INDIANAPOLIS — A year ago at this point, life was far simpler for the Tennessee Titans. The only question they were really dealing with near the top of the NFL draft was which franchise quarterback were they going to get at No. 2: Florida State’s Jameis Winston or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota?
But this time things are more complicated, even though the Titans own the top spot in this year’s draft, and thus can’t be dictated to by any other team. This time, Tennessee faces arguably a much trickier call at No. 1 than they did in selecting Mariota second overall last year, even though Tampa Bay held the pole position in the 2015 draft.
This year the Titans aren’t in cut-and-dried territory. They have options—at least they hope they have options, and good ones, to either trade out of the top spot for a small windfall of picks, or to sit tight and take an impact player who can help assure them of not being so close to the beginning of the action for a third straight draft in 2017.
But this isn’t one of those definitive drafts at the top, and that means the Titans have some difficult value decisions to make in the coming two months. Do they stand pat and select the top-rated offensive tackle—Mississippi’s Laremy Tunsil—shop their pick furiously in the hopes that some quarterback-needy team feels it necessary to jump over the No. 2 Browns, or think a bit outside the box and take an elite player like Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey, Ohio State pass rusher Joey Bosa or even UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, no matter if they aren’t universally considered worthy of the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick?
So what’s it going to be, Titans? An NFL nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Not that they’re about to tell us anything now, this far out from the night of April 28 in Chicago. As if.
“Having the No. 1 overall pick gives us options,’’ new Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson said Wednesday, the first full day of the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. “We certainly don’t want to be in this position next year. We want to move on from having the No. 1 pick. But we want to try and capitalize on it and try to make an impact to our roster, whether we pick an impact player or we acquire more picks via trade.’
Robinson said there are “a handful” of players the Titans consider impact picks worthy of the No. 1 slot, but admitted that “a handful could be a couple, it could be 10 depending on how big your hands are.”
This much is clear as of Wednesday: The Titans are both hopeful and optimistic that they’ll have an offer to trade down to at least consider in the coming months, owing to the number of teams that need either immediate or future starting quarterback options in the top half of this year’s first round. Passing prospects Jared Goff of Cal, Carson Wentz of North Dakota State and Memphis’s Paxton Lynch are being pushed up teams’ boards due to demand.
“I believe we will [have offers],” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said in his combine media session, which followed Robinson’s. “Maybe a lot of that will depend on what takes place here in the next week, with some of the players, what they do.”
Whether they stick and pick or trade down, the Titans seem to be clearly focusing their first-round draft attention on securing better pass protection for Mariota, who was sacked 38 times in just 12 games as a rookie, with Tennessee leading the league in sacks allowed (54). That seems to point toward either Tunsil at No. 1, or a trade down that helps land the second-highest rated offensive tackle, Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock floated a scenario this week in which the Titans coming out of the first round with Stanley and extra picks would be their ultimate win-win situation.
“To me, I think they’d love to move down a couple spots, and if Tunsil wasn’t there, I don’t think the difference between Tunsil and Ronnie Stanley is all that great,’’ Mayock said in a Monday conference call with media members. “So if they were able to move down four or five, six slots and still get a tackle, I think the same process would hold.”
With as many needs as the 3–13 Titans have, of course a modest trade down into the lower half of the top 10 would represent a grand slam. But we’re weeks and weeks away from knowing if they’ll have a likely trade partner, and that leaves them mulling the possibilities at No. 1. And that list probably starts with Tunsil, who measured in at the combine on Wednesday at 6' 5", 310 pounds, with 34 1/4 inch arms and 10-inch hands. If they land Tunsil, it’s believed that Tennessee will install Tunsil at the pivotal left tackle slot, moving current left tackle Taylor Lewan (a 2014 first-round pick) to right tackle, theoretically improving a porous offensive line two-fold. Current right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi would kick inside and compete for a guard spot, giving the Titans a chance for a pretty significant O-line makeover.
Robinson said, rather tepidly, of Tunsil: “He’s played a lot of football in the SEC. He’s a good athlete. He’s blocked a lot of good football players. Again, I haven’t met him yet. I’m looking forward to meeting him and getting him to know him a little bit.”
All early indications are that Mariota’s health and well-being will definitely drive this draft in Tennessee.
“[Left tackle] is a premium position in the NFL, but quarterback is the most important on the team,’’ Robinson said. “It’s imperative you keep him upright and keep him being able to throw the football. It’s keeping him upright so he can throw and putting the ball in his hands, those are the key parts of the game.’’
Tunsil looks to be the safe and clean pick for the Titans in so many ways, but so did a handful of other top-rated offensive tackles in recent drafts, and many of them have underachieved and still not lived up to their top 10 slot for various reasons. Do the names Jake Long (2008), Jason Smith (’09), Eric Fisher (’13), Luke Joeckel (’13) and Greg Robinson (’14) give the Titans any pause when considering Tunsil or Stanley? All of them went either first or second overall since ’08, and while both Robinson and Mularkey didn’t consider that troubling trend a dealbreaker for a tackle at No. 1, maybe in time they’ll start to reconsider.
“I haven’t really gone back and done the analytical research on all that,’’ Robinson said. “Why certain tackles didn’t necessarily pan out … could be a scheme-related thing. It could be a coaching-related thing. I think every situation positively and negatively, is really kind of its own unique situation and you have to evaluate it kind of in your own organization.”
Mularkey largely echoed Robinson, adding “You’re taking a chance, you’re taking what you believe is a starter and you’re banking on he can do what you saw on tape. Some guys can do that, quarterbacks as well, at the collegiate level, and then they struggle when they get to the NFL, for whatever reason that is. Like Jon said, it could be scheme, coaching, maybe even ability. But I think you’ve got to be careful you don’t over analyze things, as well.’’
But analyze this: Only four offensive tackles have gone first overall in the NFL draft in its 80 previous years, with Tunsil potentially becoming the fifth. Ron Yary and Orlando Pace are Hall of Famers, but Long and Fisher, both have fallen considerably short of that lofty career trajectory. Perhaps the speed pass rushers in the NFL these days are better at their jobs than some of the most highly-ranked tackles coming out in the draft.
Mularkey and others on Wednesday pointed out that it has become harder to project offensive linemen into the NFL in recent years due to the proliferation of spread offenses at the college level. Those prospects require more development time, which is a luxury few teams can afford when picking a player first overall in the entire draft.
You’re picking a projected cornerstone at No. 1, and cornerstones aren’t supposed to need much time to adjust before they start supporting a sizable load. That’s the risk the Titans might be taking at No. 1 with Tunsil, and that’s why a trade down for perhaps Stanley or maybe an impact defender might wind up being their smartest play.
Sitting tight at No. 2 and taking a quarterback was the easy call for the Titans last year, and it paid off immediately with Mariota’s fine rookie season. But things are more nuanced for top-slotted Tennessee in 2016. With two months left in the draft process, there’s nothing slam-dunk about this year’s No. 1 pick. It’s a prime choice, but it comes with a difficult decision to make.