- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- He showed his versatility, strength and athleticism as he completed the course in American Ninja Warrior.
Side projects aside for Kamerion Wimbley, on July 27 he’ll report to Titans training camp with a singular football mission that will require display of the same traits: boost Tennessee's pass rush.
After he was a cap casualty in Oakland, the Titans pounced to add Wimbley, signing him to a five-year, $35 million contract with $13.5 million guaranteed.
He played end and 3-4 linebacker in Cleveland and Oakland, so I was struck when I first saw him on the field in Tennessee, where he'll play end. He’s a big 250 pounds, and he looked like a guy who could more easily slip inside for a few snaps at defensive tackle than move back to play as a linebacker.
Yet before the Titans landed him, he wouldn’t have called himself an end.
“Before I signed here, if you asked me what I was, I was a linebacker,” he said. “At end, you get an opportunity to get after the quarterback a lot more. I definitely enjoy it. It’s something I played at Florida State, and I did well. I’m happy to get back to that, and hopefully I can be successful rushing the quarterback in this division.”
Coach Mike Munchak said the Titans believe Wimbley played his best when he was at the line with a hand on the ground, and that it will be a relief for him to play exclusively at one position. When the Titans played against him, they feared him more when he worked like an end than when he was at the second level.
With an anemic pass rush that produced just 28 sacks last season, Tennessee moved into the offseason determined to bolster the pass rush. In Munchak’s first year as head coach, the team moved forward without long-time defensive line coach Jim Washburn (who went to Philadelphia) and its top pass-rusher, Jason Babin (who followed Washburn as a free agent.)
But the biggest move aside from adding Wimbley didn’t involve the roster, it involved the coaching staff, where Munchak added Keith Millard as a pass-rushing coach. Millard's expertise is fine-tuning linemen, but he'll also work with blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.
Can Wimbley, a healthy Derrick Morgan opposite him on the line, and the coaching of Millard make the Titans’ defense more threatening to passers they’ll face such as Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers?
I rank it as the biggest question facing the team, outside of who will start at quarterback.
Wimbley said having Millard around is “tremendous.”
The high-priced end will want to show he was worth the contract and can be a full-time end, but needs to resist the temptation to try to fix things himself. He doesn’t sound like a guy at risk of getting caught up in that.
“I’m my harshest critic, and I want to go out there and put a good product on the field,” he said. “So whenever you watch tape on the games, I want to be able to say I gave it my all and I left it all on the field.”
“Hopefully I can be one of those guys a team knows that they have to account for. In that case, if it frees up other guys to make plays; as long as we get the play made, I’m happy. I think Derrick Morgan is going to attract a lot of attention as well, and it should give us both opportunities to make plays this year.”
In Wimbley, the Titans added another player who seems to fit Munchak’s mold. Early impressions lead me to categorize the defensive end to be low-key, focused and accountable. Munchak asks his player to know what to do and do it, and Wimbley should plug right into that. The coach has praised Wimbley’s practice ethic, which sets a good tone.
He also seems to possess leadership qualities that last season’s defense, under new coordinator Jerry Gray, seemed to lack. It’s a young defense, and leadership candidates are not obvious.
“He has the demeanor … he seems to be a guy that handles pressure very well, he doesn’t take it all on himself like he’s the savior of the pass rush,” Munchak said. “We’re going to try to attack offenses in different ways, more so than we did last [season], just because last year everything was so new to everybody and we were playing so many young guys.”
Said Gray: “Do what you do… Now everyone else around him has to pick their stuff up. We can’t just rely on Kamerion to come in and get 18 or 20 sacks and everybody else play the same. I don’t think that’s fair to him.”
While OTA and minicamp work doesn’t tell a great deal about line play, guard Steve Hutchinson dealt with Wimbley periodically, and has played against him before.
“He’s a real quick guy, an explosive guy off the ball,” said Hutchison, the Titans’ other big free-agent addition this offseason. “You’ve got to cover him up. I’ve played against him. Last year the Raiders came to Minnesota, and he was able to rush the quarterback real well.”
Away from football, Wimbley’s a dog guy. He’s shown American Bullies in dog shows, led by his champion Neo. Yogi's been a family pet for seven years. As a young athlete, he said runs and long walks with dogs were a big part of his training and fitness.
Safety Michael Griffin just signed a long-term deal with the Titans, and like Wimbley, he is expected to be a pillar on the defense for Munchak’s team. Griffin also is a dog guy with a big interest in America Bullies. Breeding, showing and living with dogs could be an off-the-field bonding topic for Tennessee’s defense.
Bonds formed over non-football things like that can have a large, positive affect on a locker room.
But it’s not champion dogs that Wimbley ultimately wants to talk about, it’s a champion football team.
“He’s going to want to put numbers up for us, which we hope he does,” Munchak said. “Even if he doesn’t get the sacks, if he creates the problems and other guys get sacks, that helps us getting off the field. He’s going to help us in a lot of ways.”