Tennessee Titans get big dividends from bargain free agents
Defensive end Jason Babin, linebacker Will Witherspoon lead productive newcomers
By John Glennon • THE TENNESSEAN • September 24, 2010

While other teams made a splash when the NFL free agent market opened last March, the Titans made a ripple.

While other teams clamored for big-name players such as Julius Peppers, Dunta Robinson and Karlos Dansby, the Titans ambled to the bargain aisle.

But two games into the season, it is tough to find a team that's gotten more out of its offseason acquisitions than the Titans have from defensive end Jason Babin and linebacker Will Witherspoon.

There's also linebacker Jamie Winborn, who was signed near the end of last season. Throw in rookie defensive end Derrick Morgan, and special-teamers Tim Shaw and Patrick Bailey, and you start to get a sense that the newcomers have made a big impact.

"The good thing is we spent a lot of time really researching, whether it's free agents or draft guys, trying to pick guys that fit our system,'' General Manager Mike Reinfeldt said. "We involve the coaches in the process. We're looking for the right fit, their skill set vs. what we do.

"We're not looking to be the first guy out in free agency that signs the biggest deal. We're much more particular. We're trying to identify guys that can really help us in areas of need. So far, so good.''

One of the biggest bargains so far is Babin, who was signed to a one-year, $1 million offer sheet that the Eagles refused to match. Some felt Babin was done after playing just 23 games over the past four years, but Reinfeldt thought he might be a good fit for the Titans' system, in which light, fast defensive ends have thrived.

Two games in, Babin has 10 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. He had a team-leading eight tackles against the Steelers.

"This is the kind of system I was in in college, and it was the reason I got drafted in the first round,'' said Babin, a first-round pick by the Texans in 2004. "Then I got stuck playing linebacker and stuck in a situation where I didn't play.

"I've always had this in me. I've been so salty and (angry) because I just wanted to show it for the past six years. So it's hard to express how excited I am at finally being able to do it.''

Like Babin, Witherspoon came to Nashville via Philadelphia, and like Babin, Witherspoon had played somewhat sparingly (17 games) over the past two years. But he's been a force so far, posting 12 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

"It's good to be contributing, especially when you're the new guy on the block,'' Witherspoon said. "You want to earn the trust of these guys and the best way to do that is to show them what you can do on the field. I don't think any of us want to be the one that lets (the team) down.''

Winborn was signed last December to add depth to the linebacking corps and to contribute on special teams. But with the departure of Keith Bulluck, the suspension of Gerald McRath and the injury to David Thornton, Winborn found himself starting for the first time since 2008.

After getting no defensive snaps last season when he joined the Titans, he's played in roughly 50 percent of the snaps, heading to the sidelines in nickel and dime situations. He has managed six tackles in addition to his special-teams contributions.

"Winborn is an old pro,'' Reinfeldt said. "He's the kind of guy that no matter what you give to him, he can handle it. He's done this and he's done that. He just goes about his thing as a pro quietly, and that's kind of what he's done for us.''

As for some of the other new faces, Morgan has 1.5 sacks in two games, Shaw is tied for the team lead with four special-teams tackles, and Bailey is one behind.

The newcomers are doing much more than filling out the roster.

"I guess I have to take advantage of this to just compliment Mike and his staff on what they've done to help this football team,'' Coach Jeff Fisher said. "You talk about Jason Babin, Will Witherspoon and Derrick Morgan and all the new pieces to our defense and the production we got out of them … They've done a great job.''