The 2012 NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday evening, and this will be Tennessee’s 16th effort at it after the Houston Oilers relocated to our state in 1997.
Drafts can make or break a franchise; when the then-Oilers took Steve McNair and Eddie George with their No. 1 selections in ’95 and ’96, it formed the foundation of a team that was one of the NFL’s best for several years. Consequently, when the Titans almost completely whiffed on the 2003 draft, they struggled through the next three years.
Here’s a look back at the Titans’ best five selections, counting the two years they were the Tennessee Oilers. These are not necessarily the best five players the franchise has selected, but the best values; it’s easy to find a good player with your first-round pick, but not so easy as the draft progresses, and so I’ve rated the picks accordingly. Please note that I’m evaluating each player’s entire career, not just the years with the Titans.
1. Derrick Mason, wide receiver, Michigan State
1997, round 4, pick 98
Mason started as role player but his career took off in his fourth season. In 2000, he led Tennessee’s ground-oriented offense with 895 receiving yards, and the next, he led the team in catches (78), yards (1,128) and touchdowns (nine).
That was the first of eight seasons in which Mason surpassed 1,000 yards receiving, though the last five came with the Ravens. Mason finally retired this off-season at 38 after catching 943 balls for 12,061 yards and 66 touchdowns in a career, and played in the Pro Bowl twice.
Interestingly enough, eight receivers were selected before Mason, including the Titans’ Joey Kent, who was a second-round bust that season. Of the 22 receivers picked in that draft, none came close to having a career as good as Mason’s.
2. Michael Roos, offensive tackle, Eastern Washington
2005, round 2, pick 41
Some experts thought the Titans reached a bit for Roos in the second round, even though he’d been an All-American player at I-AA Eastern Washington. Others saw the 6-foot-7, 320-pounder as potentially one of the best left tackles in the game.
The last group was right; in the 112 games since he was picked, Roos has started every single one of them. He was a first team All-NFL selection in 2008 and 2011, and made the second team in 2009. The Titans will have his services through at least 2013, when his 6-year, $43 million contract expires.
3. Keith Bullock, linebacker, Syracuse
2000, round 1, pick 30
The Titans had a dominant defense in 2000 and didn’t really need Bullock, but their “take-the-best-available-player” philosophy really paid off two years later when he became a starter. Once he broke into the lineup, he didn’t leave it, starting all 16 games every year until 2009, when he missed two games.
Bullock remained a Titan until after that year, and then Titans decided to get younger at the position and released him. Most of his starting seasons were truly outstanding; he led the NFL in tackles in 2004, and tied a Titans’ record for interceptions by a linebacker with five in 2007.
Bullock gets penalized here for being a first rounder, but he was still a value: with a pair of first team All-NFL selections and one second-team honor, his 11-year career was better than most people selected that high.
4. Cortland Finnegan, cornerback, Samford
2006, round 7, pick 215
Rarely do seventh-round selections have the impact that Finnegan had. He was viewed as a risk for two reasons: he didn’t play against a high level of competition (he was the school’s first draft pick since 1969) and he needed a position switch (he’d played safety in college). He removed any doubts immediately, starting two games his rookie season.
From 2007 through last year, he started every other game of his Titans career. While in Nashville, he picked off 14 passes, running three back for scores, and making first team All-NFL in 2008.
However, he’s a Titan no more, signing a five-year, $50 million deal with the Rams this off-season.
5 (T). Samari Rolle, cornerback, Florida State
1998, round 2, pick 46
Rolle was truly a great corner for the Titans for a few years, and made first team all-pro in 2000. He was a six-year starter for the Titans before starting four seasons for the Ravens, and might have put up better numbers if he’d stayed healthy. Still, he had 31 career interceptions and one very memorable touchdown on the last play of the half of the Titans-Redskins game in 2000.
5 (T). Benji Olson, guard, Washington
1998, round 5, pick 139
I couldn’t decide between Olson and Rolle, so I took both. Rolle had the better career, but you don’t often find a guy in the fifth round who can play for a decade and start for nine seasons, which is what Olson did. Coach Jeff Fisher loved to pound it out on the ground during his Titans career, and dependable guys like Olson allowed him to do it.