If season started now, surprise at DE for Titans

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Count up the Titans defensive ends and, though he played very well last season, and I've found it hard not to put Dave Ball fifth out of the top five.

Um, it's time for me to throw draft pick status and contracts out the door, recalibrate and move Ball, who's been with San Diego, the Jets and Carolina since 2004, up the ladder.

Kyle Vanden Bosch is the unquestioned starter on the right, Jevon Kearse the incumbent on the left. The Titans also have Jacob Ford, who had seven sacks in 14 games, and William Hayes, who was a fourth-round draft pick in 2007.


"If we started the season today, everybody healthy, I'm not so sure if I'm being honest to myself and to this football team that Dave Ball wouldn't be starting at end," defensive line coach Jim Washburn told me during a recent chat. "If you just want to be real honest with me, I'd swear on my father's grave."

Ball didn't seem surprised when I conveyed that to him. In 15 games last year he had 51 tackles, with 4.5 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown.

"I kind of proved myself last year as far as being a major contributor," he said. "I'm just going to try to get as good as I can and see where the chips fall. We rotate ones and twos a lot, so it's pretty balanced.

"I averaged about 35 or 40 snaps last year and with the way our D-line plays, 30 to 35 snaps a game is great just because we're always going to run to the ball and you get worn down if you go a lot more than that every game."

The biggest question for Ball may be his back, which kept him out of the season finale and the playoff game last season.

He's had back issues since college, had surgery when he first came into the league in 2004 and herniated a disc last year against the Steelers on Dec. 21. He had surgery after the season and the team has been moving him forward cautiously this offseason. Ball recently rated himself as 90 percent and said he'll be good to go for training camp.

As for Kevin Vickerson, the guy who's inevitably rated fifth among the defensive tackles by most observers, behind Tony Brown, Jason Jones, newcomer Jovan Haye and second-round pick Sen'Derrick Marks:

"He's like Wolverine, he's like Badger, he's cornered," Washburn said. "This is it for him. He's got to fish or cut bait. It's on. And he's highly motivated and he's highly athletic, people don't understand that."

Once upon a time, Washburn was used to a crop of relatively small defensive tackles. Albert Haynesworth changed that. When he left for Washington as a free agent, the Titans got a lot smaller on the interior defensive line.

Now at 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, Vickerson has size it could be hard for the Titans to part with. Among that group, only Marks is heavier (306) and only Jones is as tall.