Imagine if Jon Robinson had to choose between Jack Conklin and Derrick Henry the first time that he ran the Tennessee Titans’ draft. What if Kevin Byard had not been available to the Titans at all?
Could Robinson have gotten as much out of the 2016 NFL Draft as he did?
NFL.com has reimagined that year’s 31 first-round selections (New England did not have one because of league sanctions) based on what teams needed at the time and how players have performed over the past five seasons.
The result is just another reminder that Robinson got off to a really good start as Tennessee’s general manager. Three of his 10 selections now rate as top 20 overall picks, according to this redraft. In fact, all three went in succession. NFL.com projects that Byard would have gone to the then-Oakland Raiders at No. 14, Henry to the Titans at No. 15 and Conklin to the Detroit Lions at No 16.
Time for a brief history lesson: Tennessee actually traded up from No. 15 to No. 8 during the selection process in order to choose Conklin, who was an All-Pro as a rookie and four-year starter; Henry was the third of the Titans’ three second-round picks, a haul that resulted from Robinson’s decision to trade the No. 1 overall pick to the L.A. Rams weeks before the draft; and Byard was a third-round choice.
It also should be noted that NFL.com only incorporated some of the trades that shaped that year’s draft but ignored others, which is why the Titans are at No. 15 in this exercise.
Byard is one of the real difference-makers for Tennessee’s 2016 draft class. The 64th overall choice became a starter midway through his rookie season and tied for the league lead with eight interceptions in 2017, when he was named a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. He is the only one of that year’s third-round picks to be a first-team All-Pro and one of four to have been selected to the Pro Bowl. His 18 career interceptions are second among all players drafted that year and the most by a safety.
The Raiders, at No. 14, chose safety Karl Joseph, who has been a quality professional but never has been to the Pro Bowl, never has been named an All-Pro and never has intercepted more than one pass in a season. Thus, the decision to go with Byard at that spot in this revision of history.
NFL.com said, in part:
If you're going to draft a safety, you have to take Byard.
Next up at No. 15, Tennessee now goes with Henry over Conklin. At the time, the Titans had veteran DeMarco Murray, and many considered the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner an unnecessary selection and a redundant asset. Five years later, it is nearly impossible to imagine the Titans’ offense without Henry, who became the NFL’s eighth 2,000-yard rusher in 2020. As was the case in real life, Henry is the second running back off the board, only in this case he is a lot closer to the first, Ezekiel Elliott who went to Dallas at No. 4 in real life and in the redraft.
If you want to debate the merits of drafting a running back at this spot, please stop. Because Derrick Henry is the truth.
That leaves Conklin at No. 16 for the Lions, whose actual pick that year was Taylor Decker, another tackle. Decker has been Detroit’s starter on the left side for all 71 career games he has played, but – as was the case with Byard vs. Joseph – he has not accomplished as much as Conklin, who added a second All-Pro honor to his résumé in 2020, his first season with the Cleveland Browns.
Decker has been pretty good. Even has a touchdown reception to his name! But Conklin is a two-time All-Pro, so he's a better selection right here.
Of course, the 2016 draft also included the worst pick of Robinson’s tenure to date, although Isaiah Wilson, last year’s first-round choice, is making a strong case in that regard. Outside linebacker Kevin Dodd, the first of the three second-round selections (No. 33 overall), played just 18 games over two seasons and was a non-factor for the majority of those snaps.
However, defensive lineman Austin Johnson, taken in the second round between Dodd and Henry, wide receiver Tajaé Sharpe (fifth round) and cornerback LeShaun Sims (sixth round) all were useful role players for four years who got opportunities elsewhere as free agents in 2020. They helped make the 2016 Draft a formative one for the Titans, and one that looks better now than it did at the time.