The Titans head into the 2018 season under a defensive-minded head coach for the first time since coming to Tennessee under Jeff Fisher.
After general manager Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel came together and decided to move on from legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who helped stabilize a unit which had steadily struggled before his arrival, the Titans were tasked with finding someone to take over an average defense and make it above average. In a surprisingly fantastic move, Tennessee was able to lure former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees away from his brief stint of retirement.
Pees’ defenses in Baltimore, as well as in New England, were ranked in the top half on the league regularly as an attacking 3-4. The direction of the new scheme is great news for Titans fans because the current defensive roster may just need a tweek or two from hitting the ground running without much of a transitional period. However, the defensive side of the ball is aging and has several areas in need of a youthful boost. Heading into their first offseason under the Vrabel regime, the Titans should focus on upgrading the following areas.
While the pass rush from the edge in 2017 wasn’t a problem for the Titans, the production from Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan dipped from a year earlier. Orakpo, 31, saw his sack totals drop by 3.5 and his tackles drop by eight, while Morgan, 29, also saw his sack number (7.5) drop by 1.5 and his tackle totals fall by eight.
Both Orakpo, who has a cap hit of $9 million, and Morgan, who has a cap hit of nearly
$8.44 million, are in the final years of their contract. Though neither player would have more than a $1.5 million total in dead cap if cut, it would be hard to imagine either player suiting up for a new team in 2018 because of the lack of depth.
Kevin Dodd has not lived up to his second-round draft status in his first two seasons and shouldn’t instill much hope in the incoming coaching staff for future production. Look for Tennessee to draft an edge rusher in the first two rounds of the upcoming draft, someone they see as a starter as early as 2019. Signing a premier pass rusher in free agency is also a possibility, though building the position through the draft is much more likely given Orakpo’s and Morgan’s veteran presence on the roster.
Inside linebacker Avery Williamson is an enigma for Titans fans. While he graded out fairly well (85.6 overall) with Pro Football Focus as the top ILB on the roster, garnering a 90.1 grade against the run and 66.5 against the pass, he often found himself on the wrong side of game-changing plays during crunch time. Williamson is an unrestricted free agent and could very well price himself out of Tennessee.
Wesley Woodyard, 31, has two years remaining on his contract, which carries a cap hit of $4.25 million in 2018 and $3.5 million in 2019, none of which is guaranteed. Though Woodyard graded out as an average inside linebacker last season, 78.5 overall, his production has been solid considering his team-friendly contract.
Tennessee must find a starting inside linebacker in free agency as well as addressing the position in the draft. Woodyard isn’t getting any younger, which could leave the Titans in trouble down the road if they don’t draft a player they can mold behind the veteran this season.
Robinson made it a point to address the cornerback position last offseason after signing Logan Ryan away from New England and drafting Adoree Jackson in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Jackson improved throughout the season in the return game and on defense, showing the skillset of a future starter for years to come. Though he didn’t have any electric returns in the kick game, he certainly boosted the unit with consistency while finishing with an 82.3 grade at corner, per PFF.
While Ryan was average last year, finished with a grade of 74, he looked much better in the slot. LeShaun Sims has been up and down and may be best served as the fourth cornerback on the roster. Tennessee has options as to where they want to upgrade the position. The Titans should be in the market to sign a starting-caliber corner to either start opposite of Jackson on the outside, the more expensive route, and force Ryan into the slot, or go the cheaper path and sign a nickel corner to handle the slot and allow Jackson and Ryan to handle the outside. Expect Tennessee to take a cornerback in the middle rounds of the draft to develop him and build younger depth.