played defensive end and had to pass rush all the time, which is great.
"But I enjoy being able to stand up as a linebacker because I get to see what's going on. I feel like I can make more plays in the pass game, in the run game and in the rush."
Moise Fokou and Colin McCarthy are two holdovers at linebacker. But it's uncertain how they will fit into the new defensive scheme that places similar responsibilities on the position ... and has different nuances between the two middle slots in the 3-4 set.
One of the middle linebacker slots appears headed to veteran Wesley Woodyard, also a free-agent signee who played for the Broncos the past six seasons. Last year, he had 83 tackles after leading Denver in stops in 2012 (114).
"The middle guy, he has to be first a tremendous leader," Spanos said. "He has to be verbal. He is the quarterback on defense. He has to know everyone's responsibilities and all the checks we have.
"The middle âbacker, he's the tone setter."
Three other Titans returnees -- Zach Brown, Akeem Ayers and Zaviar Gooden -- are also in the mix at linebacker. Brown was second on the team last year with a career-high 117 tackles; Ayers was third on the team two years ago in tackles; and Gooden proved a solid special teams player last year as a rookie and appears ready to take a step up.
"We have to stop the run, first and foremost," Spanos said of outside linebacking attributes. "They have to be able to stop the run and then rush the passer. We also ask our guys to be athletic, too. We want them to be a football player."
The Titans also drafted Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson, who led the SEC in tackles (6th nationally) as a junior. The fifth-round pick had 296 tackles in 48 career games for the Wildcats.
"That's good. That adds competition," Phillips said of the linebacking depth. "I think healthy competition is good. The great thing about our linebacker room is that everyone gets along.
"Usually, it's like some type of friction, that somebody is behind somebody, and everyone thinks they're the best player. That's just the way it is. We've got a bunch of guys that help each other."
With the coaching change at the top, each player gets a fresh start with the new regime.
"Everyone gets a fair chance," Phillips said. "The coaches made a point that they are going to play their best players. And that's what we are doing right now. There are four (linebacker) groups right now because everyone has to get reps somewhere.
"But nobody's worried about that right now. Everybody is worried about learning the defense and making plays, and thatâs whatâs most important."