2016 NFL Draft: The Tennessee Titans’ Best Direction
21 teams have hired a new head coach since 2013. Eight of those teams have hired two coaches over that time period. The majority of those hires have been paired with new general managers. One of those teams is the Tennessee Titans, the holder of the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
The Titans replaced Ken Whisenhunt with Mike Mularkey, they snared Jon Robinson from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be their general manager. When Mularkey and Robinson were introduced for their new roles, Robinson repeatedly emphasized that he was going to build a winner, from the Titans official site:
“If you only remember one thing from this presser, please remember this, and this goes out to our fans: This is my home and you guys are my family. I’ve been a Titans fan ever since ’97 when this football team moved here. We’re going to build this team the right way. All decisions that we make will be made in the best interests of this team, your football team. Please let us earn your support,’’
Every coach/personnel guy says something along these lines when he takes over. Robinson talks about building his team the right way and making decisions that are in the best interest of the team. With how ruthless and impatient NFL owners are these days, that’s a lot easier to say than it is to carry out.
Any head coach and general manager who wants to stay employed should be fully focused on the quickest way to become competitive. The Titans need to rebuild their roster, it’s why they are picking first overall in this year’s draft, but sacrificing a long-term view to prioritize short-term results will help the new regime more than trying to be patient.
That doesn’t mean you have to trade away all future picks and try to load up your roster with established veterans. It also doesn’t mean that you have to invest big money in subpar free agents, forcing an identity onto a roster that isn’t ready for it.
It does mean you should build on your established strengths or focus your investments to create an area of strength.
The Oakland Raiders did an excellent job of this after hiring Jack Del Rio last offseason. Recognizing that they had a talented second-year quarterback, the Raiders set about building an offense around him that could prop him up as he continued to develop. Michael Crabtree was a key free agent addition, though not as big as the addition of center Rodney Hudson. Hudson and Crabtree were the first wave before wide receiver Amari Cooper became the team’s first pick in the draft and tight end Clive Walford followed in the third round.
Lee Smith and Roy Helu were also added to bolster the offense’s depth.
Hudson, Cooper and Crabtree were the most important additions. When the Raiders invested in them, they weren’t sacrificing anything in terms of talent, though it should be noted that Crabtree’s deal was a prove-it one. They were making smart decisions that just happened to help them create an offensive identity that they would be able to rely on during the 2015 season. The Raiders defense improved also, but it was the offense that propelled them in the right direction.
Even though the Titans are picking first in the draft, they aren’t dramatically far away from being a competitive team. Playing in the AFC South helps but injuries to key players on both sides of the ball limited what they could do in 2015. Marcus Mariota gives them a quarterback who they can build around, Mariota has talented receivers, led by tight end Delanie Walker, and the addition of DeMarco Murray gives them a proven running back.
What Mariota needs is help from his offensive line.
Drafting Laremy Tunsil would push the Titans towards competitiveness faster than selecting Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey may turn out to be the better player over the long term, but it’s not like the Titans would be passing on a great prospect for a bad one. Tunsil himself is discussed as a generational type of player, player being the important part there because we’ve seen a recent generational athlete, Greg Robinson, struggle over the first two years of his career.
Tunsil would allow the Titans to move Taylor Lewan, a player who struggled last season as a left tackle, to move to the right side. Mariota excels in the pocket, he doesn’t need a great offensive line but he can’t play behind the one he did last year. That unit was completely void of talent, though right guard Chance Warmack has shown flashes throughout his career. If Tunsil could come in and lock down Mariota’s left side, it should have a ripple effect on the whole offense.
After Mularkey took over for Whisenhunt during the 2015 season, he put a greater emphasis on protecting Mariota. He contradicted himself by talking about running Mariota more but did use tight ends more often to help his offensive tackles. This obviously comes with a trade-off as the Titans then had fewer receivers on the field and fewer options for Mariota running routes downfield.
For the Titans to get their best players on the field together on a regular basis, they have to use fewer multiple tight end packages. Delanie Walker should be the only tight end on the field with Murray in the backfield, Rishard Matthews and Dorial Green-Beckham outside and Kendall Wright in the slot. To get the most out of Green-Beckham and Walker’s downfield ability while still protecting Mariota in the pocket, the Titans need to have tackles who they can trust alone in pass protection.
Tunsil could be one of those tackles, Lewan could be another if he plays on the right side. That pairing would allow the Titans to use all five of its eligible receivers in routes rather than have one, two or even three committed to pass protection.
Having added Tunsil, the Titans could look for a starting left guard or center in the second round, but it wouldn’t be absolutely necessary. Tunsil alone would completely alter the expectations for the offense because it would move Lewan to the right side and address thee biggest weakness of an offense that has plenty of talent to succeed.
The Titans would still have a lot of questions on offense, Dorial Green-Beckham’s development, Tunsil’s adjustment, Murray’s fit, Kendall Wright’s health, Mariota’s usage, but those are the types of questions all teams face. There wouldn’t be a need for any more major acquisitions or question marks about the quality of players available. The offense would be set up to thrive if the coaching staff could prove to be competent.