Tennessee Titans Positional Analysis: MLB


Total Titans continues its preseason positional analysis series with a look at the middle linebackers.

The Titans go into 2008 with the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker looking the same as it did at the end of 2008.  That’s not, however, the same as it looked at the beginning of 2008, as Ryan Fowler became one of the few starters to lose his job on performance.  Third year man Stephen Tulloch stepped in, and started for the rest of the season.

Ryan Fowler announced this offseason, though, that he’s looking to regain his starting position.  Does he have a chance, and what else could 2009 hold for the Titans’ middle linebacker?  Some possible answers after the jump.

Fowler, a former Duke Blue Devil, was acquired as a free restricted free agent from the Dallas Cowboys prior to the 2007 season.  He started 14 games his first season as a Titan and the first 3 of last season before Tulloch replaced him as a starter in the game against the Vikings.  After that, though, he was relegated primarily to a bench and special teams role.  He’s signed through 2010, with base salaries of $2.25 million for this season and $2 million for next one.  While more expensive than most NFL backups, the Titans are currently well-positioned under the salary cap, plus cutting him would result in cap dead space of $1.5 million.

Stephen Tulloch was the man who replaced Fowler.  The former NC State Wolfpack, who was teammates of 2006 first rounders Mario Williams and Manny Lawson, checks in four inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter than the man he beat out.  He also demonstrated more speed and coverage ability than the Titans had seen at the middle linebacker position in quite some time, and played pretty well in his starts.  Per the data collected in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, he had a Stop Rate of 68% on running plays, nearly the same as David Thornton’s, though further downfield, and had the best pass defense metrics of any Titans linebacker.

On pass plays, though, he faced fewer than half as many thrown in his direction as did Thornton or Bulluck.  That’s perhaps the biggest question.  The Titans under Jim Schwartz were frequently in nickel defense with the outside linebackers on the field and the middle linebacker sitting on the bench.  That made sense with Fowler, Brad Kassell, and a post-ACL Peter Sirmon manning the middle, but Tulloch’s speed is a dimension those guys didn’t have.  Schwartz adapted a little, running more Tampa-2 (with the MLB dropping deep) in a 4-3 package than he’d done in the past, and it’ll be interesting to see if Chuck Cecil does more of the same.  The interesting question could be if Tulloch manages to displace Thornton or Bulluck in nickel situations.

Beyond Tulloch and Fowler, the third and only other name on the depth chart is that of Ken Amato.  Amato’s primarily been the long-snapper since being acquired, though he does make occasional but persistent appearances as part of the Titans’ goalline defense.  If both Tulloch and Fowler do go down, though, the best bet to step in may be Gerald McRath, a fourth-round selection who played in the middle at Southern Miss last season.

And, a little unusually, that’s it.  Floyd Reese loved drafting and collecting linebackers, and bringing them to training camp, but there’s not much fat at the position this time around.  Tulloch will make the team, Fowler in my mind will almost certainly make the team, Amato will be around for long-snapping purposes, and while McRath’s future is probably on the outside, he may end up on the inside if needed.

What say you, Titans fans?  Does Fowler have any shot of winning his job back?  Could Tulloch stay on the field in the nickel?  Will MLB finally be a “real” starting position for the Titans?


3 Responses to “Tennessee Titans Positional Analysis: MLB”

  1. Scott Says:

    I don’t think you can just look at the MLB spot in isolation on this team. Looking at the LB position as a whole, the Titans have Bulluck, Thornton, Tulloch, Fowler, McGrath, Keglar, Stamer, Allred and Amato. That’s nine guys. How many are the Titans likely to keep – seven, maybe eight?
    If it is only eight, then Allred is probably the odd man out and we keep Fowler as the backup MLB and Stamer continues to play a key special teams role. But if Fisher only keeps seven, then one of Keglar, Stamer or Fowler probably don’t make the team either. And I suspect that Keglar has more upside, so there is a better chance that Fowler or Stamer will be gone – or perhaps even traded for a low round pick to a team that suffers a training camp injury at the position. That leaves Fowler and Stamer in competition for the last LB spot. And since Stamer is probably the better special teamer, I think there is a good chance that Fowler will be the odd man out.

  2. Bob Loblaw Says:

    Hey Tom, any way you could divulge a few more of the run & pass metrics – I love data analysis. I like the idea of leaving him in the nickel package instead of Bullock – he’s still great, but has lost a half step the last few years. Tullcoch in the nickel would make the defense that much smaller, so maybe it would be a situational thing based on the size of the RB or only in 3rd & long, not in 3rd & 4-6.

  3. Tom Gower Says:

    We’ll have a separate post looking at the OLBs. After that goes up, I may do a separate post on the LB depth chart.
    Yeah, I can do that. I have the past couple editions, too, so I can look at trend stuff.
    One thing FO doesn’t keep track of, though, is frequency of nickel packages and the like. I may start keeping track of that on my own, but I said that last offseason, too. I may do snap counts for preseason games, for insight into the positional battles, but that’s really tedious and sometimes impossible from the TV shots.

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