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Thursday, December 22, 2011
Rookie defenders contributing for Titans

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

It’s rare that an early read of a draft class matches up to the grade down the road.

But the Titans' rookie class of defenders is scoring very high. The 33 starts for Titans rookie defenders are the most in the NFL. Denver ranks second with 32.

Coach Mike Munchak and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray have not hesitated to rely on kids after a lengthy Jeff Fisher era where the coach was often reluctant to use an unproven player.

Part of it is that Tennessee didn't have the healthy, established and productive veterans who needed to be displaced to get rookies into the lineup.

Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy (five starts) benefited from a groin injury to Barrett Ruud, and now McCarthy looks to be a fixture going forward. Akeem Ayers (14 starts) was a second-round pick the team intended to start from the beginning. Jurrell Casey (13 starts) is a run-stuffing defensive tackle and Karl Klug (one start) is working as a nickel rusher on an interior where the team was thin.

With two games remaining, the group will surpass the franchise high since the Oilers became the Titans in 1999. In 2002, rookies started 33 games on defense, with safety Tank Williams accounting for 16.

Ayers is in line to become  just the third defender in the “Titans era” to start every game as a rookie, joining Williams and defensive end Jevon Kearse (1999).

Two seventh-round defenders from the 2011 draft are also well-regarded.

Defensive tackle Zach Clayton has shown some promise. And while cornerback Tommie Campbell is coming off a terrible game where he got benched for special teams penalties, he’s got great speed and is a raw player the Titans think can be molded into a significant contributor.