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Tulloch, Fowler competing to be Titans' middle linebacker

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Imagine working every minute of every day trying to be perfect, knowing one slip-up or mistake could cost you your job.

That's the pressure Ryan Fowler and Stephen Tulloch are dealing with in trying to become Tennessee's new middle linebacker.

The Titans need someone to play between Keith Bulluck and David Thornton. They didn't feel comfortable handing the job to Tulloch, their fourth-round draft pick last year, so they lured Fowler away from Dallas in March as a restricted free agent to create competition.

And it's worked.

"The competition is so intense and the competition is everyday, so they've got to be sharp, sharp, sharp," linebackers assistant coach Dave McGinnis said Wednesday. "Both have had a good camp because neither can afford to have a bad practice. That's what's kept it very good."

Neither player minds fighting for the job as the linebacker responsible for coordinating the defensive line and the secondary from play to play.

"It makes me better as a player," Tulloch said. "As you look throughout the football world, whenever you have a guy who's always there, never has competition and never gets better, he always stays the same. You bring in a guy and pay him what they paid him, you want to compete and get after it."

Fowler, who signed a four-year contract for $11.5 million in March, agrees.

"It's pushing both of us to become better players and helps us out each as individuals, so I'm enjoying it," he said.

Both are used to fighting for their spots.

Tulloch is on the small side at 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds, but he decided to leave North Carolina State after his junior season when he was named first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference while playing with Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and John McCargo - all first-round picks in 2006.

The Titans liked what they saw from Tulloch as a rookie when he started three games and came up with 37 tackles and an interception. He also ranked second with 17 special teams tackles.

A native of Miami, Tulloch has had the chance to work out with seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Thomas of the Dolphins, who's also 5-11. Tulloch said watching Thomas and other linebackers his size has helped him see how to use his speed to get to the ball.

Tulloch said he isn't worried about how much money Fowler is being paid.

"I'm worried about being the best football player I can be and getting better at everything I do and leave it in their hands," he said.

Enter Fowler, a 6-3, 250-pound linebacker who was a two-time captain at Duke. He wound up as an undrafted rookie with the Dallas Cowboys in 2004. He started three games for the Cowboys in 2005 and led them with 24 special teams tackles in 2006.

Philadelphia also tried to woo Fowler, whose best assets are his intelligence and toughness. He chose Tennessee when the Cowboys declined to match his contract offer.

"I was told right from the get-go the job wouldn't be handed to anyone and it would have to be earned," Fowler said. "I was under no pretenses about how it would go. It's going exactly the way they assured us it would go. It's a good, strong competition, and I'm pleased."

Fowler started the first exhibition, and Tulloch will start Friday night when the Titans visit New England. They've rotated in practice throughout camp. McGinnis doesn't expect a decision until the preseason is over, with the loser ready to come in as a backup and both playing on special teams.

"It's going to be good for us," McGinnis said.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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