Zach Clayton’s NFL career thus far has involved a lot of waiting.
It was not until the seventh round of the 2011 draft — the 212th pick — that the defensive tackle out of Auburn was selected. Then he was deactivated for the vast majority of games last season while most of the team’s other rookies on defense not only played but had prominent roles.
Finally — for one game, at least — his turn likely will come sooner than later. Injuries to several defensive linemen will limit the Titans’ depth for Thursday’s preseason finale against the New Orleans Saints (6 p.m., LP Field, WKRN-TV Ch. 2).
“You just have to be patient and kind of wait for your time,” Clayton said. “This is an opportunity for me to get in there and get more reps.”
Starting tackles Jurrell Casey (elbow) and Sen’Derrick Marks (knee) will not play against the Saints. Also out will be veteran free agent Leger Douzable (shoulder), who splits divides his time between both end and tackle.
Those issues — none of them are considered long-term problems — combined last week’s decision to release veteran Shaun Smith creates the possibility for Clayton, among others, to play early and often against the Saints.
“The young guys will get to play a lot,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We still have about 11 linemen that are healthy, that are practicing. The two [starting defensive] ends will play a little bit and then they’ll come out. Then the rest of the guys will take over.”
Clayton, himself, sat out Tuesday’s workout because of a back issue but still was expected to play.
“It’s a good chance to get out there, get some more reps against another opponent and just try to work on the stuff that I’ve been working on during camp,” he said Monday. “Just get better.”
There is nothing unusual about Clayton’s career path to this point. Seventh-round draft picks rarely come in and take the league by storm, if they make it at all.
From 2006 through 2011 the Titans drafted nine players in the seventh round and only four of them have remained with the team for an extended period of time. Two, cornerback Cortland Finnegan (2006) and receiver/return man Marc Mariani (2010) became Pro Bowlers. The other two, tackle Mike Otto (2007) and guard Ryan Durand (2009), have been primarily backups.
It’s just that nearly every other rookie on the defense rose to prominence so quickly last fall. Casey started every game but one at defensive tackle and linebacker Akeem Ayers started all 16. Karl Klug, another defensive tackle, led the team in sacks. Colin McCarthy became the starting middle linebacker by mid-November.
Clayton played as a backup in the first two games but then was inactive for 13 in a row before he dressed again for the final week. He made three tackles.
As coaches have sorted through their defensive line depth in the preseason, he has made one tackle and one sack in the first three games.
“I think OTAs and having that one-on-one time with the coaches helped in my development, personally, during the offseason,” he said. “All you can do is go out there, practice hard, perform in the games and do the best of your ability. That’s kind of what I’ve been focusing on.”
The only other thing for him to do is wait.