PHOENIX—If you’re buying into the steady Jameis Winston to Tampa Bay buzz atop the NFL draft—and I’m dancing to that drumbeat—then this year’s pickfest really starts with the Tennessee Titans at No. 2. And that supposition made Ken Whisenhunt a very popular man Tuesday morning at the AFC coaches/media breakfast at the NFL’s annual meeting.
Some quick and hopefully telling observations after spending the entire hour of availability listening to the Titans' second year coach at the Arizona Biltmore hotel:
• Not one time in those 60 minutes did Whisenhunt get asked about or bring up the name of USC defensive end Leonard Williams, or for that matter any other non-quarterback draft prospect who might be on Tennessee’s radar screen.
• Roughly 60% (or more) of the questions posed to Whisenhunt centered on Oregon QB Marcus Mariota and his suitability for the Titans, which was probably four times the amount of Winston-related queries he fielded.
• It’s draft season, so of course Whisenhunt might have had his A-game smokescreen employed, but he said nothing to discourage the idea that quarterback-starved Tennessee almost has to take a QB at No. 2, and fell well short of declaring he’s ready to stake his coaching future on second-year veteran Zach Mettenberger at the game’s most pivotal position.
• If Whisenhunt has any real concerns about Mariota’s quiet, soft-spoken demeanor and his history of playing in a non-NFL-like spread offense, with very limited experience under center, he hid them superbly. He repeatedly said Mariota seems up to the challenge of making a successful transition to the NFL, and came very close to saying the former Duck would be his team’s opening day starter this year if he’s the pick at No. 2.
I say very close because Whisenhunt prefaced an answer to a question I asked him about whether he was convinced Mariota was ready to be a Day 1 starter—no matter where he lands in the NFL—with a reminder that the Titans are still in the middle of their quarterback evaluation process. That part of the answer, not surprisingly, didn’t get as much play on Twitter as the rest of his response, which sounded very much like an endorsement of Mariota at No. 2.
"I would hesitate to make any judgments like that until we’re finished with our evaluation," Whisenhunt said. “But it’s hard to not be impressed with what he did in college ... If he comes to us at No. 2, if we pick him at No. 2, then you definitely think he’s going to be the Day 1 starter."
Whisenhunt was later asked if the Titans indeed have made a decision to select Mariota if he’s available, and he clarified by adding: “That’s not the case. I guess what I was saying on that point was that if you draft a quarterback at No. 2, generally he’s going to be your day-one starter, because you’re investing in a young guy that high. There are not that many first or second picks at quarterback that don’t start [immediately] for you. Especially with where we are."
Of course, the Titans are coming off a debacle of a 2–14 season that tied Tampa Bay for the worst record in the league (the Bucs earned the No. 1 pick based on their weaker strength of schedule), and in possession of only Mettenberger and journeyman backup Charlie Whitehurst on their quarterback depth chart. Mettenberger started six games last season and played in seven, never taking part in a victory. He fared decently enough given the circumstances of playing for a team that lost 14 of its last 15 games (eight touchdowns, seven interceptions, for 1,412 yards and an 83.4 passer rating), but the former sixth-round pick out of LSU certainly didn’t do enough to inspire confidence that he’s the Titans’ clear-cut future at the position.
In today’s NFL, you either have your answer at quarterback or you’re desperately searching, and the former is the neighborhood where Tennessee resides. The cold reality is if you have no quarterback, you have no chance.
"All I know is that if you have that quarterback, it can cover up a lot of areas where you may be more deficient in," Whisenhunt told me after the breakfast session broke up. "Coaches get a lot better with a good quarterback, as I well know. That’s the question with us, the one we’re going through. I’m not diminishing Zach, but I’m also not going to overlook that there’s two pretty good players out there in this draft."
Whisenhunt might have been trying his darnest to get the word out around the league that the Titans are thinking quarterback at No. 2, in order to attract a potential trade partner (hello, No. 6 Jets?). But I came away fairly well convinced that Tennessee is a long shot to take anything but a passer who can hopefully re-invigorate their franchise, their offense and their fan base. Whisenhunt talked about the ongoing process of evaluating both Winston and Mariota and then comparing their work to Mettenberger’s last season, but he kept coming back around to the value of a franchise arm at No. 2.
"What you said about [leaning toward the] quarterback at No. 2 is true," Whisenhunt said. "The way it seems to go in this league, very seldom do you get a quarterback later in the draft who can have the type of impact like some of these guys like Andrew Luck and others. And it’s hard to get up there. If you’re not up there and you’re in the middle of the draft and trying to get up, it costs you a lot from the standpoint of what you have to give up. And that makes it difficult and can impact your team in other areas."
Whisenhunt estimated the Titans are intensely focused on “probably six" potential prospects at No. 2, but it certainly sounded like it’s the top two quarterbacks, and then everybody else. I asked him if the better value might be to take an elite non-quarterback prospect at No. 2, then come back and get his future quarterback early in the second round, providing he believes the gap between Winston and Mariota and the rest of the quarterback field isn’t too great?
"Yeah, what you say makes sense," he said. "But if I pick at No. 2, it’s painful to be at No. 2. What you want to do is you want to be able to get something out of it. Historically teams that make picks at quarterback in those [top\ spots have had a lot of success with those guys. So it’s hard to think you’re going to pass that opportunity up, thinking you’re going to go back there again. It’s so hard to get there, and it costs your team so much to get there, you’ve got to really make sure you’re comfortable going another direction if you don’t go that way [drafting a quarterback]. At that spot you do."
So to summarize, Whisenhunt doesn’t like the track history of finding a quality starting quarterback later in the draft, but lauded the track history of finding a quality starting quarterback in the top two slots of the draft. Feel free to draw your own conclusions from those two comments.
"You don’t want to be in that spot [at No. 2], so you’ve got to get as much bang for your buck as you can," Whisenhunt said. “After going through a tough season, you want to get better as a football team, and that pick can help us get there."
And by "get there," Whisenhunt made it clear he meant into the playoffs, a goal that has been publicly set for the team this season by recently retired Titans president/CEO Tommy Smith. Is that really a possibility if the Tennessee doesn’t make a serious upgrade at quarterback in the draft?
"If you go and look at all the teams that went to the playoffs last year, the one common thing is they had a guy who was good at that position," Whisenhunt said. “It’s an important position. It’s why they get paid a little bit when they’re successful and why you keep those guys when they do. It’s hard to find them, and when you get them, they can really help have an impact on your football team."
A franchise quarterback can also help energize a demoralized fan base that has watched the Titans fail to make the playoffs six consecutive years and lose every playoff game since 2003. Whisenhunt knows first-hand the difference an elite passer can make. Whether he was coaching in Pittsburgh, Arizona or San Diego, when he had a Ben Roethlisberger, a Kurt Warner or a Philip Rivers, he was seen as a brilliant coach. When he didn’t, as his post-Warner tenure with the Cardinals displayed, he went from brilliant to bum almost overnight.
"There’s a lot of guys in that mode," he said. "Tell me a coach that’s different in that regard. When you’re picking at No. 2, you’re picking the player who’s going to help you win, because that’s what’s important. Ultimately if you win games, that takes care of all that. But would it be fair to say [energizing the fan base and the franchise] is an extra benefit that comes with getting a guy at that spot? You don’t do it necessarily because of it, but you certainly enjoy the benefit you get from it if you [draft a quarterback]."
Whisenhunt and the Titans have already spent generous amounts of time with Mariota, seeing him at both the NFL scouting combine and his Oregon pro day, as well as having an extensive private visit with him this month. Mariota is also still planning to visit the Titans team facility at some point in the coming weeks. They’ve only had 15 minutes meeting with Winston so far, at the combine, but the Florida State star still hasn’t conducted his pro day workout, and Tennessee will schedule a private workout with him as well.
Whisenhunt said he came away from his time with Mariota believing “he shows a lot of the qualities that you see [in quarterbacks] who have been successful in the league have."
"He’s an accurate thrower, doesn’t turn the ball over much, extends the play. He can do a lot of things at that position like the guys who have been successful," Whisenhunt said.
Of special note to Whisenhunt was Mariota’s football intelligence. “Marcus was impressive to me how he processed things," he said. "He can talk about teams, and fronts and situations from years ago, and to me having that spatial memory, the ability to recall those things, that’s an important part of playing that position."
Whisenhunt was repeatedly asked about the notion that Mariota may be too reserved, with a quiet personality that doesn’t fit with the demands of playing quarterback and leading a team in the NFL. His arm might be pro-ready, but what about the rest of his game and huddle presence? Can he command a locker room and play the bad cop with teammates when necessary? Whisenhunt said he had only to watch Mariota hang out with his Oregon teammates at the school’s pro day to put that concern to rest.
"In that environment, it’s about seeing how his team interacts with him and how he interacts with the team," he said. “How they respond to him. I’ll tell you it was very impressive. When the linemen and all the other players were doing their lifting and their jumps, I’ve seen [quarterbacks] in the past who kind of go over to the side and do their own thing. Because he’s not throwing, so essentially he’s just waiting.
"But it wasn’t that way with Marcus. He was around the guys, they came up to him, there was a lot of bonding, a lot of talk. Those are the things that you want to look for in a quarterback, because really that’s what it’s about. When you’re on the 10 yard line and you’ve got to go 90 yards to win it, you want those guys to believe in the quarterback, and obviously those guys believe in Marcus. Two and a half hours after the pro day workout was over, there were five Oregon receivers and the center who stayed to work with him for us. Those guys staying, that’s a great sign. I feel very comfortable with Marcus. He’s impressive."
Mariota’s experience in the Ducks spread offense and his lack of work under center in a pro-style offense? It didn’t sound like a deal-breaker in Whisenhunt’s estimation.
"He did a bunch of snaps under center in his workout. It didn’t look like a problem at all," Whisenhunt said. "They’re athletes, high-functioning athletes. They can do it. You naturally think he could make that transition."
Add it all up, and naturally I came away from Tuesday’s breakfast thinking the Titans are taking Mariota at No. 2 if he’s there. And once the Bucs select Winston as I believe they intend to, he will be. The draft is still more than five weeks away, and the deception game is in full swing, but Tennessee and Mariota are starting to sound like a match.