Titans Sign Wesley Woodyard: Grading the Move and What It Means for Tennessee

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 14, 2014

Denver Broncos middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard (52) stretches before playing against the San Diego Chargers in an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

The Tennessee Titans are undergoing the most extensive defensive overhaul in the NFL this year, switching to a 3-4 front under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

That switch portends big changes along the front seven in 2014, and on Friday the Titans made their first big acquisition in that regard.

The issue lies in figuring out where that acquisition fits in the new scheme.

As Mike Garafalo of Fox Sports reports, the Titans agreed to terms with linebacker Wesley Woodyard on a four-year, $16 million contract:

Tennessee general manager Ruston Webster hailed Woodyard's versatility and experience while speaking with ESPN:

Wesley is a player who has experience playing in both 3-4 and 4-3 systems, and in our new scheme he fits as one of the inside linebackers. He is smart and fast. He also brings the leadership qualities and intangibles that we look for in a player, which makes him a good fit for us.

On some level, Webster has a point. In his six years with the Denver Broncos, Woodyard played well in multiple schemes at multiple positions for multiple defensive coordinators.

ESPN's Paul Kuharsky also lauded the move, writing that "The Titans have added a versatile linebacker who will enhance their flexibility at the position as they go with a hybrid front featuring at least a share of 3-4."

Adding inside linebacker help was a priority for Horton this year, and after the Titans swung and missed on acquiring D'Qwell Jackson it was only a matter of time before they agreed to terms with someone.

Now, the team has added a player in his prime who had 117 tackles as recently as 2012. What's not to like?

Well, there's last year for starters.

Wesley Woodyard 2013
GamesGSTacklesSacksFFINTPFF Rank*
*Per Pro Football Focus

Woodyard entered 2013 as Denver's starter at middle linebacker. However Woodyard proceeded to struggle through one of the worst years of his career. Part of that was due to nagging injuries, but that wasn't the only problem ESPN's Bill Polian saw while reviewing tape of Woodyard:

His stats are impressive and he is credited with a lot of tackles, but when you watch him closely a lot of that production comes after the ball carrier is on the second level. He has the versatility to play inside and outside, but isn't always stout at the point of attack versus the inside run, partially because of a lingering neck strain suffered early in the season. Woodyard's cover skills are still solid.

By the end of the year, Woodyard had lost his starting job to Paris Lenon (who played with Dick Butkus...OK, maybe not, but he's old) and was playing only in sub-packages.

Given the Titans' relatively tight budget (about $13 million in cap space per Spotrac), it's unlikely that the team just handed Woodyard $4 million a year to be a nickel linebacker.

In fact, Dr. Jene Bramel of FootballGuys believes that as things stand today, Woodyard and third-year pro Zach Brown would start at inside linebacker in Nashville:

If so, that presents a bit of a problem.

In starting Brown and Woodyard, Horton would essentially be slotting a pair of 4-3 weak-side linebackers as 3-4 inside linebackers. Both are quick, athletic players more than capable of holding their own in coverage.

However, neither player is especially stout at the point of attack. Neither Brown nor Woodyard ranked among the top 25 players in the NFL at their position in run defense in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Woodyard hasn't cracked that benchmark since 2009.

If there's a silver lining, Woodyard's 8.1 run-stop percentage at PFF last year (a metric that "shows the percentage of stops per snap played only in run defense") was the same as James Laurinaitis of the St. Louis Rams, and it was higher than players such as Arizona's Daryl Washington and San Francisco's Patrick Willis.

That number offers some hope for Woodyard's prospects in 2014, especially if the neck checks out, and the Titans were in a position where they had to do something at the linebacker spot.

With that said though, the inside linebackers are absolutely critical to stopping the inside run game in a 3-4 front, and while Woodyard and Brown are both good linebackers they would appear, at first glance at least, to be miscast in that role.

And that doesn't look to be the best way to address a run defense that hasn't ranked higher than 20th in the NFL over the past five years.


Grade: C