State of the Titans Entering the Draft: Defense

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For all of the questions the Titans have on offense, the defense seems to be the rock of this team. Tennessee ranked eighth in the league last year in yards allowed per game and third in points allowed per game. The defense stepped up and was a large reason why the Titans had their third consecutive winning season. Now, the unit, on paper, looks like it should continue to be dominant in 2019. With Dean Pees returning at defensive coordinator and almost all of the Titans’ key defensive players staying in Nashville, there shouldn’t be any issues.

However, there are some places where the defense is thin. The Titans signed Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo to four-year contracts in 2015. They were the core of the Tennessee pass rush for a few years, but haven’t been productive since and both have moved on. This leaves Tennessee with a gaping hole on the edge. The team struggled to get after quarterbacks last season. Tennessee had 39 sacks, but half of them came from their inside linebackers or secondary. The Titans need to be able to generate pressure without blitzing. Losing their two most experienced pass rushers won’t help that effort.

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There are a lot of things that will stay constant on the defensive side of the ball this season, but the Titans have some questions to answer in the front seven. There should be a heavy focus there in the draft.

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Defensive Line

When people think of the Titans’ defensive front, they’re thinking, ‘Jurrell Casey and who?’ That has been the way the line has looked for years. Casey has five or more sacks in his last six seasons, including a team-leading seven last year. However, he can’t do it all by himself. Daquan Jones lines up on the opposite side of Casey on most snaps, but hasn’t been consistent since being drafted out of Penn State in 2014. He has just six sacks in his five NFL seasons, 3.5 of which came in 2017. He didn’t get to the quarterback at all in 2018 despite starting every game. Jones was just extended last season, and will most likely be the starter there again this year. He needs to prove himself or he may not be a Titan in 2020.

The third position along the line is up in the air. The nose tackle position has been a revolving door in recent years. Sly Williams was signed away from Denver a few years ago, but never produced. Bennie Logan was signed last year, but was almost non-existent. Austin Johnson was drafted in the second round in 2016, but hasn’t proved that he can be consistent at the position. General manager Jon Robinson will be looking to add a draft pick to this group in a few weeks. Whether he drafts a 3-4 end to rotate with Jones or a big tackle to plug up the middle, this group will be addressed in the draft.

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Outside Linebacker

On offense, the one gaping hole was at interior offensive line. On defense, that hole is right here. Orakpo and Morgan weren’t great by any means last year, with only two sacks between them, but they were on the field a lot. Drafting Harold Landry in the second round last year helps cushion the loss of the two veterans, but Tennessee needs depth. Robinson added Cameron Wake to the group in free agency, but at 37, he will be used as a situational pass-rusher. Outside of Landry and Wake, former Raven Kamalei Correa and undrafted free agent Sharif Finch round out the rotation. This group is not going to scare Andrew Luck, Nick Foles, and Deshaun Watson.

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Tennessee needs to add a running mate for Landry in the draft. If Robinson can grab one of the top pass-rushers in the class with the 19th pick, he should run the ticket to the podium. A first-round selection this year and Landry can be a dangerous duo in the AFC South for years. With Wake coming in on third down, this would be a solid group rushing the passer and the sack numbers would go up.

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Inside Linebacker

The final three positions on this list do not need to be addressed in the draft. This position is the deepest on the roster and this group will most likely be the same come September. Last year’s first round pick Rashaan Evans will be must-see TV next season. He struggled with hamstring injuries early in the season, but looked like an emerging star in December. Evans will have the benefit of learning from captain Wesley Woodyard for another year in the middle of the defense. Woodyard led the team in tackles again last year and seems to only be getting stronger with age.

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Let’s not forget Jayon Brown. The 2016 fifth-round pick was a play-maker last year. He was second in the team in tackles, sacks, and tackles for loss in 2018. Brown is emerging as a steal and will look to continue to make plays in 2019. These three will anchor the middle of the defense and are going to be crucial to the defense staying dominant this season. Robinson will likely leave this position as is with the depth that he has. Woodyard will probably be phased out with the younger guys getting more reps. However, all three are going to be fun to watch in 2019.

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Cornerbacks

For some reason, many experts continue to mock cornerbacks to the Titans early in the draft. However, this is a very deep position group. Malcolm Butler was just signed to a big deal last year and although he struggled early, he finished strong last season. Butler will be starting on the outside for Tennessee again in 2019. On the opposite side, former first-round pick Adoree Jackson continues to make strides. He needs to stop returning punts, but his coverage skills improved once again in 2018. Butler and Jackson are a solid outside cornerback tandem and should only get better if the pass-rush improves this season.

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The most under appreciated player on the roster has to be Logan Ryan. Since signing with the Titans after the 2016 season, Ryan has been one of the more consistent nickel cornerbacks in the league. He shuts down slot receivers and has been able to play outside when necessary. The top three cornerbacks on this roster are just as good as any other group in the NFL. Ryan may be a free agent after this season, but there is no reason to spend a high draft pick on this position.

A large reason for that is the depth the Titans have behind the top three. Leshaun Sims was a starter for Tennessee in 2017 and was a quality starter. Sims may not be a top-end cornerback in this league, but he is a great fourth cornerback. Behind him, Tye Smith has proven he can be a solid coverage corner in the league. He missed all of last year with an injury, but now the Titans have all of their cornerback depth back. Robinson may look to address this position on day three of the draft, but there isn’t a need.

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Defensive Titan

Safety

The first move that Robinson made in free agency was resigning Kenny Vaccaro. When Johnathan Cyprien tore his ACL in training camp, Vaccaro was brought in and he stole the strong safety job. He now is half of one of the better safety tandems in football with Kevin Byard. The two complement each other well and both can play in the box or back deep. Safety should not even enter the mind of Robinson on the first two days of the draft this month. However, there isn’t a lot of depth behind the top two. Cyprien was injured last season and it’s possible a need could emerge again with an injury.

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Dane Cruikshank was drafted on day three last year and should be a solid back-up option. However, behind him there is just about nothing. Tennessee is in a position where they can take the best player available and if there is a solid safety on the board early on day three, it wouldn’t hurt to have more depth. Overall, safety is a strength in Nashville and Byard and Vaccaro could emerge as the best safety duo in the NFL by the end of the year.

Overall

With a couple of additions to the front seven, this defense looks like one of the top units in football. Rushing the passer is a concern right now, but with a couple more pieces, it could evolve into a strength. Tennessee is set on the back-end of the defense and should be one of the better passing defenses in football. They will need to be with the quarterbacks that are in the AFC South. Between the offense and defense, the defense is definitely the stronger of the two. Pees and Mike Vrabel are great defensive coaches and will have this unit ready. The key will be staying healthy and on the field and this defense will be one of the best in the league.

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