Titans must fix secondary with draft, free agents

Friday, February 19, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 8

Kansas City Chiefs free agent Eric Berry, a former University of Tennessee star.

-- Ap Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Last week, we examined the offensive side of the football and what needs to be fixed and/or upgraded as the Tennessee Titans to begin a climb back toward respectability – or at least being able to call themselves an NFL team with a straight face.

There aren’t as many issues to be addressed on the defensive side, but there still are plenty of areas in which this unit must improve.

One of the first moves of the off-season was the continuation of a move made last year – retaining Dick LeBeau to run the defense.

Hiring LeBeau was one of the few positives to come out of the Ken Whisenhunt disaster, and new head coach Mike Mularkey was quick to retain the Hall of Fame coach, who in just one season transformed the Tennessee defense from awful in 2014 to above average (statistically at least) last season.

The other half of the Titans defensive braintrust, Ray Horton, was allowed to leave and return to the Cleveland Browns, meaning the defense will now be under the sole guidance of the venerable LeBeau.

In terms of what LeBeau has to work with, the defensive line is the Titans’ strongest area.

Led by Pro Bowl defensive end Jurrell Casey, who had seven sacks in 2015, this is one of the few areas where the Titans find themselves on par with the rest of the NFL.

In fact, in addition to Casey, the Titans boast a pair of other young defensive linemen – DaQuan Jones and Angelo Blackson – who have quickly come into their own.

The only real question for this group is what to do at the nose tackle position, where Al Woods and Sammie Hill are both set to become free agents.

Both are solid players, but the Titans should make Woods one of their priorities to retain. He had a solid 2015 season before battling injuries late in the year and stepped in to start as Hill missed the first part of the season with a troublesome knee injury.

Hill has been a decent player for the Titans, but his health issues and his age (29) make him less attractive to bring back than Woods.

Former Titans general manager Ruston Webster had his share of misses in free agency, which ultimately played a role in his ouster. But he did hit with pass-rushing linebacker Brian Orakpo.

Orakpo, teamed with Derrick Morgan, made the Titans pass rush a formidable until Morgan tore the labrum in his left shoulder and eventually landed on injured reserve.

The loss of rookie project Deiontrez Mount early in the year didn’t help either.

Beyond David Bass, who was a decent stop-gap, the depth at outside linebacker was found lacking and probably needs an upgrade to prevent something like the injury to Morgan from destroying the entire pass rush attack again.

On the inside, Avery Williamson continues to blossom and should be a keeper for years to come. He paired with veteran Wesley Woodyard, who reclaimed his starting spot after Zach Brown landed in the doghouse.

With Brown a free agent and not likely to be invited back, the Titans need to address the numbers here.

The best-case scenario would be to find another Williamson-type player in free agency or the draft and allow Woodyard to return to being solid depth.

While there are needs and a few holes to fill, Tennessee’s front seven was mostly adequate to good, especially before injuries hit. The same can’t be said for the secondary.

This is one of the areas where new general manager Jon Robinson must quickly clean things up and get a unit that can play well and play together.

The transformation started this week with the release of longtime safety Michael Griffin, whose departure almost certainly means Tennessee will be shopping in free agency and the draft for at least one new starter in the defensive backfield.

The biggest fish would be Kansas City safety Eric Berry, who starred at the University of Tennessee. But the Chiefs will do everything they can to keep him from reaching free agency.

Meanwhile, Jalen Ramsey of Brentwood Academy and Florida State is one of the top prizes in the upcoming draft.

While safety is a need with Griffin’s release, the cornerback situation might be in worse shape.

With Jason McCourty limited to four games due to two groin surgeries, and free agent pickup Perrish Cox in and out of the lineup with a balky hamstring, the remainder of this group was easily exposed.

Coty Sensabaugh is a free agent and likely won’t be back after an inconsistent year. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a former third-round pick, has struggled mightily at times, and the question now is whether new DB coaches Deshea Townsend and Steve Jackson can salvage anything from him in the final year of his rookie contract.

Beyond that, Cody Riggs showed flashes and some toughness, but is hampered by his lack of size. B.W. Webb started fast and quickly faded, perhaps playing himself out of the team’s plans for anything other than the back of the roster.

Cornerback must be upgraded, as there will be a new nickelback, or perhaps a new starter on the outside with Cox sliding inside.

Nonetheless, with two or three key additions, it appears that the Titans defense, with another year under LeBeau, could continue to make strides in 2016. Depth is a concern at all three position levels, but if that can be addressed and a new starter or two added in the secondary, this unit could be a big part of the process of turning around a bad situation in Tennessee.

Griffin’s departure

Griffin often was a favorite punching bag of Titans fans who grew frustrated with what they felt was inconsistent play from the two-time Pro Bowl safety and 2007 first-round draft choice.

And while it was probably time for Griffin to go after nine years with the franchise and having lost a step along the way with age, one final tip of the hat must be given to the former University of Texas star.

For a guy who had just been kicked to the curb by the only organization he had ever known, Griffin no doubt took the high road in his exit. In his text message to TitanInsider.com shortly after his release, Griffin wished the Titans nothing but the best in the future.

“Not going to make this about me. Team before me. Hope this team goes in the right direction and will forever be in debt to the Adams family for giving me a chance. Thanks for the best memories of my life and to the fans. They deserve a winning team and this team in headed in the right direction with a good coach and GM aboard,” Griffin said in the text message.

As tough a day as it was for Griffin last Tuesday when he got the phone call about his release, credit him for not scorching the earth beneath him as he made his final exit.

The Titans will replace Griffin on the field, but teammate Jason McCourty said it will be tough to replace the longtime Titan in the locker room.

“That’s probably the toughest player to say goodbye to. You realize each and every year, it’s a business and there’s going to be change,” McCourty said. “I remember after my third year, watching guys like Cortland (Finnegan) and C-Hope (Chris Hope) leave was rough, because those guys were staples of the organization. And now after the last seven years of playing alongside Griff, it’s tough.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com