The Tennessee Titans and Ken Whisenhunt have their guy in QB Marcus Mariota, and the Titans may again have a chance in the AFC South.
CHICAGO — Musings, observations and the occasional insight from round one of the 2015 NFL draft, a surprisingly uneventful affair held for the first time at the Auditorium Theater, a few very long spirals away from Soldier Field in the Windy City:
• So much for that sneaky Tennessee smokescreen. Turns out, Ken Whisenhunt and his Titans really did love Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, just like he consistently avowed for most of the past five or six weeks. Because if Tennessee wasn’t swayed by the package Philadelphia reportedly offered for the No. 2 slot Thursday night—and I thought go-for-broke Eagles coach Chip Kelly was way out of bounds throwing the Liberty Bell into the trade talks—nothing was ever going to deter the Titans from their quest of finding themselves a franchise passer, as they proved by keeping their No. 2 pick and taking Mariota with it.
Without a doubt, the Titans listened to the Eagles long and hard, but even with Philly reportedly dangling two first-round picks, a third-rounder, veterans Sam Bradford, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Boykin, Mychal Kendricks and more, (and Kelly later denied any players were ever proffered),Tennessee wasn’t budging.
And it absolutely shouldn’t have. In the NFL as it is currently constituted, you either have your answer at quarterback or you have no chance, and the Titans have been firmly in the former category for most of their post-Steve McNair era.
That’s why I never quite understood the supposition that said Whisenhunt was ready to go to war with only the lightly experienced Zach Mettenberger as his starting quarterback this season. Mettenberger is a heck of a name to have in your pocket if you’re playing a game of Scrabble, but if you plan on winning a bunch of games in the NFL, it’s not enough to have him playing the game’s most pivotal position.
Remember, Whisenhunt knows better than most NFL head coaches the thin, thin line of demarcation between being a successful (almost Super Bowl-winning) head coach and a guy on the firing line, who ends up having to take a step back to the offensive coordinator position. And to no great surprise, quality quarterbacking (see: Warner, Kurt, and Rivers, Philip), is the difference maker. When Whisenhunt was running the likes of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Max Hall and Derek Anderson out there in Arizona, he wasn’t quite wearing the offensive genius label he once sported in the desert.
So once the Titans had a conviction that Mariota was a quarterback they could win with and build around, nothing should have convinced them otherwise to deal the pick. No matter what bounty Philadelphia offered, Tennessee couldn’t be assured of using any of the selections it acquired to land an elite quarterback. And in that case, you seize the opportunity when it’s before you, and don’t get too cute in trying to live for tomorrow. Who’s to say Whisenhunt and staff would have even been around to try their luck in the quarterback derby again in next year’s draft, if another dismal season unfolded in Nashville in 2015?
Whisenhunt tried to tell us in March, saying, “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," he said. "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.
"What you said about [leaning toward the] quarterback at No. 2 is true. 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."
It would have cost the Eagles a ton to get up to No. 2 to select Mariota, the obvious object of Kelly’s desire, but it might have cost the Titans even more in the long run had they passed on the quarterback they think could revive their moribund franchise. But Tennessee didn’t blink, and now Whisenhunt has his guy. In a related development, the Titans may again have a chance in the AFC South.
• The Bucs didn’t really bluff anyone in the pre-draft process either. They signaled their intention to take Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston at No. 1 for the past two months or so, and then they followed through and didn’t let any late trade offers send them in a different direction.
I’m not quite sold on the match of Winston’s maturity level and the temptations that can come with life in the Tampa Bay area—it’s where I grew up, so I have a little history to draw on here—but the Bucs seem completely convinced that they have found their savior. I like that head coach Lovie Smith and former Bucs great Derrick Brooks are steadying forces and will be there to help guide Winston through the early stages of his career. But the vast bulk of the work is up to Winston, and he starts without much benefit of the doubt.
It bears noting that the Bucs' track record for quarterbacks has been downright dismal over the years. No Tampa Bay passer has ever hung around long enough to start 80 games with the franchise, the equivalent of five full seasons, and the Bucs have drafted 23 of the 36 quarterbacks who have started at least one game for them in franchise history. If the Bucs are going to break though and finally end that record of futility, Winston pretty much has to emerge as the anti-Vinny Testaverde, the last quarterback Tampa Bay took to lead off the draft, in 1987.
• I know this much in the wake of Thursday night: that Titans at Bucs Week 1 matchup just got a heck of a lot more interesting than the battle of losers it first looked like. Winston versus Mariota, Chapter 1. After Oregon beat Florida State decisively in the Rose Bowl, the national semifinal in January, Winston will get his rematch opportunity more quickly than most imagined.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll replace Brady versus Manning some day.
• The surprise factor was surprisingly low in the first round, and where were all those trade-back-into-the-bottom-of-the-round moves we were braced for? But if there was one early selection that shocked me it was Washington going for Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff at No. 5, with USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams still available. I expected new Washington general manager Scot McCloughan to either take the tumbling Williams himself, given that many considered him the most elite prospect in this year’s draft, or trade out of the slot, with some team eager to nab Williams.
But neither happened, perhaps because once Florida pass rusher Dante Fowler was off the board at No. 3 Jacksonville, McCloughan didn’t feel strongly enough about any of the other pass rushers to take them at No. 5. But even Scherff, who carried a top-10 grade, said he was surprised Washington was his final destination.
"I haven’t talked to them since the combine, so I was pretty surprised," Scherff said after donning his new colors in Chicago. "But I’m stoked and happy, and I’m ready to go."
It’s a clear-cut upgrade for Jay Gruden’s team at its troubling right tackle spot, but if Williams goes on to greatness with the Jets, who took him sixth overall, that’s a pick that could well be hung around McCloughan’s neck in Washington.
• With Williams now a Jet, and joining that stacked New York defensive front, it’s no secret that Muhammad Wilkerson just lost some contract leverage in his potential stand-off with the team. Wilkerson isn’t happy with his contract and is staying away from the team’s off-season program in a show of mild protest.
With Williams on board, advantage Jets. Said new Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan on Thursday night: "We’re not actively trying to shop Muhammad."
Translation? But we’ll run to pick up the phone if anybody wants to call and talk trade.
• Just a guess, but I’ll bet New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s son, Dante, is just going to love Leonard Williams’s hair. And Dante de Blasio may not even be a Jets fan.
• I don’t even know if he got off his couch, but Oakland’s Derek Carr had a very good night and might have been one of the biggest winners in the first round. The No. 4 Raiders ignored the defensive talent still on the board, including Williams, in order to get a potential No. 1 receiver for their second-year quarterback, landing Alabama’s supremely polished Amari Cooper.
The Raiders continue to have a hopeful off-season, and if Cooper and free-agent receiver Michael Crabtree can significantly upgrade the Oakland receiving game, Carr’s development has a chance to take a sizable year-two leap.
• You didn’t have to be in the Auditorium Theater to figure out that Bears fans went nuts for their team’s pick of West Virginia receiver Kevin White at No. 7. I’d trade Brandon Marshall for White in my lineup without a moment’s hesitation, which is essentially what the Bears did this off-season, moving the more-trouble-than-he’s-worth Marshall to the Jets in March.
Well played Ryan Pace, well played. White looks like he has a bit of that take-over-the-game quality that I watched Randy Moss flash in his ridiculous rookie season of 1998. And as a bonus, White doesn’t have to fly to New York on Tuesdays to tape Showtime’s Inside the NFL.
• Really, Zach Mettenberger? A trade demand? Confidence is always a good quality to possess in life. But so too is a firm grasp of reality. You haven’t really stored up enough credit in the NFL bank to be trying to force your way out of Tennessee. And if it was your agent, Joe Linta, making the demand, that’s only a technicality. Linta works for Mettenberger, not the other way around.
• Wow. Someone went a little crazy with the color black on those new 49ers alternate uniforms. Better hope there aren’t too many sun-drenched 1 p.m. PST kickoffs at Levi’s Stadium in those babies. They might be the height of fashion to some, but they best be worn in night games only.
• After all the talk of wheeling and dealing, there were only two lousy first-round trades Thursday night, which felt like a disappointment to many fans. But, hey, what’d we think this was, the start of free agency?
• But two running backs taken in the top 15 of the draft. That was fun, and rather old-school. Todd Gurley went to the Rams at No. 10, and then San Diego traded up from 17 to No. 15 (with the 49ers) to take Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.
A running back hadn’t been selected in the first round since 2012, and none had gone in the top 10 since Cleveland’s ill-fated pick of Trent Richardson third overall that year.
I’m convinced Melvin Gordon is going to be a superb pro. And the Chargers were smart to target and go after him, jumping ahead of Houston to make sure they got their man. I’m happy for Gordon to get some sunshine to run in, after all those cold days of carrying the rock in Madison and other Big Ten environs.
And I hope both Gurley and Gordon like Los Angeles, because who knows, by 2016 we could be seeing them playing in the same stadium in L.A. That way they could keep their head-to-head draft class rivalry going well into their NFL careers.
• If Danny Shelton wraps up ballcarriers anywhere as well as he did commissioner Roger Goodell with that post-selection bear hug—Goodell’s feet came at least a foot off the ground—the AFC North best be ready. And I loved the look sported by the Washington defensive tackle, who went 12th to Cleveland. But it takes a very confident man to pull off that draft-night outfit. It was a vintage tip of the cap to his heritage.
It was a great night for the Browns in the first round, and when’s the last time we could say that? Shelton will greatly help the defensive line and Florida State interior offensive lineman Cameron Erving was a nice move on the offensive line, especially if center Alex Mack opts out of his contract after this season. Two linemen, two solid hits. The Browns were boring for a change, and that’s refreshingly great news in Cleveland.
* The Saints offensive line is suddenly in much better shape. First New Orleans upgraded at center by acquiring Seattle’s Max Unger in the Jimmy Graham deal, and now Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat just came on board at No. 13 on Thursday night.
The night may have felt like a bit of a letdown to Saints fans, but fixing the offensive line issues should help make Drew Brees and that high-powered offense look like its old self again in 2015.
• It’s still not a completely done deal I suppose, but the Vikings have said Adrian Peterson will play for them or no one in 2015, and I’m thinking there are quite a few more people buying that scenario Thursday night. Minnesota has had resolve on this issue for a while now, at least since the March league annual meeting, and I was told by two Vikings sources on Thursday that Cris Carter’s "report" earlier in the day that he believed a Peterson trade to be on the way had no validity whatsoever. Zero was how it was put to me.
It’s not out of the question the Vikings might still settle for a second-round pick in exchange for their disgruntled lead running back, but I severely doubt it.
• Miami might have missed out on running back Gurley, who went four spots ahead of the Dolphins to the No. 10 Rams, but what a nice rebound in having Louisville receiver DeVante Parker sitting there waiting. Miami was thought to be a candidate to move up in pursuit of one of the draft’s top three receivers, but it didn’t have to, thanks to a bit of a mini-run on three offensive lineman (Scherff, the No. 9 Giants taking Ereck Flowers and the Saints selecting Peat) going in the top 13 slots.
With Mike Wallace moved to Minnesota, Parker takes over his deep-threat slot, and chances are he’ll mesh far better with fourth-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill than Wallace ever did. It was a nice week for Mr. Tannehill, who saw the Dolphins pick up his lucrative fifth-year option for 2016 and then go out and nab him a great young receiving weapon.
• If Shane Ray lives up to his word and makes Monday’s horribly timed citation for marijuana possession a blip in an otherwise productive and exemplary career, the Broncos will be the benefactor of his mistake.
Denver traded up with No. 23 Detroit to take the Missouri pass rusher just head of No. 24 Arizona (which likely would have pounced, given its need for pass pressure), and that could be a very shrewd move in time. Ray had a top 10 grade on many boards, and getting him in the early 20s represents great value. New Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will sleep well tonight. Phillips knows how to use young pass-rushing talent, and after a tumultuous week, it may have been to Ray’s great fortune that his rollercoaster ride wound up in Denver.