Starting jobs wide open at linebacker for Titans
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans have stocked up on linebackers this offseason, and they’re letting them compete to see who wins starting jobs in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s defense.
They signed veterans Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard in free agency, added the linebacker designation to defensive ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley.
They also turned up the pressure on recent draft picks Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown and Colin McCarthy to show what they can do in a group that will be using four linebackers a lot.
Ayers and Brown started last season along with Moises Fokou and the Titans used a 4-3 defense featuring three linebackers.
“As far as the slotting of different positions, that’s going to be up to these guys,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said Wednesday. “I’ve said before we’ve had a lot of plays out there, so we’re getting a lot of information on them. And we’ll have a basis for how we’re going to start out (training camp), but it’s going to be in flux depending on how guys play.”
Now Phillips and Woodyard have an edge based on experience and the multi-year deals they signed in March.
Phillips is a 10-year veteran with 79 1/2 sacks over the past decade in the NFL, including 10 last year for Denver. Woodyard was a six-time team captain in Denver with experienced playing both the 3-4 and 4-3 as an inside linebacker.
Phillips signed with Tennessee knowing the style of defense Horton uses and the chance to go back to playing more 3-4 as an outside linebacker. He also knows Horton loves to chase quarterbacks, which Phillips loves to do.
All the additions make for a very crowded meeting room with 15 linebackers counting Morgan and Wimbley.
“It’s great because it allows friendly competition, healthy competition, and that’s what you want because that’s how you get better,” Phillips said. “There should be no animosity, there should be no beef.”
The Titans haven’t completely switched to a 3-4 defense in Whisenhunt’s first season. No matter how many linebackers are on the field, they need more big plays from the unit. The linebackers combined for only six sacks and just three interceptions last season with both Ayers and Brown playing all 16 games.
Brown was pulled from a game late last season and demoted from practicing with the starters. A second-round pick out of North Carolina in 2012, Brown ranked second on the team with 117 tackles and had four of the sacks by linebackers.
But Whisenhunt said Brown didn’t play fast at times last season and is being pressured to do better this season.
“You don’t react to things quickly you’re not going to play fast,” Whisenhunt said. “You’re going to end up watching the game instead of reacting to it.”
Ayers had only 56 tackles with one sack and one interception, but the second-round pick in 2011 out of UCLA was playing on bad knees. He had surgery this offseason to repair both of his patellar tendons with doctors fixing first his right in January followed by his left six weeks later.
His recovery has limited him this offseason, though Ayers is expected to be fully ready for training camp.
Once fully healthy, the Titans are looking for more production and consistency from the 6-foot-3, 253-pound linebacker once expected to be a star for this team for years to come.
That’s fine with Ayers who said earlier this month that it’s an even playing field with a new defense and coaches promising the best will play.
“We have everybody out here competing because everybody wants to be a starter,” Ayers said. “It’s making us better as a defense.”
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