Sports, Thrill of Victory

NFL draft creates hope for Titans future

Jon Robinson traded yet again in the first round of the NFL draft. PHOTO BY DONN JONES, COURTESY TENNESSEE TITANS

The Tennessee Titans added ten new players to their team last week during the NFL Draft, and looking at the list, there are reasons to be optimistic for the organization’s future.

Jon Robinson, Mike Mularkey and company are working to establish an identity that left tackle Taylor Lewan has been calling for since the 2015 offseason — a tough, nasty and high-motor football team that is dominant from the inside out.

After the draft, Arkansas offensive guard Sebastian Tretola (No. 193, Round 6) notably commented, “I’m mean, I’m nasty, I want to make you not want to come back on the field any more… I want you to hate playing me, feel me every play.” 

The Titans selected Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin with their first round pick in the NFL draft. PHOTO BY DONN JONES/COURTESY TENNESSEE TITANS

The Titans selected Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin with their first round pick in the NFL draft. PHOTO BY DONN JONES/COURTESY TENNESSEE TITANS

Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin (No. 8, Round 1) echoed Tretola: “I’d say I’m a mauler. I want guys to remember they played against me.”

Conklin and Tretola join free agent acquisition Ben Jones as new faces on the Titans’ offensive line. Next season Conklin is expected to start at right tackle, where he might bring out the best in right guard Chance Warmack, the 10th pick of the 2013 draft.

Tennessee has invested heavily in their offensive line of late. In the 2013 ‘14 and ‘16 drafts, the organization selected a lineman in the first round (Lewan, Warmack and Conklin; respectively). It’s clear that Tennessee is trying to create a physical, blue-collar front five that will not only protect Marcus Mariota but also open running lanes for DeMarco Murray and Alabama running back Derrick Henry (No. 45, Round 2), perhaps the biggest surprise of the Titans’ draft class.

Henry is now the second Heisman Trophy winner on the Titans’ roster. There were initial concerns that DeMarco Murray would be offset by the selection, but the veteran back reportedly loves the pick and further commented, “[Henry’s] going to make me better and I am going to do the same for him … I’m going to do whatever I can to make him a great player.”

Analysts have questioned whether Derrick Henry can start over Murray, but Mularkey assures that Murray will be the Titans’ go-to rusher next season: “Nothing has changed since we made the trade for you [Murray]. You’re still going to be the guy who is going to carry the load for us and I know when you need to take a break and come off the field there will be no letdown when the next running back comes in, whoever that is.”

Tennessee now has a pair of RBs who fill a mold Mularkey preached last season —bruising north-to-south rushers who are accustomed to playing under the eye formation.

The idea of a Murray-Henry one-two punch must excite Titans fans, while also raising concern for opposing defensives.

Derrick Henry was a surprising pick by the Titans, but certainly a good one. PHOTO COURTESY USA TODAY SPORTS

Derrick Henry was a surprising pick by the Titans, but certainly a good one. PHOTO COURTESY USA TODAY SPORTS

Tennessee made two value-picks during the later rounds: UMass wide receiver Tajae Sharpe (No. 140, Round 5) and Southern Mississippi cornerback Kalan Reed (No. 253, Round 7).

Sharpe redirected national attention from the SEC and ACC towards the MAC last season, as he led the nation in receptions (111) as well as had 1,319 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Sharpe isn’t the fastest receiver (4.55s 40-yard dash), but he has reliable hands, making the UMass wide out another investment in Mariota’s future.

Reed earned the title “Mr. Irrelevant” as the final pick of the draft. It’s surprising that Reed fell this far, though, considering he fills the mold of an NFL corner: 5’11’, 199lbs, 4.38s 40-yard dash and athletic. In 2015 Reed intercepted or deflected 20.2% of his targets, and ProFootballFocus ranked him as the No. 54 overall draft prospect.

Ryan Succop, the 2009 “Mr. Irrelevant,” has found success in Tennessee. In fact, last season Succop’s 87.5% field goal percentage tied for 11th best in the league. If Reed can further develop his already-budding ball skills, he may become the second Titans’ player to become relevant despite his titled “Irrelevance.”

The remaining draft class addresses a large area of need in Tennessee — defense.

Clemson linebacker Kevin Dodd (No. 23, Round 2) and UCLA linebacker Aaron Wallace (No. 222, Round 7) join Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo as pass-rushers. Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson (No. 43, Round 3) will compete for playing time behind Jurrell Casey and DeQuan Jones at ends and Al Woods at nose tackle. Last, MTSU safety Kevin Byard (No. 64, Round 3) and Southern Utah cornerback LeShaun Sims (No. 157, Round 5) will bring ball skills to a Tennessee secondary that struggled to make plays on the football in 2015.

In short, Jon Robinson modeled his first draft as Titans’ GM according to the New England Patriots way — select a bounty of hard-working, physical and productive players.

We can’t expect the team to improve immediately since Robinson scouts players who project well into their second year as pros, but the future looks bright for the Tennessee Titans nonetheless.