After the Titans shocked the NFL world by beating the top-seeded Ravens in the divisional round, I received a text message from a coach connected to the Titans.
“One hundred percent,” he wrote, “That team has taken on that guy’s personality.”
That guy is Mike Vrabel, and his personality indicates that these Titans fully realize that they are the baddest guys in the room.
But the truth beneath that truth is that this started before Vrabel arrived in 2018. It started when GM Jon Robinson arrived two years before that and immediately injected the team with that personality this coach was referencing. It’s clear the Titans are built with identity, and for the few players that pre-date Robinson in Tennessee, the GM’s purpose was obvious from the start.
“I think the one thing he tried to find is guys that are like-minded, guys that work hard, guys that are hard-nosed, gritty, tough,” linebacker Wesley Woodyard, one of six guys that Robinson inherited that remain on the roster, said over the phone Friday morning. “You look at the guys he brought in, things were not given to them, they had fight for it, earn it just to get to the NFL. The message’s been the same since then. We want fighters. We’re not interested in the world-class athlete that complains. We want guys that go to work every week.
“That’s the mentality here. And that’s what you want as a veteran. You don’t want guys that don’t stick with the program. You want guys coming here asking, ‘How can I get better?’
Along those lines, Robinson’s first draft pick was a former college walk-on, Jack Conklin. His big-ticket free agent was center Ben Jones, who came into the league as a fourth-round pick. And it wasn’t a mistake that both played on the line of scrimmage.
Robinson’s first three picks in Tennessee were offensive or defensive linemen, his fourth was a 240-pound tailback and his fifth was an enforcer who’d grow into an All-Pro safety. And that was just the beginning. Among the top 10 cap figures on Tennessee’s roster (a list that includes two quarterbacks) are four offensive linemen and two defensive linemen. Robinson’s last two first-rounders? An inside linebacker and defensive tackle.
This didn’t happen overnight, which may explain why cornerback Logan Ryan (a 2017 free-agent signing) pushed back on the notion that the team was taking on Vrabel’s personality.
“If you wanna give him credit, you can give him that. Mike’s a great coach,” Ryan said. “He’s tough, he’s disciplined. You’re gonna follow your head coach, what he wants and what he believes in. But this team, two years ago, went to the playoffs, upset Kansas City and lost to New England in the next round. A lot of these guys, we’ve been here, we’ve played a tough schedule this year, we’ve played about every Pro Bowl receiver, we’ve played every Pro Bowl quarterback, we’ve played a tough schedule.
“We had a lot of tough wins, tough fights. We’re just a bunch of guys who believe in each other right now.”
Does that reflect Vrabel? Absolutely, and there’s no question he’s been hugely responsible for taking the vision to another level. I believe he’s a top-10 head coach in the league right now, with a chance to get even better.
But it’d be wrong to miss that the vision for the 2019 Titans has been building for some time—the kind rugged, edgy counterpoint to the smaller, faster teams that help to define a spread-offense era in pro football. Robinson had the vision, and Vrabel is the perfect coach to carry it out.
“We can all be our own men, but the biggest thing from Vrabel—it was the same message, no falter, no fluctuation,” said Woodyard. “It holds true in good time and bad times. You have to ride with a coach like that.”
The Titans sure have, right through Foxboro and Baltimore, and into Kansas City with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line this weekend. Their ability to pull that off? It plays right into the identity they’ve built.
“It does, 100 percent,” Woodyard said. “[Robinson] brought in players with grit and toughness, and more importantly, guys that work for it, guys want to work for it. Those road games, no one gives us a chance. But when you’ve got guys that didn’t go in the first round, or had to fight to get there, you understand how you gotta come to work. That underdog mentality goes miles, man. Because when you line up in an away game like this, you gotta fight for it.”
Can the Titans pull off a third straight upset on Sunday? They’ll give the Chiefs a pretty good fight, because that’s just how they’re built.
Here, I’ll break down how the rosters for each of the 2019 conference finalists are constructed.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Homegrown players: 32 of 53 (28 draftees/4 college free agents)
Outside free agents: 16
Players acquired via trades/waivers: 4
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Aaron Rodgers with the No. 24 overall pick in the 2005 draft.
Last five first-round picks: DE Rashan Gary (2019, No. 12 overall); S Darnell Savage, 2019, No. 21 overall); CB Jaire Alexander (2018, No. 18 overall); DL Kenny Clark (2016, No. 27 overall); S Damarious Randall (2015, No. 30 overall).
Top-five cap figures: Rodgers, $29.67 million; OT David Bakhtiari, $14.20 million; TE Jimmy Graham, $12.67 million; WR Davante Adams, $10.73 million; OT Bryan Bulaga, $8.35 million.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Homegrown players: 21 (17 draftees/4 college free agents)
Outside free agents: 22
Players acquired via trades/waivers: 10
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Patrick Mahomes with the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NFL draft
Last five first-round picks: Mahomes (2017, No. 10 overall); CB Marcus Peters (2015, No. 18 overall); DE Dee Ford (2014, No. 23 overall); OT Eric Fisher (2013, No. 1 overall); DT Dontari Poe (2012, No. 11 overall).
Top-five cap figures: WR Sammy Watkins $19.20 million; TE Travis Kelce $10.72 million; OG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif $8.25 million; OT Eric Fisher $7.04 million; DE Frank Clark $6.50 million.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Homegrown players: 29 (21 draftees/8 college free agents)
Outside free agents: 18
Players acquired via trades/waivers: 6
Quarterback acquired: Traded a 2018 second-round pick to New England for Jimmy Garoppolo.
Last five first-round picks: DE Nick Bosa (2019, No. 2 overall); OT Mike McGlinchey (2018, No. 9 overall); DL Solomon Thomas (2017, No. 3 overall); LB Reuben Foster (2017, No. 31 overall); DL DeForest Buckner (2016, No. 7 overall).
Top-five cap figures: Garoppolo, $20.00 million; OT Joe Staley, $14.42 million; DE Dee Ford, $14.37 million; CB Richard Sherman, $13.93 million; DL Arik Armstead, $9.05 million.
Homegrown players: 28 (22 draftees/6 college free agents)
Outside free agents: 19
Players acquired via trades/waivers: 6
Quarterback acquired: Traded a 2020 fourth-round pick and a ’19 seventh-round pick to Miami for QB Ryan Tannehill and a ’19 sixth-round pick.
Last five first-round picks: DT Jeffrey Simmons (2019, No. 19 overall); LB Rashaan Evans (2018, No. 22 overall); WR Corey Davis (2017, No. 5 overall); CB Adoree’ Jackson (2017, No. 18 overall); OT Jack Conklin (2016, No. 8 overall).
Top-five cap figures: QB Marcus Mariota, $20.92 million; OT Taylor Lewan, $13.29 million; DL Jurrell Casey, $12.69 million; CB Logan Ryan, $10.67 million; DE DaQuan Jones, $7.33 million.
That identity above we mentioned with the Titans? It exists with the others too.
The Chiefs are loaded with guys who can fly on offense—Watkins and Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman among them. The Niners have speed everywhere in general, even at bigger positions like tight end (George Kittle) and linebacker (Kwon Alexander). And the Packers have invested on the perimeter of secondary (Alexander), front seven (Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith) and offense (Adams).
Other common threads? I sent this chart out to some NFL folks, and received some answers.
• The continued explosion of the salary cap—it’s risen by 49% since 2013, going up at least $10 million every year—has allowed for expensive mistakes. Mariota has the top cap figure on the Titans roster. Watkins has been good-not-great and accounts for more than 10% of the Chiefs’ 2019 cap.
And on the flip side, draft mistakes have been fixed with veterans who were realistic options despite teams having expensive quarterbacks, because of the excess cap room. The Niners struck out on Foster and were able to sign Kwon Alexander to a deal that set records for off-ball linebackers at the time. The Packers bailed on Randall three years after drafting him, and signed Adrian Amos at nearly $10 million per to fill the void.
“[Jimmy] Graham, Watkins and Mariota all had [bad] years,” said one NFC exec. “Big mistakes anymore. I’m not saying they were mistakes at the time, but the cap is large enough now not to be hampered by a few under-performers.
• Only one team isn’t spending at quarterback. The Chiefs have $9.67 million tied up in the position—thought that won’t last much longer—while the Packers have $30.06 million in cap dollars with the quarterback position, the Titans have $23.28 million in the position and the 49ers have $21.38 million. That’s allowed Kansas City to take swings on outside vets (Watkins, Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark) and take care of their own (Tyreek Hill) of late.
The Chiefs have operated with a sense of urgency for two reasons: Because they can, and perhaps because they know the edge they have (the same one Rams and Eagles had and have now lost) won’t last forever.
To their competitors that much is obvious. One NFC scouting chief said, “K.C.’s the only one with a quarterback that’s not in their top five [on the chart], so they better win now!”
• There’s less of a draft-centric feel to these teams. The Packers are the most homegrown-heavy team—32 of their 53 come from within. And even with them, it’s a downturn from where they used to be, under former GM Ted Thompson. When I did this exercise three years ago, the last time Green Bay made this far, that number for the Packers was 44. Under new GM Brian Gutekunst, things have changed, like they have across the league.
“I’d say that the whole ‘building through the draft’ logic still applies, but I think teams are more willing to use other vehicles to build the roster [free agency, trades, claims],” texted one AFC exec. “Kids coming out now are younger, less developed and teams have less security/less time to build a winner so they’re looking for more proven talent. Green Bay has the least amount of “outsourced” players but it should increase with [Gutekunst] now in charge. “
“Chiefs—only 21 homegrown!” said one NFC GM. “So many different ways to win.”
Indeed, all these teams have significant veterans from the outside. The Niners have Garoppolo and Alexander; the Packers have the Smiths, Amos and Graham; the Titans have Tannehill, Ryan, Ben Jones and Rodger Saffold; and the Chiefs have Clark, Mathieu, Watkins, and an ecletic mix of corners.
• You do have to nail some picks, preferably the high ones. The Chiefs (Mahomes) and Niners (Bosa) got guys who hit an All-Pro level in their early 20s, and figure to be franchise cornerstones for a long time to come. The Titans and Packers have had those sorts of grand slams, but have found important pieces. Alexander, for example, is among the best corners in football for the Packers. Evans and Simmons, meanwhile, are already flashing as playmakers on playoff stages for the Titans (and Simmons is coming off a torn ACL).
“These teams for the most part have hit with their first-round draft picks, which is harder than one would think—San Francisco a little less so,” said an AFC pro scouting director. “That goes back to the draft being the lifeblood of your organization and how when you hit on picks it gives you cash flexibility to build around.”
And it’s interesting too that even the exception there, the Niners, have built their strongest position group almost entirely through the first round of the draft, with Buckner, Armstead, Bosa and Thomas all top-10 picks.
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