By Danny Kelly, SBNation
Following a 3-13 season, the Tennessee Titans found themselves in the power position of owning the top pick in the NFL Draft while at the same time having their franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota. They parlayed the high demand for quarterbacks into an absurd amount of draft ammunition in a trade with the Rams, turning what was already a bounty of draft capital into the gotdang mother lode of picks. Tennessee now owns six picks in the first 76 draft slots this year, and when you throw in next year’s first- and third-round picks from Los Angeles, the Titans have a legitimate chance to reverse the fortunes of their franchise.
We could start seeing the formation of a core nucleus of players that propels Tennessee into the upper echelons of the league, but, of course, rookie general manager Jon Robinson has to capitalize on this opportunity by hitting on a high percentage of his selections.
The draft is the lifeblood of playoff teams, and the Titans are getting a big infusion
Robinson inherited a roster in tatters and promptly went to work filling out some positions in free agency. He signed center Ben Jones and receiver Rishard Matthews to help add some talent on the offensive side of the ball. He also traded with the Eagles for former rushing champion DeMarco Murray. Those players give a young offense some veteran presence that can help guide a young core that includes Mariota, Dorial Green-Beckham and Antonio Andrews.
On the defensive side, Robinson signed defensive backs Antwon Blake and Rashad Johnson and linebacker Sean Spence.
Even with all that action on the open market though, it’s the draft where teams build championships.
Robinson’s arsenal is stockpiled with picks, including the 15th, 33rd, 43rd, 45th, 64th and 76th selections in this year’s draft. It also just so happens that this particular year appears to be a perfect one in which to trade back and pick up more selections.
“(The) 2010 (draft) was a good draft and in our opinion this is the best one since, just from a pure numbers standpoint,” Seahawks GM John Schneider said recently. He noted that while Seattle typically has about 120-140 players on its big board, this year’s list of “draftable players” is 200 strong.
Peter King polled four NFL evaluators last week and heard a chorus praising the middle class of this draft. They said:
“Twenty-five to 55 is the same player, to me.”
“Eleven to 40 is the same guy.”
“To us, 18 to 48 you can get the same player.”
“Load me up with twos and threes in this draft. That’s where I’d want a lot of picks.”
And get this, from Gil Brandt: “It’s the kind of draft where the 50th player on some team’s board will be the 17th player on another team, and the 17th player on the first team could be the 50th on that other team.”
The area where the Titans picked up picks from the Rams — the second and third rounds — are right in there in the meat of the depth this year. Tennessee has the chance to pick up potential top-tier talents for the cost of a second- or third-round pick. And they’ve got five of them.
Missing out on left tackle Laremy Tunsil was the cost of trading back to 15, but it’s a small price to pay for what they’ll gain.
“I think there’s a lot of good football players in this draft, and now we’ve got a chance to get six of them as opposed to getting three of them,” Robinson said following the trade.
There’s an important footnote in this story, because it was Rams who really failed to turn the king’s ransom they got in the 2012 trade with Washington for the No. 2 pick (RG3) into a winning roster. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do — these are the Rams, after all.
One thing that gives the Titans an advantage the Rams didn’t have is that they already have a promising young quarterback — with three years left on his rookie deal and the option for a fifth — at the center of their rebuilding efforts.
Here’s a plan for the Titans on draft weekend
A million different things could happen come draft weekend. The Titans certainly have the ammo to move back up in the draft to grab a left tackle, defensive back Jalen Ramsey or whoever. If they do, much of this speculation will be useless. That said, there’s a strong chance too that Tennessee stays at No. 15 for their pick. With that assumption, I’m going to play general manager.
Round 1, Pick 15 (15) — Taylor Decker, OT Ohio State
Decker isn’t the prospect that Tunsil is, but fills a huge need as a tough player with a mean streak that could bookend Taylor Lewan on the Tennessee line for years. He’s a beast in the run game and athletic enough to man the right side — both integral variables in Mike Mularkey’s vision for an “exotic smashmouth” offense. He’s a tone-setter. He’s played in some huge games and faced some of the top pass rushers in college ball. Tennessee just got their starting right tackle for the next decade.
Round 2, Pick 2 (33) — Noah Spence, OLB Eastern Kentucky
Noah Spence has been mocked anywhere from the middle of the first round all the way into the second. This pick assumes that concern about some of the off-field issues drop him into day two.
The Titans took a chance on Dorial Green-Beckham last year, and they’ll take another chance with Spence here. Spence is a talented pass rusher with some character red flags, but Robinson and his coaching staff only need to look back at last year and realize they need some depth at that spot. When Derrick Morgan was lost for the year after 10 games, the pass rush struggled to adapt.
In Dick LeBeau’s attacking, blitzing defense, a versatile athlete like Spence could be a good fit. He’ll start out in a rotational role, but I would expect him to develop into a starter eventually.
Round 2, Pick 12 (43) — Kenny Clark, DT UCLA
Clark is a powerful and athletic former wrestling champion with enough versatility to play on the nose for the Titans or kick outside to defensive end in certain situations. He brings positional versatility and is still just 20 years old, offering tantalizing upside if he can harness some of his power into plowing through blockers. He’s a stout run defender that pops off the snap, absorbing blocks and tossing aside offensive linemen to tackle ball carriers in the backfield.
Clark fills another huge position of need for the Titans. I think he’ll surprise people at the pro level as an impact interior lineman.
Round 2, Pick 14 (45) — Kendall Fuller, CB Virginia Tech
Tennessee needs depth at cornerback. If Fuller is still there in the middle of the second, it will be tough for the Titans to pass. Fuller has a nose for the football. He has to work on his eye discipline against double moves, but his aggressiveness and attitude will be a perfect match for LeBeau’s scheme. Fuller has some positional versatility in that he may even be able to play a little safety or nickel corner, but he’ll primarily line up outside for Tennessee.
Expect to hear his name on Sundays when he’s picking off opposing quarterbacks that force passes after felling the pressure from Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Jurrell Casey and a slew of blitzers from every direction.
Playing in a division with DeAndre Hopkins and T.Y. Hilton means that a rookie corner has to be confident, and Fuller does not lack in that department.
Round 3, Pick 1 (64) — Sean Davis, S Maryland
I love how Lance Zierlein opens his scouting report on defensive back Sean Davis:
“Davis speaks English, French, Chinese … and the language of pain.”
Davis is a rocked up freak of an athlete that hits like a brick. He probably fits better in the pros as a safety. As Zierlein notes, he’s got some coverage deficiencies that he’ll need to develop, but this guy would be a natural in a scheme that uses its defensive backs creatively. He would make for an interesting blitzer from a number of angles and sub-packages as a rookie, and would be a wrecking ball on special teams.
Round 3, Pick 13 (76) — Rashard Higgins, WR Colorado State
The Titans don’t have a ton of sure things going on at receiver right now outside of Kendall Wright. Dorial Green-Beckham showed some promise as a rookie and could develop into that outside-X type of No. 1. Justin Hunter still could surprise and turn a corner soon. Rishard Matthews and Harry Douglas aren’t long term solutions at the spot.
It makes sense to start to give Marcus Mariota a few guys to develop with with a vision for long-term connections. Higgins could be that guy.
He’s not the fastest receiver in the draft and that deficiency will cause him to drop. Still, he’s an excellent route runner with a real savvy to get himself open, particularly when he’s coming back to the football to help his quarterback out. With Mariota’s escapability and athleticism, Higgins would be a real asset on broken plays, and while he may not be a true deep threat, he’s a force in the red zone. He could find himself on the field early on if he produces in training camp and the preseason. Not many rookies are as refined in terms of route-running ability as he will be.
That’s just Thursday and Friday, but you’re starting to get the picture.
If the Titans can abstain from panicking, make some smart moves and follow their board with regards to value and grades, they’re bound to haul in a richer catch than any other team on draft weekend, potentially by a lot.
As Mark Inabinett points out, no team since the 1991 Cowboys has picked six times in the first 76 picks, so the potential here is pretty unique and unprecedented in the modern era. And I haven’t even mentioned the three additional picks they have on Saturday.
Looking to the future
Even with an incredible haul in this upcoming draft, Robinson and company have their hands full with retaining some of their key players down the road. The decision on whether or not to pick up Chance Warmack’s $11 million-plus, fifth-year option, covering the 2017 season, is in play now. They could look to find his replacement in this year’s draft or next spring.
Kendall Wright will be an unrestricted free agent in 2017, as will Delanie Walker. Those are two key offensive pieces that will have to be addressed. Wright will be playing on his fifth-year option and making $7.3 million for Tennessee this year, but the team will need to see him reverse two years of declining production before making any long-term decisions. Whether or not they decide to extend Wright, they’ll spend this season evaluating what else they have at the position. Perhaps in the scenario presented above, Higgins is the heir apparent for Wright’s role in the offense. Perhaps they’ll feel that Rishard Matthews can play that spot in the meantime. Another option is that they can go spend a first- or second-rounder next year at that spot. They’ll have ammo.
The same could be said for Walker. He’ll be an important part of the offense this season, but he’ll be turning 32 and Tennessee will have to decide if they want to give him a lucrative extension. They could use their day-three picks to take a developmental “move tight end” like Walker, or perhaps try for that in next year’s draft. He won’t be easy to replace, but the Titans will have to weigh production with age and money. Such is the life of a general manager.
Defensively, they’ll have some decisions to make as well. Karl Klug, Ropati Pitoitua and David Bass will be unrestricted free agents, a big reminder of why hitting on draft picks is key. Kenny Clark could get some snaps in the rotation as a potential replacement for those guys, and Noah Spence could step in and take snaps from Bass. If either of those guys hit, depth guys like Klug, Pitoitua and Bass become expendable.
Brice McCain, Rashad Johnson, Antwon Blake and Sean Spence are all playing on one-year deals as well, so Tennessee views them as stop-gaps until they can fill some of their depth with more moves in free agency, or more likely, through the draft and undrafted free agency.
There’s more good news though on that front. This trade is the gift that keeps on giving. Not only will Tennessee enjoy the fruits of their trade with the Rams this season, they’ll be closely watching how Los Angeles fares in the tough NFC West as well. If the Rams falter with a rookie quarterback and a middling offense in 2016, Tennessee could potentially be looking at an extra top-10 pick.
This trade has the opportunity to be a franchise-changing move. The Cowboys, the last team that picked six times in the top 76 spots, used that capital to become a championship team. In 1990, Dallas completed its fifth straight losing season. The year after making all those picks — 1991 — Dallas went 11-5. They won the Super Bowls in 1992, 1993 and 1995.
It remains to be seen if Tennessee can reverse their fortunes with this bounty — and make no mistake, much still depends on the development of Marcus Mariota — but the Titans have the opportunity to pack about three seasons of rebuilding into one year, and it starts in two and a half weeks.
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