Why New Titans LB Wesley Woodyard Will Be One of Free Agency's Biggest Steals

Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2014

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 02: Middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard #52 of the Denver Broncos kneels in the endzone before playing against the Seattle Seahawks during Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Former Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard signed a four year, $16 million contract with the Tennessee Titans this offseason.

Woodyard was a key part of the Broncos' pass defense during the 2012 season, but he found his role reduced during the second half of the 2013 season. That was partially because of his performance in a greater role, but also because he didn't appear to be fully healthy.

When he was healthy in 2012, Woodyard was arguably the best cover linebacker in the NFL.

The Titans are obviously betting that the soon-to-be 28-year-old will return to his previous form in Tennessee. Woodyard is considered an inside linebacker, but his athleticism and awareness allow him to be effective from a variety of positions.

Ray Horton, the Titans' new defensive coordinator, doesn't have a very rigid approach to positions and stereotypical player skill sets that fit those positions. Horton is the kind of coach who will find a player's talent and try to put him in a spot to best show it off.

Because Horton is a very aggressive defensive coordinator who likes to disguise his pass rush and blitz a lot, he needs linebackers who are comfortable in space. So even if Woodyard isn't a dominant all-around player, he should be a perfect fit with the Titans.

Woodyard is officially listed at 6'0" and 233 pounds. He is not a physically imposing player in terms of taking on offensive linemen and blowing up running backs. Any weight that Woodyard carries helps his ability to turn and run with receivers or adjust quickly in zone coverage.

With the Cleveland Browns last season, Horton had two coverage linebackers who were often overstretched by his assignments.

Neither Craig Robertson nor D'Qwell Jackson are necessarily slow linebackers when you compare them to some of the other players playing that position in the league. However, neither player has the athleticism or coverage ability of Woodyard.


On this play, Robertson is tasked with covering Jermaine Gresham while Jackson covers the running back in the flat. As the above image shows, Robertson is closer to the far hashmark when Gresham lines up in the right slot.


Even though Gresham is relatively close to the line of scrimmage, he still has a clean release and Robertson has to sprint toward him to make up lost ground. Robertson gets in a decent position when Gresham works down the seam, but he is susceptible to any outward-breaking routes.

That is exactly what happens as Gresham runs toward the far pylon.


After his initial burst to catch up to Gresham, Robertson is unable to accelerate again to play tight coverage. Nobody would expect Robertson to undercut the route, but he should at least have been on the back shoulder of the tight end.

Had he been there, he would have had an opportunity to knock the ball away from Gresham because Dalton's pass arrived on his back shoulder.

Woodyard isn't as quick as Robertson over the first five yards. However, he is able to play more physical coverage because of his bulk and athleticism. He doesn't have exceptionally long arms, but he is able to disrupt tight ends and receivers with his reach at times.


On this play against Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots, Woodyard shows no hesitation before being aggressive with Gronkowski underneath. It takes a perfect throw from Tom Brady for Gronkowski to catch the ball.

Even at that point, there are no yards after the catch to be gained because Woodyard was all over him at the catch point.

This is the type of play that Horton wants. He wants to force the ball to come out quick with his pressure up front and have his defensive backs/linebackers either break on the ball for the interception/tip or tackle the receiver for a short gain.

Of course, what Horton wants won't always happen.

Against aggressive defenses, using misdirection to create space or route combinations to put playmakers into space is always the preferred method of attack. This puts more pressure on linebackers to recognize plays as they develop and change direction to close on the football quickly.

This is something Woodyard has proven capable of doing.


Against the Kansas City Chiefs on this screen play, Woodyard shows excellent awareness as he breaks off his pass rush and locates the running back coming out of the backfield. Because the offensive linemen who are pulling out in front of the back are now upfield, Woodyard has a clean path to the football.

The most impressive part of this play was the early recognition. Because the ball-carrier wasn't in space and because he had that clean path, the end of the play is less spectacular.


On this play against the Patriots, the offense creates space for the running back in the flat with its formation and route combinations. The release of the tight end and receiver to the top of the formation forces Woodyard to arc his journey to the receiver in the flat.

Woodyard never had a chance of preventing the first down, but he closes the space on Shane Vereen very quickly. Vereen is an elusive player, and he has plenty of space to work in against Woodyard here. Woodyard closes off that space by taking a good angle, and then he uses his length to trap him and drag him to the ground.

Vereen may have managed the first down, but that wasn't because of any mistake from Woodyard. 

Like any coverage linebacker, Woodyard can't afford to be a liability against the run. His run defense was a problem last season. He is not the type of player who will take on blockers and overpower them. Instead, he needs to be smart and shoot through gaps quickly.

He is a good tackler and can be effective enough as a run defender to highlight his ability in coverage, but the consistency needs to be re-established after a disappointing 2013 campaign.

It's clear that Woodyard was a risk for the Titans because they are paying him a relatively high average per season. Only $4.75 million of his contract is guaranteed, but the Titans will need him to be effective if Horton is going to have success during his first season as the team's defensive coordinator.

If he regains his 2012 form, Woodyard would be a steal for the Titans. There aren't many players who can fill his role in today's NFL.