The Tennessee Titans are undergoing a complete overhaul on defense in 2014. Gone is the 4-3 defensive front of Jerry Gray, replaced by the attacking 3-4 defense of new coordinator Ray Horton.
A change that extensive means a lot of personnel and position changes, and the Titans made their most important one of the offseason to date in that regard on Thursday.
Shaun Phillips agrees to a 2-year deal worth a max of $6 million with the Titans, source says.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 27, 2014
Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean passed along word that just under half the deal was guaranteed:
The #Titans deal with Shaun Phillips is worth $6 million, with $2.5 million in guaranteed money, per sources— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) March 27, 2014
According to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Phillips, who played most of the first nine seasons of his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker with the San Diego Chargers before switching to end with the Broncos last year, was a "fall back" plan for the Titans. He became the primary target after LaMarr Woodley chose to sign with the Oakland Raiders.
Still, general manager Ruston Webster didn't sound like a man who had settled for second-best, according to Craig Peters of the team's website:
Shaun is an athletic pass rusher, who has been a productive player his entire career. His flexibility is an asset as well – being raised as a 3-4 linebacker and having success as a 4-3 end last year. He will add to our mix of pass rushers and improves that group from a production and experience standpoint.
Frankly, fans of the Titans should be glad things worked out the way they did, especially given the comparative size of the two players' contracts.
And regardless of who the Titans were going to bring in, it was crystal clear they had to bring in someone. The Titans had 36 sacks in 2013, which ranked 21st in the NFL.
Kamerion Wimbley, who the Titans handed a $35 million deal to two years ago to make the pass rush better, has been an unmitigated disaster. Former first-round pick Derrick Morgan has managed only 16.5 career sacks in four NFL seasons.
Phillips, by comparison, has 18.5 over the past two seasons alone, despite playing two different positions for two different teams in two different schemes.
And it's that versatility that's really going to come in handy.
It's understandable that head coach Ken Whisenhunt would hire Horton, given that the two worked together for years in Arizona. However, the defensive rebuild in Nashville has also opened a Pandora's Box of questions.
How will tackle Jurrell Casey, who led the team with 10.5 sacks in 2013, handle the switch to 3-4 end? What about Morgan making the move from end to outside linebacker? Can free-agent acquisition Wesley Woodyard hold up at the point of attack inside, and who will play next to him?
The list goes on.
In Phillips, not only do the Titans get a proven pass-rusher who has notched seven or more sacks seven times (a mark Morgan has yet to hit), but Phillips is also uniquely qualified to mentor Morgan's transition.
It's a role Phillips says he's ready for, according to Peters:
You just need a good mix of guys. You need the old, wise, veteran professionals that know how to be pros and you need the young, speedy, athletic guys that run around with their hair on fire and you’ve just got to point them in the right direction. It’s good to have a good nucleus, and I think that’s what we need. The younger guys usually feed off the older guys, and act how the older guys act or how their coach acts, so we really want to bring that positive, ‘Let’s go get it,’ winning edge here.
At the end of the day, it's hard to view the Phillips acquisition as anything other than a big free-agent win, even if it's not an especially splashy one.
Phillips may not have been the Titans' first choice, but he's the right one for Tennessee.
And besides, the last time the Titans got their first choice of pass-rushers in free agency, it was Wimbley.