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ESPN Insider: Tennessee's rebuilt defensive line needs time


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Tennessee's rebuilt defensive line needs time

By Todd McShay

Scouts, Inc., for ESPN Insider


While the Titans didn't have much choice but to rebuild their defensive line with rookies as a result of the team's salary-cap situation, we would not recommend it as an approach others should follow.

Outside of the quarterback position, defensive tackle may be the most difficult position for rookies to master as they transition from college to the NFL. While there are always exceptions to the rule -- such as Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton -- there are a lot more examples of defensive tackles who struggled as rookies before bouncing back with strong sophomore campaigns.

Corey Simon (Eagles, '00), Shaun Rogers (Lions, '01), Marcus Stroud (Jaguars, '01), Albert Haynesworth (Titans, '02) and Ryan Sims (Chiefs, '02) all failed to meet expectations in their first seasons but were able to draw on their experiences and use the offseason to catch up physically and be better prepared for life in the trenches throughout a 16-game NFL season.

By the same token, teams such as the Jets, Giants, Saints, Patriots and Rams shouldn't panic about first-round selections Dewayne Robertson, William Joseph, Jonathan Sullivan, Ty Warren and Jimmy Kennedy, respectively, in the '03 draft. None of the five lived up to the pre-draft hype, but if recent history is any indication, they all should make significant strides next season.

Rookie defensive ends have fared much better, but players such as Justin Smith (Bengals) and Shaun Ellis (Jets), who struggled as rookies and then had breakout seasons as second-year pros, indicate that the end position also can present a difficult transition from college to the NFL.

There's no question the future is extremely bright for the Titans' defense. However, with this recent history in mind, the Titans should expect a severe drop in production up front in '04, which in turn should negatively affect the rest of the unit.

After improving their two-tight end sets by picking Ben Troupe of Florida, the Titans got down to the business of addressing their most pressing need, using four of their next five picks on defensive linemen. The first two picks came at defensive end, with Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom. Next, they upgraded at defensive tackle with the addition of Randy Starks, whom we projected as a second-round pick, in the third round.

So there is no shortage of warm bodies. But what makes the Titans' situation a cause for concern is that several of their picks are developmental players who are unlikely to make significant contributions as rookies.

DE LaBoy is undersized. He should help the Titans immediately as a situational pass rusher, but he's not ready to play an every-down role. DE Odom has the potential to develop into one of the best ends in this year's class, but he needs to get bigger, stronger and, most importantly, tougher.

DT Starks is the youngest player in this draft at 21 years old, and it shows in his maturity, consistency and work ethic. He has the potential to develop into a solid starter, and he certainly will give the team better depth as a rookie, but he's not ready to step in as a fulltime player next season.

The way we see it right now, Carlos Hall and Kevin Carter will remain the starters at end, with LaBoy and Odom competing for time. Odom has the potential to eventually replace Carter, who becomes a free agent next season, but he needs at least one year to develop. While LaBoy was drafted higher, he may wind up taking a back seat to Odom and may never be more than a pass-rush specialist in the NFL. The team also drafted DE Bo Schobel in the fourth round, which tells us Carter likely will leave town at the end of next season.

As far as the defensive tackle position is concerned, Albert Haynesworth remains the starter on the right side, but the left defensive tackle position will be opened for competition between Rein Long and Starks. We have heard Carter will move inside on obvious passing downs to help improve the interior pass rush, but again, there is no guarantee Carter can make that transition.

As it looks right now, the Titans are solid at RDT with Haynesworth and LDE with Carter, but RDE Hall and LDT Long are nothing more than situational players. The Titans eventually could have one of the best young defensive lines in the NFL, but they also can expect a significant drop-off in terms of overall production and consistency next season while several young and inexperienced players get their feet wet.

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