The comparisons were tantalizingly easy for everyone to make.
Derrick Morgan and Jevon Kearse both came to the Tennessee Titans at times of great need for the pass rush and at the same point in the draft (16th overall). They were athletic defensive ends who left schools in the Southeast — Florida and Georgia Tech, respectively — after three years.
As it turns out, those comparisons have been impossible for Morgan to live up to, and quite honestly, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, Kearse’s well-deserved nickname was “The Freak.” It’s not as if freaks come along all that often.
That is not to say that Morgan is any sort of bust. It simply is time — well past time, in fact — to reconfigure expectations for him.
Think Kenny Holmes.
The only other defensive end the franchise drafted in the first round over the past 15 years likely provides a much more realistic picture of what is a successful pick at that point in the draft.
The 18th overall selection in 1997 had a seven-year NFL career with two different franchises. He averaged better than one sack every three games (38.5 in 98 appearances) and occasionally contributed game-changing plays. He actually intercepted two passes during the 1999 season — both in victories — and forced five fumbles in 2000, when Tennessee had the NFL’s best regular season record.
He had as many as eight sacks in a season (twice) and as few as 2.5.
Morgan, of course, missed most of 2010, his rookie season, with a knee injury and finally got his career rolling last fall. Since then he has become an increasingly productive, if unspectacular (un-Kearse-like?) performer.
Through the first four games of this season, he was the leading tackler among Titans’ defensive linemen, with an average better than four per game. His four quarterback pressures were a team high, and one-third of the team total. His three tackles for loss were tied for the team lead — and already had equaled his career high.
He’s never going to be the defensive rookie of the year, as Kearse was, and he has not gotten to the quarterback as often as anyone would like. He is getting better, though.
Keep in mind that Kearse took the league by storm as a rookie, had three really productive years during which he averaged 12 sacks, then sustained a foot injury from which he never really recovered. He never got 10 sacks in a single season again. He no longer was the explosive, eye-popping force he had been.
That downward trend, which included a forgettable season-and-a-half with the Titans at the end of his career, ultimately left a great feeling of dissatisfaction, that Kearse only flashed greatness rather than flourished fully in his ability for all of his time in the NFL.
Morgan is trending upward, which means there is time for him to create a sense of satisfaction. To create the impression of a job well done. To live up to expectations.
It’s just important to make sure those expectations are proper.
Morgan is not a spectacular player, but that does not mean he is not a good or worthwhile one. If he becomes the type of player Holmes once was, he will add real value to the defense.
Consider, after all, that when Holmes left after the 2000 season, the Titans traded for a former All-Pro, Kevin Carter, to take his place. Management at that time knew that not just anyone could step in and fill that spot.
Holmes was that good. That important. He was not Jevon Kearse. Far from it, in fact, but then again, few have been or will be. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect as much Derrick Morgan.