NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Wesley Woodyard laughs when asked if the 32-year-old linebacker has found a fountain of youth.
Coming off a career-high 172 tackles, Woodyard once again is leading the Tennessee Titans in tackles despite missing two starts and nearly three full games with an injured shoulder.
He sets the tone for the NFL’s second-best scoring defense, a unit that has taken a big leap in several statistical categories this season under first-year head coach Mike Vrabel and coordinator Dean Pees.
Woodyard, now in his 11th NFL season, says the secret to his success as a former undrafted free agent out of Kentucky is much simpler.
“I’m surrounded by a bunch of great guys that I love to go to work with every week,” Woodyard said. “They make my job easier, showing up to work man I enjoy being here. And most importantly, I’ve had the chances to learn and take the bits and pieces from a lot of people that I came across in this game of football and now just going out there doing what I do. I love the game, so go and play and have fun and be free.”
An undrafted free agent in 2008, Woodyard signed with Denver and wound up voted a team captain in each of his six seasons with the Broncos. He signed with Tennessee after the Broncos lost the 2014 Super Bowl to Seattle and has been a captain each season with the Titans.
The 6-foot, 233-pound linebacker credits his longevity and success to a combination of keeping the driven mentality of being undrafted mixed with an ever-changing cast of head coaches and defensive systems.
“I had three new head coaches and a new D coordinator every year the first five years,” Woodyard said. “I use it as a blessing man. I got a chance to learn five new systems, got a chance to put football out there for new coaches, and this league man, the turnover ratio is so huge. Every year it’s a different system, different schemes and I’ve been blessed to be in a lot of different schemes: 4-3s, 3-4s, new coaches, old coaches. So I’ve seen a lot.”
With the Titans, Woodyard has had three different head coaches and the chance to play for a pair of defensive coordinator legends in Dick LeBeau and now Dean Pees. His current coordinator coached Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in Baltimore and said what Woodyard has in common with those players is being a pro knowing how to take care of their bodies. They also study hard.
“And if they have a shortcoming in any area, they know how to overcome that shortcoming,” Pees said. “We all get older and we all get slower, … but the guys that know how to handle that, they all play smarter as they get older, and don’t rely as much on their talent as their instincts. And Wesley is definitely in that same caliber.”
Woodyard, also switched to a vegan diet last year , is surrounded by youth at inside linebacker with Jayon Brown in his second season, 2018 first-round draft pick Rashaan Evans and six-year veteran Daren Bates. Woodyard is leading the way with 72 tackles, and he’s tied for second on the Titans with 3½ sacks. He also has five tackles for loss as the Titans (5-5) prepare to visit Houston (7-3) on Monday night.
The linebacker jokes he heard being in your 30s is the new prime.
“The biggest thing for me man is getting better every year, to challenge myself to get better at something every year and continue to get better. Me coming in the league undrafted, you have that chip on your shoulder where you got to prove yourself every year no matter if you’re a first-round pick or a late-round pick, you got to go every year, and that’s just been my mentality.”
Notes: The Titans went through a walk-through practice Thursday, taking advantage of an extra day before their game in Houston. QB Marcus Mariota was limited with an injured neck, and Vrabel says they will test Mariota’s arm Friday because they didn’t throw much Thursday. WR Taywan Taylor (left foot) and C Ben Jones (shoulder) also were limited. RB David Fluellen (knee) did not practice.
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