The Titans big win over the Ravens in Baltimore came with a cost. Inside linebacker Jayon Brown dislocated and fractured his elbow trying to avoid a nasty chop block from Ravens guard Ben Powers and his 2020 season is now over.
This is a tough blow for Brown on multiple levels. He’d been playing some of his best football in recent weeks and is a big part of the Titans defense. He’s also heading into free agency this offseason and no player wants the last impression of them for potential bidders to be an injury.
The Titans also lost a left tackle to a knee injury for the second time this season as Ty Sambrailo is likely out for the year as well, per Paul Kuharsky.
Sambrailo’s loss comes just over a month after Taylor Lewan went down with a torn ACL, which leaves the Titans set to start their third left tackle of the 2020 season as they head into a critical matchup with the Colts.
Replacing both of those starters will be tough, but let’s look at the options available for the Titans, starting with the left tackle spot.
Left Tackle Replacement Options
1. David Quessenberry at left tackle.
I think this is the most likely option, especially for this week’s game in Indy. Quessenberry stepped in for Sambrailo when he went down in Baltimore and performed well. It was just 18 snaps, but he allowed zero pressures and did a nice job in the run game. The offense had already clicked into high gear before he came in, but it continued to roll with him in the game next to Aaron Brewer on a left side that nobody ever expected to see in 2020.
Quessenberry is an interesting player. He was unrecruited as a 235-pounder out of high school, but ended up walking on at San Jose State after meeting an assistant coach through a friend that the school was recruiting. After bulking up during a redshirt season, he eventually earned a scholarship and started 38 games for the Spartans and was an all-conference player as a senior in 2012.
He earned an invitation to the combine and his outstanding testing there helped draw the interest of the Texans, who selected him in the 6th round of the 2013 NFL Draft as a developmental tackle prospect.
However, after making the Texans roster out of camp, he suffered a season-ending foot injury in practice and was placed on IR. After surgery and rehab, Quessenberry returned to Houston’s OTAs the following offseason to prepare for his second NFL season, but after complaining of chest pain and fatigue during practice, he was sent to Houston Methodist Hospital, where he had two liters of blood drained from his lung, and soon after, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
His battle with cancer cost Quessenberry his 2014, 2015, and 2016 NFL seasons, but he eventually got a clean bill of health and returned to Houston’s roster in 2017. He spent most of that season on the Texans practice squad, but finally made his NFL debut on Christmas of that year.
The next year, he joined Mike Vrabel in Tennessee as a member of the Titans practice squad, where he would spend most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the exception of a brief call up to catch a touchdown pass against the Colts in Week 2 last season.
Obviously, Quessenberry’s fight to get back to an NFL roster is an inspiring one. However, he’s also a guy with some real physical gifts. The combine measurables above show a player with immense athleticism in a 6′-5″, 305-pound body. Watching his 18 snaps against the Ravens, it’s clear that the 30-year old tackle can still move at a high level. Having been with the Titans for three seasons, he knows this offense as well as almost anyone in that locker room.
With just 68 total live snaps to evaluate over the last eight years, it’s impossible to know much about what to expect from David Quessenberry, but what he showed on Sunday makes me interested to see more and in the short term, I think he’s their best option.
2. Sign Marshall Newhouse, start him at left tackle.
The Titans worked out Newhouse, and while an imminent signing hasn’t been reported at this time, it makes a lot of sense for the team to bring him in if his workout was even halfway decent. Here are the players on the team’s current roster who have started at tackle in the NFL: Dennis Kelly, Rodger Saffold, end of list.
The last time Saffold was a regular starter at tackle was 2012 and the Rams moved him to guard for a reason. Bumping him outside and inserting rookie UDFA Aaron Brewer at left guard creates two weaknesses instead of one on the offensive line (despite Brewer’s relatively impressive debut against the Ravens).
The other tackle options on the 53-man roster are Quessenberry and Isaiah Wilson. After that you have Brandon Kemp and Paul Adams on the practice squad.
Kemp was an undrafted rookie from Valdosta State that spent camp with Tennessee before eventually landing on the practice squad. Adams is a Nashville native that has spent time on the practice squads of the Giants, Browns, and Football Team over the past two years before arriving on the Titans practice squad. He was a right tackle in college and has yet to take an NFL snap.
Newhouse isn’t great. At 32, he’s past his prime, and frankly, his prime wasn’t that good. However, he did play left tackle for the Patriots last season so he’s got recent experience and at least a baseline level of play that could be expected, which is more than we can say for any of the other options on this list.
I don’t think there is much of a chance that he’ll be able to clear COVID protocols, sign, and be ready to play by Sunday. We saw Desmond King get through the system that quickly, but jumping in at slot corner is much different than taking over at left tackle in an offense that is very different from the one he last played in. Signing him this week would be more about insurance for future weeks and a credible alternative in case Quessenberry struggles.
3. Isaiah Wilson at right tackle, Dennis Kelly at left tackle.
Obviously, in an ideal world, your first-round pick tackle would slot in here somewhere, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where Wilson was put on the reserve/COVID list twice (including one trip that lasted over a month), got a DUI, has missed other practices for “illnesses”, and has gotten almost exclusively bad reviews from those who have seen him practice. That world sucks, but here we are.
Wilson has made some small steps in recent weeks. He’s now logged full weeks of practice for four straight weeks and has mostly received positive reviews from the coaching staff during that time. However, four weeks of avoiding massive screw ups isn’t enough to earn back the trust that he lost early in the season.
I think the Titans would obviously love to see what they have in Wilson and seeing how he responds in live game reps is the next step in that process, but they can’t make that decision at the expense of the rest of the team. If he’s ready, he needs to show that in practice and in the meeting room. Once he does, I’m sure he’ll be on the field. However, I’m not sure that happens in 2020.
While we’re here, there is another downside to using Wilson: he’s a pure right tackle. That’s all he played in college and asking him to switch sides for his NFL debut given all the struggles we just covered is asking for trouble. Flipping Kelly to left tackle makes both tackle positions weaker. Kelly has always played better on the right side and making him switch to his weaker side halfway through the season and disrupting the chemistry he has with Nate Davis is compounding the problem you already have in my opinion.
Jayon Brown Replacement Options
1. David Long at Will linebacker.
Ultimately, I think replacing Jayon Brown will require multiple players for the Titans. There isn’t another player on the roster with his skill set. However, Long is the closest.
Like Brown, Long is a little undersized at 5′-11″ and 227 pounds — Brown is 6′-0″ and 226 pounds — but makes up for it with speed and instincts. In fact, I think you can make a pretty strong argument for Long actually being an upgrade over Brown when it comes to run defense. In limited action last season, he flashed a quick trigger, explosive closing speed, and a physical edge that allow him to consistently be in the right spot and get ball carriers on the ground.
However, Long is not going to offer the coverage skills that Brown does. Brown is one of the better coverage linebackers in the entire league and that skill set will the hardest for the Titans to replicate. One of the biggest knocks on Long coming out of West Virginia was his ability to turn and cover. He’s at his best when he’s coming downhill and making plays.
Of course, the complication with Long right now is that he’s on the reserve/COVID list. Mike Vrabel expressed some hope that he’d be able to return this week, but that’s no guarantee and if he misses most of the practices, it’s hard to see him being trusted with the lion’s share of snaps on Sunday.
However, I do think Long probably takes a good portion of the early down snaps at Will linebacker when he does return.
2. Will Compton at Will linebacker.
Compton came in for Brown on Sunday and played extremely well. He was prepared, active, and effective in containing the Ravens rushing attack and showed good recognition and feel in pass coverage.
Obviously, Compton isn’t going to match up in man coverage with backs and tight ends like Brown did for Tennessee, but he’s probably their best bet among the linebackers on the roster when it comes to third-down work. If Long misses this game or misses enough practice this week that he’s unable to be given a full workload, I think Compton likely gets the start next to Evans.
3. Kenny Vaccaro as a “moneybacker”.
The Titans are going to have to get creative to replace a guy like Brown. With Rashaan Evans being used more and more as a pass rusher on third downs recently, the Titans will need to figure out who fills Brown’s spot on those critical downs.
Tennessee was already playing a lot of big dime looks with Amani Hooker joining Kevin Byard, Kenny Vaccaro, Malcolm Butler, Desmond King, and Breon Borders in the secondary for third downs, but they may need to go to this package even more moving forward. In fact, they may need to look at considering using seven defensive backs on third and long situations moving forward. Desmond King is also a candidate to play a little dime linebacker thanks to his physicality near the line of scrimmage. That’s something that he did in L.A. at times so count him as an extra chess piece in this equation too.
With Kristian Fulton being designated to return this week, we could see a third-down package that includes Byard, Vaccaro, Hooker, Butler, King, Borders, and Fulton behind a front of Harold Landry, Jeffery Simmons, Rashaan Evans, and Derick Roberson. If Adoree’ Jackson returns as well, the incentive to lean on the defensive backs to replace Brown increases.
That’s especially true this week. The Colts can present some unique matchup challenges for the Titans with athletic tight ends Trey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox and running back Nyheim Hines are all too dangerous to be left alone with the remaining linebackers on the roster. Obviously, if you try and matchup defensive backs against all three of those players, you run the risk of the Colts lining it up in 13 personnel and running it down your throat all game, so it will be critical that the Titans coaching staff picks and chooses their spots with this approach, but it should be effective on third downs if they go that route.
4. Sign a linebacker.
The Titans reportedly worked out Brooks Reed, a former second-round pick for the Texans back in 2011, but he’s more of an edge rusher than an off-ball linebacker so I don’t think he’s ticketed as a direct Brown replacement.
Instead, his addition, if it happens, could mean more off-ball snaps for Harold Landry — a thought that I don’t particularly love, though he covers really well for a highly skilled edge rusher — or it could simply be more depth at another thin spot on the roster. After all, with Jadeveon Clowney out for at least the next two games, Tennessee is suddenly starting Derick Roberson, a nice player with some real upside, but still a guy who has appeared in just 10 career NFL games to this point. Behind Landry and Roberson are practice squad edge rushers Wyatt Ray and Tuzar Skipper. Outside linebacker is a spot that has been a little overlooked lately because of the commotion at inside linebacker and left tackle (as well as left guard, wide receiver, tight end, safety, corner, etc.), but the Titans are razor thin at OLB right now.
If the Titans do look outside the building for inside linebacker help, there are a few semi-interesting options out there. Former Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham and former Rams and Giants linebacker Alec Ogletree stand out as the top options to me. I’d certainly be interested in a Wesley Woodyard cameo, but Paul Kuharsky has reported that the team has not reached out to their former captain.
Kiko Alonso is another name that I’ve seen floated, but he was just released with an injury designation and my understanding is that it is highly unlikely that he plays again in 2020.
I think the Titans are going to roll with what they have in house right now, and frankly, they should. Will Compton has good tape that’s more recent than Bradham or Ogletree’s last passable efforts in the NFL and David Long showed real flashes late last season when filling in for Brown. Those two, combined with an extended use of their big dime and big nickel packages, should be enough to patch together a reasonable fix for the hole left by Jayon Brown’s injury.