Why you shouldn't write off second-year Titans defender in LB battle

The Titans should hold a wide-open competition at inside linebacker throughout training camp. An unlikely candidate to play significant snaps could emerge.
Seattle Seahawks v Tennessee Titans
Seattle Seahawks v Tennessee Titans / Wesley Hitt/GettyImages

The expectation heading into training camp is that one of Jack Gibbens or Cedric Gray will start opposite Kenneth Murray Jr. at inside linebacker for the Tennessee Titans this season. Murray is a shoo-in after signing a two-year, $15 million contract in free agency to replace Azeez Al-Shaair. While Gibbens and Gray are straightforward choices, you shouldn't underrate second-year undrafted free agent Otis Reese IV.

A rookie UDFA out of Ole Miss, Reese IV was one of the more surprising inclusions on the Titans' initial 53-man roster last August. The safety-turned-linebacker bounced around the active roster and practice squad for the majority of the campaign before injuries made him a mainstay towards the conclusion of the season. When Reese's opportunity arrived, he maximized his chance.

Reese made his first career start against the Houston Texans in Week 16. The 225-pound speedy defender was potentially the lone bright spot in a blowout 26-3 defeat, earning national acclaim for his showing. Reese flew sideline-to-sideline, totaling a team-high 10 tackles while displaying some of the skill-set that allowed him to record 174 tackles at Ole Miss combined across 2021 and 2022. Pro Football Focus assigned him a team-high defensive grade of 89.9 for that performance.

Reese started again versus the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Week 18 regular-season finale. He tallied six tackles as the Titans defeated Jacksonville 28-20 and kept them from entering the postseason. Reese entered this offseason with some momentum at his back despite a coaching change that pitted Brian Callahan at head coach and Dennard Wilson at defensive coordinator.

That means Reese, like Gibbens, who finished second on the team in tackles with 95 takedowns last season, is starting over in a new scheme. That certainly applies to newcomers like Murray and Gray, too. Reese should enter training camp feeling confident he can outperform Gibbens and Gray if afforded opportunity.

Inside linebacker promises to be among the most fascinating depth-chart position battles for the Titans throughout training camp and the preseason. Gibbens appears to have quickly endeared himself to Callahan and Wilson. Gibbens possesses the most experience among the choices. Gray was selected during the fourth round of the 2024 NFL Draft to serve as a future solution at the position, but the Titans have pumped the brakes on his potential immediate impact.

Reese flashed a potentially dynamic skill-set albeit via a smaller sample size as a rookie. He now faces a new challenge versus mostly different players in an overhauled system. It'll be worth monitoring Reese's progress throughout July and August.