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Rolling in the Deep

For the second straight season, the defensive line promises plenty of depth behind Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry.

NASHVILLE – One of the Tennessee Titans’ most competitive position groups last season promises to be even more so in 2022.

In using an NFL-record 91 players in 2021, the Titans churned through 13 defensive linemen, the most of any position group on the team.

Part of the reason was injury.

But competition also played a significant role in the big rotation. The Titans continually worked out and signed players throughout the season, seeking to upgrade the depth around their core group.

Seven ended up on the roster for last season’s playoff loss to Cincinnati. Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, NaQuan Jones, Kyle Peko and Kevon Strong played in that game. Teair Tart and Larrell Murchison were inactive.

Two months before training camp starts, 11 defensive linemen occupy spots on the current roster.

But coach Mike Vrabel isn’t about to predict expected numbers at any particular position group in 2022.

“It’s professional football,” Vrabel said. “It’s our job … to create competition at each position because that’s going to make everybody better, and I try to tell them that -- the ones that deserve to be here -- they’ll be here.

“There’s no set number of position players, like, `Oh we’re going to keep this many defensive linemen.’ If you deserve and you’ve earned the right to be here, (Titans general manager Jon Robinson) and I have to find a way to keep you here.”

Here’s a quick glance at the various tiers of the defensive linemen who’ll be competing for jobs throughout the offseason and training camp:

The Roster Locks

(Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry)

Both were outstanding last season, a huge part of the reason the Titans allowed just 20.8 points per game in 2021, down from 27.4 in 2020. Simmons stuffed the stat sheet with 8.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 58 quarterback pressures and six passes defensed. Autry did much the same, totaling nine sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 44 quarterback pressures and six passes defensed.

Up-and-Comers Who Have Been Here

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(Naquan Jones, Teair Tart, Larrell Murchison)

The 6-foot-4, 338-pound Jones and the 6-foot-2, 304-pound Tart were the main men at nose tackle for most of 2021, but their fortunes moved in opposite directions as the season progressed.

Jones didn’t play in the Titans’ first three games but wound up starting six of the final nine contests (including the playoff game), totaling 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Tart, meanwhile, started nine of the Titans’ first 11 games, but was inactive for five of the last seven (including the playoff game).

The 6-foot-2, 297-pound Murchison, a fifth-round pick in 2020, could be facing a roster challenge after he was inactive for four of the Titans’ last five games (including the playoff game). He’s played a combined 337 snaps in two seasons, totaling 13 tackles.

NFL Veterans

(DeMarcus Walker, Kevin Strong, Da’Shawn Hand)

A second-round pick of Denver in 2017, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Walker may be an underrated signing. The five-year pro has played 49 NFL games -- and posted career highs of 31 tackles and seven quarterback hits last season. The Titans beat out the Colts to sign Walker.

The Titans got a very brief glimpse (six snaps) of the 6-foot-3, 297-pound Hand last season and re-signed him in February. A fourth-round pick of the Lions out of Alabama in 2018, Hand also has plenty of NFL experience – 30 games and 11 starts in four years. His best season was his first in the league, when he started eight games, posting 27 tackles and three sacks.

The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Strong played in five games late last season and liked him enough to re-sign him in January. As mentioned earlier, he was playing ahead of players like Murchison and Tart in the playoff loss to Cincinnati. He has 20 games of NFL experience.

The 2022 Undrafted Free Agents

(Haskell Garrett, Jayden Peevy, Sam Okuayinonu)

The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Garrett was ranked the number one undrafted free agent at his position by NFL.com, after totaling 22 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks at Ohio State last season.

The 6-foot-5, 308-pound Peevy was ranked the fifth-best undrafted free agent at his position by NFL.com, after totaling 43 tackles – including six for loss – at Texas A&M last season. His height is an asset, as Peevy batted down eight passes during his Aggies career and blocked four kicks.

The 6-foot-1, 269-pound Okuayinonu is a bit of a tweener who played more edge rusher in college. A very impressive athlete, Okuayinonu has the look of a late bloomer after totaling 8.5 sacks and six sacks at Maryland last season.