NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Tennessee Titans GM Jon Robinson signed outside linebacker/defensive end Cameron Wake as one of the primary means of addressing a lackluster pass rush, the move was met with more skepticism than anything.
The acquisition seemed particularly dubious when Robinson drafted an injured defensive lineman 19th overall in Jeffery Simmons that may not contribute in his rookie year and waited until pick No. 168 (5th) to acquire then-injured edge player D’Andre Walker out of Georgia. Why would Robinson sign a 37-year-old to a three-year, $23 million deal ($10M guaranteed) to start for a team that struggles to get to the quarterback?
Ideally, Wake won’t.
“I think part of your role as a veteran, the wisdom that you’ve gained over the years, is to kind of pass it on to the younger generation so they can in turn do the same to the guys behind them,” Wake told us in May. “I got that same treatment when I was coming into the league from guys who are obviously no longer playing. The Jason Taylors and the Joey Porters of the world, who I kind of got under their wing, and asked them the questions, how they were so good at what they do, and I’m getting some of those same questions. It’s been obviously a lot of fun passing that knowledge on, and I think it’s a responsibility as well.”
Success in the NFL, to me, is predicated on any one team’s ability to generate pass rush with the defense’s front four. Sack totals are nice, but as coach Mike Vrabel has told us time and again, are not always indicative of success up front. What Wake represents for the Titans is the ability to platoon; his role in Nashville should be veteran savy and fresh legs off the bench. Brian Orakpo, before retiring at the end of last season, went into 2018 more concerned with depth up front rather than who started and the same should hold true for Wake
The former Dolphin’s role as a teacher for young guns Walker, Harold Landry, Sharif Finch and Kamalei Correa will be as important as his contributions on the field.
“I think that I’ve been through this with guys, and I think nobody would know better than Cam (Wake),” Vrabel said earlier this month. “Guys, I think, have to be willing to use new moves that we practice in individual, when we go to the team periods, when we put pads on in training camp, whatever that may be, even if it doesn’t work. A great example of that, and I know he’s not here, Whitney Mercilus would do that. He would use three or four different moves, and he would try to practice those throughout practice. The ones that we may put in, or talk about, or work on in individual, he would try to do those. Maybe he didn’t have success with it, but he could say, ‘I gave it a chance. Now I’ll move on to the next move.’ He wasn’t just satisfied with sticking with his fastball. He was going to use practice for an opportunity to try some of those new moves that Cam (Wake), or Harold (Landry), or anybody have talked about.”
Wake, Vrabel and outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen will shoulder that teaching burden in 2019.
As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted, Wake started slow in 2018 with one sack and three quarterback hits in the first four games on the season and missed two weeks with a knee procedure. He returned to post five sacks and 14 knockdowns in the final eight games of the year, showing that he still has the ability to impact a game but could benefit form a lighter load. Doing so will allow whomever begins games opposite Landry to gain valuable live reps. Between Wake and the addition of defensive lineman Brent Urban up front, Tennessee should exceed last year’s 39 sacks (T-16th) and rely less on creativity from defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ corner or inside linebacker blitz packages.
The term “starter” is overrated at this point when talking about front-seven defenders because they fluctuate on match-ups and availability from week to week. What should be focused on more are snap counts and, for both Wake and the Titans, the veteran should be used sparingly to keep him at his most effective.
Featured Image: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports.