Derrick Henry joins Marcus Mariota in a Heisman backfield in Tennesee.
Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire

What does a first-year GM do with a bounty of picks from trading out of No. 1? Tennesses’s Jon Robinson picked a bunch of big, strong players to build a team that will play physical football for the long haul. His model isn’t bad: His old team, New England  

By Jenny Vrentas
April 30, 2016

NASHVILLE — Jon Robinson dropped into a chair in the Titans’ auditorium meeting room a little after 7 p.m. local time Friday night. Over the past hour, he’d gotten to pluck three of the Top 50 players from college football and plug them into the Titans roster. The first-year general manager still sounded exhilarated.

“Whew,” he said. “That went by faster than I thought.”

You can learn a lot about a new regime’s vision for the team by the results of its first draft. And by the end of Friday night, that vision was evident here at the Saint Thomas Sports Park. The Titans had something of a draft bounty in the early rounds, as a result of auctioning off their No. 1 overall pick to Los Angeles, and they used those picks to follow a clear team blueprint that harks back to Robinson’s years working up the scouting ranks for the Patriots.

Tennessee’s first three draft picks this year were guys in the trenches: Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin (No. 8), Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd (No. 33) and Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson (No. 43). Then they selected Derrick Henry (No. 45), the 247-pound Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Alabama. Their fifth pick of the first three rounds, ball-hawking Middle Tennessee safety Kevin Byard (No. 64), filled a need. The message was clear: The Titans want to build a tough, physical football team, from the inside out.

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“My background is mostly in New England, obviously, for 12 years and we were a big football team,” Robinson said after the end of Round 3. “We always had big, strong backs, whether it was Corey Dillon or Laurence Maroney or LeGarrette Blount. On the offensive line we had Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder and Logan Mankins for a long time, all bigger guys. And then on defense, we had Vince Wilfork and, back in the day, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel. We won a lot of football games with those big guys.”

Now he’s trying to do the same here in Tennessee—though he faces a different challenge in trying to turn around a team that won a combined five games the past two seasons. Last year’s high draft slot netted the franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota. This year’s draft was about putting pieces around Mariota to help him be successful.

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The plan, Robinson said, is for Conklin to play at right tackle and be the bookend protector for Mariota opposite left tackle Taylor Lewan. “Tough” is one of the three buzzwords Robinson and head coach Mike Mularkey have used to describe their vision this offseason (the other two are “accountable” and “team-first”). So, it follows that their first-round tackle is a player who said at his introductory press conference, “when I think of football, I think of putting people on the ground.”

Titans GM Jon Robinson with top pick Jack Conklin and coach Mike Mularkey.
Mark Humphrey/AP

Henry will mix in with veteran DeMarco Murray in the backfield. If you’re wondering why they’d use a high draft pick on a back, when they already made the investment to trade for a veteran workhorse in March, it comes back to taking pressure off Mariota. As coach Mike Mularkey put it, “in every down, we’ve got a fresh physical player running the football or blocking for us. It’s a really nice thing to have.” Consider the Henry pick an announcement by the Titans, if you didn’t know it already, that they plan to pound the football this year.

“Teams are starting to build to play in sub defense now a lot, so they are going to more defensive backs,” Robinson said. “Well, to counteract that, we can play a bigger game, and maybe move some of those smaller guys off the ball, if you will. And it shortens the game. If you can control the ball on offense and be able to run the ball, the clock is shortened. So you get a couple stops on defense, you can score and it really limits the other team’s offensive opportunities.”

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On defense, they targeted players to help them get those stops. First on the list was a pass rusher. Dodd, who sacked the passer three times in this year’s NCAA national championship game, will rotate in with veterans Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan at outside linebacker. Johnson will be part of the rotation on the three-man defensive line, with the versatility and quickness to play the nosetackle, three-technique or five-technique positions. Byard, who had 19 career interceptions in college, will compete for a starting safety job.

It’s clear that the identity of this young core they are building matters. That’s probably one reason why Robinson says he had Conklin rated higher on his board than Laremy Tunsil, even before Tunsil’s mysterious gas-mask bong-smoking video emerged. Teams around the league had started to have off-the-field questions about the Ole Miss tackle, and whichever tackle the Titans picked in the first round was going to be the leader of a draft class they hope can help change the franchise’s direction. Mularkey was already saying yesterday, for example, that he hopes Conklin’s addition on the right side of the line will help get the best out of right guard Chance Warmack, a 2013 first-round pick who has underachieved.

“It really feels like when I came into Michigan State, actually,” Conklin said, of wanting to re-establish a winning team. “My first year at State we were 7-6, and the next year we won the Rose Bowl. It is really not about what happened the year before, it’s about the guys you get together. If you get guys that are going to work hard and are really buying into that, that is going to be what championships are going to come from.”

That was also a factor in the Titans picking Henry, who is coming off a national title win for the Crimson Tide and whose desire to win was “evident” when the Titans met with him, as Robinson put it. Plus, they now have the last two Heisman Trophy winners on their roster. That can’t hurt mustering some excitement—and jersey sales—around a team that is too often out of contention by Thanksgiving.

Out of the first five players Robinson picked in his first draft as a GM, the only surefire Day 1 starter is Conklin. But a rebuilding team like the Titans is more interested in the long view. Robinson said that when evaluating players in the draft, they talk about what they will be in their second year, and beyond. He sees five eventual starters who fit into his master plan.

“The guys are big and they’re fast and they’re strong and they’re tough,” Robinson said. “We were going to make whatever moves we needed to, to get the guys that were going to play our brand of football here.”

 

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