The Tennessee Titans’ defense improved greatly in 2021 from where it was in 2020, and the defensive line played a big part in that resurgence.
Both Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry had career years and combined for 17.5 of Tennessee’s 43 sacks, a total that ranked tied for ninth in the league. The pass-rush was just one part of the story upfront, though, as the Titans sported the No. 2 run defense in the NFL, also.
Tennessee once again managed to find a diamond in the rough in undrafted free agent signing Naquan Jones, who is the second good defensive lineman general manager Jon Robinson has found following a draft since 2020, with starting nose tackle Teair Tart being the other.
With all four of those players returning in 2022, there isn’t much room for the rest of the defensive linemen on the team to secure a spot on the 53-man roster.
Let’s take a look at the players who are roster locks, on the bubble, and then we’ll talk about the competitions set to take place and share our prediction for how things will shake out on the 53-man roster.
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Roster locks: Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Teair Tart, Naquan Jones
Simmons and Autry are coming off career years, while Tart and Jones have been great undrafted free agent signings from 2020 and 2021, respectively. These four will play the majority of snaps upfront in 2022.
On the bubble
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On the bubble: Larrell Murchison, DeMarcus Walker, Da’Shawn Hand, Jayden Peevy, Haskell Garrett, Kevin Strong, Sam Okuayinonu
Peevy, Garrett and Okuayinonu were signed as undrafted free agents after the 2022 NFL draft. Both Strong and Hand spent time on Tennessee’s practice squad last season, and Walker was signed in May. Murchison is one of the three remaining members of the 2020 draft class.
The starting competition
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As far as the starting group goes, there is one competition to keep an eye on, and that comes at nose tackle with Tart and Jones.
Tart was the starter in 2021 and is the favorite to own that role again, but Jones came on strong as the season progressed and began seeing regular snaps in Week 5, so he’s definitely a threat.
All that said, it’s very likely we’ll see this pair split snaps during the 2022 campaign no matter who wins out. Tart didn’t see more than 69 percent of snaps in any game last season, while Jones’ season-high was 63 percent.
The backup competition
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The Titans will carry five or six defensive linemen into the season. The team carried six into the 2020 campaign, but just five into 2021. The favorites for one or both of those spots are no doubt Murchison and Walker.
Murchison has been unable to work his way into a starting role and has been a disappointment overall over two seasons as a backup, with zero sacks and QB hits and just 13 combined tackles over 21 games.
After seeing regular snaps through the first 11 weeks, Murchison played six and three snaps in Weeks 12 and 14, respectively. He was then inactive for three of the last four games of the regular season due to injury and saw just 13 snaps in Week 18. He was a healthy scratch for the playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Walker has been a solid backup during his career and offers versatility as someone who can play with his hand in the dirt or standing up, although he has thrived more as a 3-4 defensive end.
Further helping Walker’s cause is the fact that he has the most experience of the roster bubble group with 49 games played (seven starts) over five seasons, and is the best pass-rusher.
If it comes down to one spot, Walker has the edge over Murchison thanks to his superior skill set, experience and versatility.
Of the longshots, Garrett, who we feel was good enough to be drafted, is the one we could see emerging to make the cut. If not, we fully expect him to land a practice squad spot, although he’ll have competition there with Okuayinonu, Peevy, Strong and Hand.
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53-man prediction: Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Teair Tart, Naquan Jones, DeMarcus Walker, Larrell Murchison
This is a change from our last 53-man roster prediction, which had Walker making the cut over Murchison. The 2020 fifth-round pick benefits from a change made at tight end in our preview of that position, as we went with three instead of four, opening up another roster spot.
Murchison barely makes the cut and is the last guy off the bench, but his days could be numbered, as he’ll be one of the first players the Titans consider parting ways with if they need another roster spot after the season starts.
Walker will serve as the primary backup to Simmons and Autry, while also serving as depth at outside linebacker. Tart or Jones will be sandwiched in between Simmons and Autry.
Whether the Titans keep five or six defensive linemen, this is a deep and talented position group that is one of Tennessee’s best going into 2022.
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