Tennessee Titans positional analysis: OLB

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As the Titans continue with training camp and the preseason, we continue looking at the team position by position. Today we review a position group with several dynamics in play, outside linebacker.
 
The Titans have arguably the best pair of OLBs in the division, in Keith Bulluck and David Thornton. Bulluck has led the team in tackles six of the last seven years, with Thornton achieving that for one year as well. Since becoming full-time starters, Bulluck has averaged 126 tackles per year and Thornton 104. That works out to a combined average of over 14 tackles per game, meaning they’ve been very active defenders.
 
They’ll start together for the fourth year in a row and very possibly the last year. This is the final year on the 32-year old Bulluck’s contract and he’s said he doesn’t expect to be a Titan following this season.
 
Bulluck has the highest cap number on the roster and while it’s manageable this year, he’ll be wanting a nice raise by February. It’s hard for me to imagine Mike Reinfeldt offering Bulluck the kind of big payday he’ll be looking for in what will probably be his final contract as a player.


Thornton’s future appears quite similar, albeit one year removed. He’ll be 32 years old in 2010 and also in the final season of his contract. So it seems that Bulluck will be here just one more season and Thornton two.
 
It also seems there is a promising player waiting in the wings, Stanford Keglar. He’s reportedly improved over the summer, especially in filling gaps, and is able to play both the strong and weak sides. Keglar looked good in the HoF game Sunday night, where he saw extended playing time. He’s the next OLB in line after Bulluck and Thornton and the heir apparent to Bulluck, but here’s where some of those interesting dynamics come into play.
 
What happens if either of the starters are injured? There are two ways the Titans can go and each looks like a viable option.
 
A year ago, the best option, in my opinion, would have been to move MLB Stephen Tulloch outside and let Ryan Fowler play the middle. (For more on the middle linebackers, see Tom’s review of a week ago.)
 
Given Keglar’s improvement, keeping Tulloch at Mike now has more credence than it did six months ago.
 
But whichever way the Titans decide to go, it will impact a roster spot. If their contingency plan is to move Tulloch outside, then you need one less OLB on the roster.
 
These are the guys in the mix for roles which are on special teams as well as depth at the position group.
 
Josh Stamer is more of a special teamer than a linebacker, which is good for him since the coverage units are primarily composed of LBs and DBs. He’s also Thornton’s backup at Sam.
 
Colin Allred, who signed with Tennessee as an UDFA, is beginning his third year with the team. After a year on the practice squad he spent last season as Bulluck’s backup at Will. Allred is a much better special teamer than people give him credit for and tied for the most special teams tackles last year with 11.
 
Gerald McRath was drafted in the fourth round and although he was a Mike in college, LB coach Dave McGinnis said right after the draft that he had no plans to keep McRath there. McRath will challenge Stamer for the backup spot at Sam but despite McGinnis’ preference to use him outside, he could be moved back inside in case of injury to Tulloch or Fowler.
 
One guy who doesn’t have to worry about a roster spot is snapper Ken Amato, who also plays a little linebacker. Amato has been a Sam and used there on occasion but for some reason is now on the depth chart at Mike. I haven’t noticed him there in camp but haven’t been looking at the MLBs either. I’ll try to remember to do that.
 
That’s seven OLBs, not including Tulloch, competing for roster spots. Bulluck, Thornton, Keglar and Amato are obviously safe. McRath has upside and should have that edge over Stamer and Allred.
 
Do the Titans keep all seven? I’d have to say there’s a good chance of it, since those guys are relied upon so heavily for teams. It will be another positional group battle to keep an eye on.
 
Note: I’ll also be doing an analysis on the various special teams units, so many of these guys will be examined again in that upcoming article. 

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7 Responses to “Tennessee Titans positional analysis: OLB”

  1. Bob Loblaw Says:

    If Amato is on the depth chart at mike, that suggests that Fowler may be on his way out. I think they have too much depth at DL to keep seven OLBs, and enough young depth at DB to make a tradeoff. I don’t see them carrying more than total – Bulluck, Thornton, Tulloch, Amato, Keglar, McRath and one more: Stamer, Fowler or Allred.
    I love Bulluck as much as anyone on the team, but they can’t afford to keep him. There are simply too many guys in the last year of their contract that are higher priorities. KVB and Tulloch will be the top priorities as will be resigning at least one other DL: Ball/Kearse/Brown/Vickerson.

  2. Scott Says:

    As I said when Tom looked at MLBs a few days ago, you can’t analyze the Titans LB situation without examining both MLB and OLBs. With the exception of Bulluck and Thornton, eveyone else has to be capable of playing both OLB and MLB. I agree with Bob that there will likely be only 7 LBs making this team, and my guess is that Fowler and probably Allred are the odd men out.
    Unlike Andrew and Bob, however, I don’t think this is Bulluck’s last stand as a Titan. I am still hopeful that, at some point during the season, a deal will be worked out with Bulluck (similar to the Ray Lewis deal in Baltimore a few years ago) that will see Bulluck remain a Titan for life. Unlike guys like McNair and George, Bulluck has not lost a step and should be able to continue to play at a high level for 3 or 4 more years, and unlike guys like Kearse and Mason, the Titans have the cap space to pay him what he is worth at this point in his career.

  3. Tom Gower Says:

    Don’t worry about Bulluck and 2010-he’ll probably be franchised. With no salary cap, they’ll have two franchise tags to use so they can keep him and KVB if necessary. Plus, it’ll be 6 years to UFA, so White, Scaife, Tulloch, et al. will still be around.
    I’ll have an updated roster prediction up in the next couple days and talk about the LBs then. I’m pretty sure Fowler’s name will still appear there.

  4. Bob Loblaw Says:

    It isn’t a lock that it will be an uncapped year, and as a GM, you can’t decide not to extend somebody in the hope that a new CBA isn’t reached. There are numerous restrictions which will prevent next year from being the windfall that some players now think it will be. As players come to recognize this, I believe that a CBA will be reached.
    Tom – out of curiosity, if you were MR and couldn’t get a deal done with Tulloch, would you franchise him or Bullock (assuming only one tag).
    Also, if next year is uncapped, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Titans try and trade Scaife and White.

  5. Tom Gower Says:

    Bob,
    My personal opinion (and I may well be overly pessimistic) is that there’s about a 99.8% chance there’s no new deal in place by the start of the next league year in March. The only way I see one happening before then is if the players cave, and 2011 is still too far off.
    If 2010 is uncapped as I expect, Scaife and White are chips. They may end up in Tennessee or be traded (White sticks, Scaife gone would by my ridiculously premature guess).
    If I had to pick one of Bulluck or Tulloch to franchise next year, right now I’d guess Bulluck. A couple things to consider:
    1. The history of OLB in their 30’s is pretty weak. Bulluck may cease to be a good space player this year or next year. He’s almost certainly not your starter at Will in 2011.
    2. The development of Keglar and McRath. When will they be ready for a starting role? One option /may/ be Bulluck playing more of a Sam-like role (I think Thornton’s contract is up after this year) if Keglar is ready.
    3. The defensive scheme. The last impact guy the Titans had at MLB was Godfrey under Gregg Williams. Schwartz didn’t place much value on MLBs-will Cecil? If they play Tampa 2 in the base package, Tulloch is more important.
    4. Tulloch’s younger, you can structure a defense around an MLB, and you’re less likely to get blown away by an offer for him than somebody putting exceptional value on Bulluck.

  6. Scott Says:

    Andrew, I guess you have to add Rocky Boiman to this list now – although I would be absolutely shocked if he made it to the 53 man roster. Who’s going to be next Travis Laboy?

  7. Andrew Strickert Says:

    Thanks for all your input, fellas.
    Tom, the more I think about using the franchise tag on Bulluck the more sense it makes.
    Here’s an update on the LBs from the last two days of camp. Disclaimer – I haven’t spent all my time watching the LBs, spending time watching other groups as well.
    Tulloch, Allred and Stamer have been out.
    Amato has practiced some at Will but I haven’t seen him at Mike.
    Keglar has seen a lot of work at Will but also a little Sam. Vice versa for McRath.
    Boiman has been used mainly behind Fowler at Mike but also some at Sam. It looks like he can step into any of the three spots as needed.
    Smith has been entirely at Mike.
    Bulluck was briefly banged up today but returned to practice later. Thankfully it didn’t seem to be serious.
    The team has been in shells the last two afternoons and I’ll bet it’ll be the same tomorrow. Fish has run a pretty light camp so far and with the injuries, will probably have them take it easy at least a little while longer.

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