The NFL draft hinges on what happens second. It’s pretty clear by now that the Buccaneers, barring some sort of massive change in plans, will be taking Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first overall pick. That leaves the Tennessee Titans, sitting second, to decide how the remainder of the first round shakes out.
What they do at no. 2 could sink the franchise for years or inspire a sudden turnaround; they can swing for the fences, settle for a safe option, or transform their roster with a trade. Given their myriad needs, there are more realistic possibilities on the table for Tennessee this year than there are for any other team in football.
State of the Team
This has been a long time coming for the Titans, who have slowly shed talent since their last playoff appearance in 2008. While they gained a trio of effective defensive pieces in the mid-to-late rounds with 2009 sixth-rounder Jason McCourty, 2010 fourth-rounder Alterraun Verner, and 2011 third-rounder Jurrell Casey, Tennessee failed to find enough talent at the top of the draft. The core of this Titans team should have come from the guys they have selected in the first three rounds since that 2008 playoff run, and those guys simply aren’t very good:
That’s a group with one star (Casey), a few players who qualify as contributors (Morgan, Wright, Lewan, arguably Warmack), and a lot of guys who failed to develop into much of anything. What’s also curious is how players like Marks and Ayers failed to make an impact in Tennessee, were marginalized as part of the team’s defensive issues and shifts in style, and then given away before immediately finding success elsewhere.
I’ll get to the big name in a moment, but as important as finding a quarterback is, it’s missing on those second- and third-rounders that has really cost Tennessee. For all that Casey has offered, none of those other players from the second or third rounds has turned into a healthy, above-average player in a Titans uniform, and the likes of Mouton, Curran, Martin, and Wreh-Wilson have been sub-replacement level.
To patch holes on their roster and replace players who have either left or ceased to be effective enough to justify a roster spot, the Titans have instead been forced to shop in free agency. While they made a pass at Peyton Manning when the Colts released their injured star quarterback after the 2011 season, the vast majority of their signings have come in the middle of the market, where players are often too expensive to emerge as bargains and not talented enough to justify the significant salary hike compared with younger prospects on rookie deals. It’s actually staggering to see just how many marginal players the Titans have signed over the past few seasons. You can make a whole team out of those veterans. No, really:
I could throw in another dozen players as backups, too; they went three-deep at quarterback with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Charlie Whitehurst, fruitlessly chased a pass rush by adding Shaun Phillips for half a season, and bizarrely targeted ex-Eagles linebackers like Will Witherspoon and Moise Fokou. They hit on a few players — Babin had an out-of-nowhere 12.5-sack season during his lone year in town, Walker emerged as a Pro Bowl–caliber tight end, and Washington was a serviceable wideout before getting lost in the shuffle — but the vast majority of these guys came and went without leaving much in the way of memories.
Some of their moves, especially the recent decisions under general manager Ruston Webster, just seem beyond belief. Having already committed an obscene sum of money to Chris Johnson, the Titans suddenly found a need for a goal-line back and gave Greene a three-year, $10 million deal. Webster also made a bizarre choice in giving Oher a four-year, $20 million deal in a tackle-rich market that saw Oher previously struggling to find work. Even if you assume the Titans couldn’t have known they would take Lewan in the first round of the draft a month later, giving a player who had basically underperformed his way off the Baltimore roster $6 million guaranteed just didn’t make any sense. Oher lasted one year in Tennessee before being released.
Their biggest moves in free agency were also failures. Levitre was given a six-year, $46.8 million deal to leave Buffalo as part of Tennessee’s attempt to rebuild its offensive line under Mike Munchak, but he’s never looked comfortable in Tennessee, where he has often struggled against bigger linemen. Munchak is gone, and it’s truthfully a surprise Levitre is still on the roster. Wimbley got a five-year, $35 million deal in 2012 to improve Tennessee’s pass rush, but he lost his starting job after one season (before regaining it in 2014) and has only mustered 11 sacks across 45 games as a Titan.
And even with all of those mistakes, the Titans might have been able to overcome their issues if they hadn’t struck out on their two most important decisions. One was going against the grain and giving Johnson a mammoth extension, tacking four years and $53 million (including $30 million guaranteed) onto CJ2K’s rookie deal to end the star running back’s holdout just before the 2011 season. Johnson had averaged 5.0 yards per carry up to that point, but he would average a pedestrian 4.1 yards over his three subsequent seasons in town. With virtually all the leverage, Tennessee caved and gave Johnson an extension that it almost instantly regretted.
The decision to draft Locker in the first round was another choice that seemed like a mistake from day one and never really got better. Locker was panned by analytically inclined observers before the draft for his dismal accuracy at Washington, with a 54.0 percent completion percentage that is among the worst in recent memory for a first-round quarterback. Webster, who characterized himself as “… not a huge stats guy” in 2012, saw Locker’s prototypical arm strength and athleticism and surely believed that the Titans could mold him into a star. Locker’s accuracy remained well below-average in the NFL, and after suffering a series of injuries during his four years in Tennessee, he retired in February at the age of 26.
To be honest, given all of that, it shocks me that Webster is still employed as the Titans general manager. A staggeringly high percentage of the decisions he’s contributed to — both under former general manager Mike Reinfeldt and as the GM himself — simply haven’t worked out. It would be wrong to say they were indefensible. Drafting Locker was the wrong call. Signing marginal talents like Greene and Oher weren’t the right choices. But you can understand the idea of building through an offensive line with Johnson as the featured back and Munchak installed as the team’s head coach — even if the decisions to pay Levitre and draft Warmack in the first round haven’t necessarily worked out as planned. Wimbley wasn’t seen as a horrific overpay at the time. I thought Webster did a decent job this offseason attempting to rebuild the defense with the likes of Brian Orakpo and Perrish Cox.
And it’s likely that some of the decisions were influenced by then-owner Bud Adams, who was desperate to win a Super Bowl before dying in 2013 at the age of 90. Webster likely owes his job to the ongoing transitional period that has followed Adams’s death, with son-in-law Tommy Smith taking over as the team’s CEO for a season before retiring last month.
Regardless of whether Webster should still be the general manager, the reality is simple: He’s going to be the person who makes the final call on what the Titans do with the second overall pick later this month. We’ve already made it pretty clear he doesn’t have many building blocks looming on the roster that would stand in the way of taking the best available player. Outside of left tackle (Lewan), wide receiver (Wright and Hunter), tight end (Walker), and outside linebacker (Orakpo and Morgan), the Titans could credibly target a player at just about any other position and expect to improve their team. The hard part is figuring out which player they should choose.
The Options at No. 2
Marcus Mariota: In considering what the Titans might do in the first round, the obvious place to start is with the draft’s second-ranked quarterback. Mariota has been through the draft wringer over the past few weeks thanks to the work of brain-dead anonymous scouts. The experts criticized Mariota for saying it’s “not a huge thing” to be taken with the first overall pick, with the suggestion that it was some sign of his lack of competitiveness. Maybe it’s that. It might also be the fact that Mariota was a three-star recruit out of Hawaii when he went to the University of Oregon and might not take the opinions of paid football observers very seriously. Or that he already knows he won’t be the first overall pick.
Beat reporter Roy Cummings also suggested that the Buccaneers weren’t interested in Mariota because of his laid-back demeanor and preferred the more charismatic, fiery personality of Winston. The idea that Mariota can’t command a huddle or the respect of his teammates seems bizarre given the success he just enjoyed during his three seasons at Oregon. It also seems particularly out of touch in light of what happened last year, when quarterback-needy teams let the quietly confident Teddy Bridgewater fall to the bottom of the first round while drafting Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel. Through one season, Bridgewater looks like the best quarterback of his class.
Get past the nonsense and Mariota is a promising quarterback, if not necessarily the prototypical franchise signal-caller. Todd McShay expressed reasonable concerns about Mariota’s ability to make anticipatory throws, and Mariota has played in a system that made things easy for him at times. There are certainly ways to implement the tempo and spread elements that helped him succeed at Oregon, and it would be foolish to ignore that, but teams will surely have Robert Griffin looming in the back of their minds as a possible comparison. Griffin was incredible during his rookie season, when Kyle Shanahan installed chunks of the Baylor playbook, but when Griffin was beset by injuries and Washington changed its scheme to a more conventional attack to try to keep him healthy, RG3 looked totally lost. Those comparisons may not be fair to Mariota, but they will come up.
My concern is less about Mariota as a viable starter and more about him fitting in Tennessee. While Ken Whisenhunt has had his fair share of success coaching quarterbacks, I don’t know that Mariota is necessarily his cup of tea. Whisenhunt exhibited a predilection for big, strong pocket passers during his time in Arizona, and when he did go after an alternative by trading for Kevin Kolb, Whisenhunt failed to play into Kolb’s strengths and ended up with an injured, ineffective quarterback. I would be worried that Whisenhunt won’t go out of his comfort zone to build a scheme around what Mariota does best.
Whisenhunt’s developmental history with young passers is spotty. Yes, he was there when the Steelers took Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, and Whisenhunt deserves a lot of credit for helping to bring him along quickly. But Whisenhunt was also in Arizona, where he eventually made the right choice to go with Kurt Warner after he marginalized Matt Leinart, who was drafted before Whisenhunt had arrived into town. Leinart, who had shown flashes of promise as a rookie, never developed. After Warner retired, the Cardinals rotated between Kolb and a long series of big-armed projects, with the likes of Derek Anderson, Max Hall, and John Skelton all trotted out as viable starters before being benched in a matter of weeks.
After a successful year rebuilding Philip Rivers in San Diego, Whisenhunt cycled through three quarterbacks last year and never seemed to find his man, with Zach Mettenberger — a chip off the Arizona block as a late-round, big-armed gunslinger — exhibiting some signs of life before suffering a shoulder injury. If the Titans draft Mariota, they would unquestionably do so with the idea that he would be their quarterback of the future, but it remains to be seen if Whisenhunt would treat him that way, especially if Mariota struggled during his first couple of seasons.
Leonard Williams: If the Titans pass on Mariota, the consensus choice as the best non-quarterback in the draft seems to be Williams. If all goes well, Williams ends up as a slightly scarier version of Muhammad Wilkerson or a mortal J.J. Watt, both of which are rather nice compliments. The USC product would profile as a 5-technique end in Tennessee’s 3-4, where his dominance as a run defender should offer immediate assistance to the league’s fourth-worst run defense.
Williams’s speed and ability to get into the backfield should also make him an above-average pass-rusher on throwing downs, where he could line up next to Casey and inside of Orakpo and Morgan to form a terrifying pass rush. His ideal mix of size and speed would also allow the Titans to use him in virtually any role in any defensive scheme, which might help if they move on from Dick LeBeau in the years to come and switch back to a 4-3.
As a 302-pounder, Williams qualifies as a “Planet Theory” pick. That’s a principle from former longtime Giants general manager George Young, who believed that there were a limited number of 300-pounders on the planet who were big enough to hold their own at the line of scrimmage in a two-gap scheme and fast enough to penetrate into the backfield when they were free to rush the passer. Williams is still raw, and there are concerns about his motor, but he’s a freakish enough athlete and has exhibited enough production during his time at USC to justify being taken this high without any second-guessing. Even over Mariota.
There isn’t another obvious player for the Titans to take with the no. 2 pick. They’re unlikely to target one of the top wide receivers, like Amari Cooper or Kevin White, and they shouldn’t go after an edge rusher like Dante Fowler or Randy Gregory, even if Webster considers one the best player available. Their other option, though, might be the best of the three …
Trade the pick: Given the sheer lack of talent on the Tennessee roster and the number of holes it has to fill on both sides of the football, I think trading down to acquire more picks is the best choice. It doesn’t seem to fit Webster’s philosophy, and he surely won’t be interested in the math suggesting that trading down is the way to go, but unless the Titans are absolutely sure they’ve found the quarterback hill they’re prepared to die on with Mariota, they’re too thin to pass up a viable trade offer.
The natural trade candidate that sprouted up was Philadelphia, but those rumors cooled after the Eagles traded for Sam Bradford and re-signed Mark Sanchez to a multiyear deal. If the Titans got a Ricky Williams–esque trade offer from the Eagles — or any other team — for the second pick, they would be foolish to turn it down.1
Yes, I know that Chip Kelly has said he wouldn’t mortgage the team’s future to trade up and grab Mariota. Kelly has said a lot of things over the past few weeks that have been contradicted by subsequent moves. I don’t think the Eagles will trade their draft for Mariota, but I don’t think Kelly’s public comments on the matter amount to much more than posturing.
Let’s look at it from the opposite perspective. What would be the worst offer the Titans should be willing to accept for the second overall pick? And where would that offer come from?
Assuming that the Buccaneers take Winston first, there are seven other teams that would have some feasible interest in taking a quarterback in the first round. One is Tennessee. Elsewhere, you would figure that the Cardinals, Texans, Browns, Rams, Jets, and Washington would all have some level of interest.
We can rule out some of those teams. Washington has virtually no depth after years of missing picks from the RG3 deal, and Scot McCloughan was more likely to stockpile draft picks than trade up during his time as general manager in San Francisco. The Rams presumably want to see what they have with Nick Foles, and while they could send Foles to Tennessee as part of a trade, the Titans could have acquired Foles for themselves from Philadelphia in a Mariota deal. And the Titans probably wouldn’t deal the Mariota pick inside their own division, which knocks the Texans out of the running.
That leaves three teams. The Cardinals are the least likely of those to trade up, if only because they have the least to offer. Moving up from the 24th selection to the second spot would be an enormous undertaking, and Steve Keim — who only had eyes for Bortles in last year’s draft — is too value-conscious to deal away a couple of future first-round picks to move up and grab Mariota, especially if Arizona thinks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton will be back in time for the beginning of the 2015 season.
The Jets are an appealing case in terms of fit. They certainly need a quarterback, even with Geno Smith showing some signs of life down the stretch last season. They wouldn’t require an enormous haul to justify a deal, and the Titans could move down to no. 6 and still come away with a premium player like tackle Brandon Scherff or nose tackle Danny Shelton; the Jets would probably only need to send their 2016 first-rounder or a second-round pick (37th) and a late-round selection to make the move.
That’s not the sort of franchise-destroying swap that would be required for a team like Philadelphia to move up and grab the second pick. The flip side is that the Jets don’t really have to make that move to have a decent shot at grabbing Mariota. If the Titans feel like Mariota is a franchise quarterback, they’ll take him at no. 2. If they try to trade the pick to the Jets, Gang Green will know they don’t have to worry about Tennessee coming between them and Mariota. The Jets can safely assume the Jaguars and Raiders would pass on Mariota, which would leave Washington or a team trading up as their only concern. In lieu of sending a 2016 first-rounder to the Titans to move up to no. 2, the Jets might prefer waiting and sending a fourth-rounder to McCloughan to move up from no. 6 to no. 5 if Mariota’s on the board.
That leaves the Browns, who lurk as the most interesting non-Eagles candidate. They have a hole at quarterback and a general manager, Ray Farmer, who has “shown a liking” for Mariota. Incoming Browns quarterbacks coach Kevin O’Connell has spent the offseason working with Mariota and even ran the quarterback’s pro day in March. They have the draft assets to make a trade reasonably palatable for the Titans; even if they can’t come away with five or six draft picks, they could ask for Cleveland’s two first-rounders in this year’s draft at no. 12 and no. 19.
That Cleveland would be interested, of course, reminds us of just how much of a crapshoot this all is. If the Browns trade up and grab Mariota, it will be the third first-round pick they spend on a quarterback in the last four drafts, having used the 22nd pick on Brandon Weeden in 2012 before taking Johnny Manziel with the same selection in 2014. Neither was as promising as Mariota looks right now, but they each looked far more valuable before the draft than they did even one year later. Given that there is a meaningful gap between the values of the second overall pick (2,600 points on the old Jimmy Johnson draft chart2) and the combined values of no. 12 and no. 19 (2,075 points), the Browns could send Manziel to Tennessee as a possible makeweight in the deal. It would be sad to give up on a first-round pick after one wildly disappointing year, and Manziel is hardly a Whisenhunt-style pocket passer, but the Browns wouldn’t need Manziel with Mariota, and it would be a good buy-low opportunity for the Titans.
I’m using the Jimmy Johnson chart to value picks here as opposed to the empirical Chase Stuart chart because teams are more likely to consult the Johnson chart when analyzing trades. Some teams have developed their own in-house models, but my suspicion is that the Titans are not one of them.
You can spin the Manziel issue as a cautionary tale and suggest that the Titans need to use their top-two pick on a guy who looks as good as possible in the hopes of passing on that mid-20s cycle of mistakes, or you can use it as proof that nobody knows anything and suggest that the Titans trade down to get as many chances at finding their guy as possible. Trading down for two additional first-rounders and a second-rounder like in the RG3 trade would be a sure thing. If there’s anything that’s clear about this year’s second overall selection, it’s that there isn’t a sure thing to be had.
This article has been updated to clarify that Michael Oher ultimately received only $6 million from the Titans before being cut in February.