Last week I identified three main areas of need for the Tennessee Titans in the 2019 offseason. These areas include the secondary, outside linebacker/ edge rusher, and interior offensive linemen. For this piece, I will focus on the Titans’ need of a 3-4 outside linebacker that can double as an edge rusher.
The retirement of Brian Orakpo has opened a large hole on the right side of the Tennessee Titans defense. It is also worth noting that Derek Morgan is an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Morgan, who will be 33 years old for the upcoming NFL season, may return on a one-year deal or may test free agency. Meanwhile, rookie Harold Landry was outstanding in 2018 and proved to be an excellent complement to veteran defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. The Titans are robust in the middle of the defense with promising rookie seasons from linebackers Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans.
The good news for the Titans is that they will have a plethora of options to fill these defensive holes. If they decide to spend the money on a free agent, here is a list of potential 3-4 outside linebackers (and their ages) set to hit free agency in 2019:
Potential 2019 Free Agent OLB/DE
- Jadeveon Clowney – Houston Texans (age 26)
- Dee Ford – Kansas City Chiefs (age 28)
- Preston Smith – Washington Redskins (age 26)
- Za’Darius Smith – Baltimore Ravens (age 26)
- Shaq Barrett – Denver Broncos (age 26)
- Aaron Lynch – Chicago Bears (age 26)
- Terrell Suggs – Baltimore Ravens (age 36)
- Clay Matthews – Green Bay Packers (age 33)
Based solely on their ages, the Titans are unlikely to kick the tires on Suggs or Matthews, regardless of their production in the twilight of their careers. If the Titans wanted to try to sign a veteran on a 1-year deal, I see that veteran being Derek Morgan. From the list mentioned above, I think the best and most realistic option for the Titans’ defense would be Preston Smith and Shaq Barrett. Neither player will cost as much as Clowney or Ford. But both players have proven their consistency in their roles with their respective teams at this point in their careers.
Preston Smith has not missed a start in the last three seasons and has had at least 4 sacks in each of his four seasons. Furthermore, he’s recorded 59 quarterback hits, 4 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 13 passes defended so far in his career. These numbers point to two strengths: Smith can rush the passer, and he can drop back in coverage – two areas Mike Vrabel stresses for his linebackers in his defensive scheme. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith has improved each season. PFF gave Smith an overall defensive grade of 76.9, the highest so far in his career. He was solid across the board defensively, earning a 73.2 rush defense grade, a 69.4 tackling grade, a 68.4 pass rush grade, and a 76.2 coverage grade. Smith’s steady production and versatility will garner heavy interest in free agency but won’t break the bank for a team.
Like Smith, I think Shaq Barrett is another tantalizing option for the Titans. He doesn’t have quite the pass-rushing prowess as Smith, but his 14 sacks over his first four NFL seasons prove that he can be an effective pass-rusher. While Barrett may not be the sack threat Smith is, he is just as good in coverage. Barrett is also a better tackler in space and adds more value with his run defense – he earned a 76.8 run defense grade in 2018 (PFF). While he may not have the numbers that Smith has from a production standpoint, Barrett has graded better in all four seasons. Since 2015, Barrett has earned the following defensive grades from PFF: 75.5, 84.0, 82.6, 75.9.
Smith will likely ask for (and receive) more than Barrett, mostly because Smith has played more games as a starter and has been a more than just a rotational piece for his defense. As of now, the Titans have around $41 million in cap space. I think Smith will get somewhere in the $4-6 million per year range, with Barrett receiving $2-3 million less per year. Depending on what the Titans are looking for and are willing to spend, both could be great additions this offseason.
Potentially losing two linebackers, I expect the Titans to address their remaining holes through a combination of free agency and the draft. If they can snag one of the players mentioned above, that will allow them to target a rookie playmaker in the draft. Luckily for Tennessee, this year’s draft is loaded with talented pass-rushers.
One player I have a man-crush on is Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat. The talented senior has the ideal build for the position, measuring 6-foot-6, 245 pounds. With his long frame and speed, he is an asset in pass coverage. Sweat’s best attribute is his book of pass-rushing moves. He has fantastic bend around the edge and the explosiveness to move linemen off the ball at the point of attack. In his final two seasons, Sweat had 10.5 and 12 sacks respectively, as well as 15.5 and 14.5 tackles for loss. His 12 sacks ranked fifth best in all of college football in 2018.
In my opinion, I could see Sweat playing three positions in different schemes. Mike Vrabel could stand him up to play linebacker or occasionally move him inside to play defensive tackle. However, I see Sweat making his money at the next level in a more traditional defensive end role, with his hand in the ground utilizing his different rushing moves to get to the quarterback. Sweat’s versatility and athleticism make him a no-brainer for the Titans.
The Titans should also consider Florida State’s Brian Burns. The junior prospect boasts a similar frame to Sweat, measuring 6-foot-5, 235 pounds. I think Burns edges Sweat in pass coverage, evident by his 7 passes defended over his final two collegiate seasons. Burns is a stout run defender as well with a natural ability to set the edge. He also disrupts plays in the backfield with his explosive first step.
From a production standpoint, Burns’ 38.5 tackles for loss from 2016-2018 rank first in the NCAA over that span. That means Burns frequently penetrated the opposing team’s backfield. Besides Jurrell Casey, who had 11 tackles for loss in 2018, the Titans did not have a player in the double digits for this stat. Burns provides an instant upgrade at disrupting plays and pressuring the quarterback, two coveted defensive attributes in today’s pass-heavy league.