Defensive endgame: Titans' best years include Pro Bowl pass rusher

Monday, September 13, 2010 at 11:45pm

It’s not that Jason Babin was in a bad mood the last couple of years. It’s just that he’s been in a better mood in recent weeks. Much better.

“I’m up in the morning dancing as I make the kids’ breakfast before school,” the Tennessee Titans defensive end said.

His joy stems from the fact that for the first time in his NFL career, he believes he is playing in a system that will allow him to flourish. Keep in mind that in the six years since he was drafted 27th overall by the Houston Texans in 2004, he’s now with his sixth different franchise.

The question now is whether he or any of the Titans’ other defensive ends will be doing a hula dance in late January as part of the NFL’s Pro Bowl activities.

Since Jevon Kearse burst onto the scene in 1999, players routinely have made their way from the end of Tennessee’s defensive line to the NFL’s annual all-star affair. More often than not, those trips have come in the wake of a playoff appearance.

Seven times in the last 11 years a Titans defensive end earned a Pro Bowl invitation. Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch did it three times each, and Kevin Carter did so once. Five times over that same span, the team made the postseason, and four of those playoff years included a Pro Bowl performance by a defensive end — Kearse in 1999 and 2000, Carter in 2002 and Vanden Bosch in 2007.

With Vanden Bosch now in Detroit basking in the glow of a hefty free agent contract, Tennessee is in search of its next great defensive end. Five were on the roster at the start of the regular season, with the idea that they would rotate regularly throughout contests to keep all of them fresh.

“We can get Pro Bowl production and effort out of them, but the guys that go to the Pro Bowl typically have sacks,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “When you’re rotating guys like we’re expecting to rotate, I wouldn’t expect the individual sacks to be that high, I’d expect the sacks to be spread out across the board.”

The rundown of Titans defensive ends, in order of most likely eventually to become a Pro Bowler to least likely:

• William Hayes: A fourth-round pick in 2008, he is the most athletically gifted player at that spot since Kearse. Having played at a smaller school (Winston-Salem State), his technique upon entering the NFL needed refinement. Now, with two years of coaching and the opportunity to start and to log a lot of snaps, it is his time to flourish.

• Derrick Morgan: The team’s first-round draft choice (16th overall) in April was slowed by injury throughout the offseason and training camp. He was a consistent playmaker in college and has shown sound technique and the willingness to play the game at full speed when he’s in there.

• Jason Babin: A natural defensive end who was asked to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme when he entered the NFL, Babin might turn into one of 2009’s true free agent bargains. Vanden Bosch was signed at a similarly reasonable rate when he first joined the team. Babin’s ability to explode at the snap and to quickly get upfield is exactly what the Titans need and like to use.

• Jacob Ford: His rookie season (2007) was lost to an Achilles injury in training camp, but no Titans player had more sacks over the past two seasons than Ford (12.5). He’s light (265 pounds) but also light on his feet. He has speed that no offensive lineman can match. He just needs to make plays on a consistent basis.

• Dave Ball: He was out of football for the entire 2007 season before the Titans signed him. Originally drafted in the fourth round by San Diego in 2004, he’s had more tackles (47) and sacks (4.5) in two seasons with Tennessee than he had with three teams from 2004-07.