If the Tennessee Titans are to finally break out of what’s become perpetual mediocrity, they needed to have a good draft last week. How did the Titans do with that? Here’s my closer look at each pick, with some thoughts at the end.
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan: The Titans could have used cornerback Justin Gilbert or linebacker Anthony Barr, but both were off the board and so Tennessee took the best available talent in the 2012 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year.
I am generally a fan of “best guy on our board” picks, especially when you’re in the Titans’ situation. The Titans may make the playoffs this year, but I’d generally bet against it, and taking the best available talent is a better long-term building strategy than is addressing immediate need. I have also generally been a big fan of taking good offensive tackles high in the draft; I may be wrong about this, but I have felt for a while that while the upside for a left tackle isn’t that of a franchise quarterback, you consistently get more return for your investment on a stellar tackle than you do anywhere else on the field.
As for Lewan, several respected experts had him rated higher than No. 11, which is where the Titans took him. Given that free agent signee Michael Oher was playing to mixed reviews, Lewan might even start at right tackle soon. If left tackle Michael Roos leaves via free agency next year, Lewan may be the Titans’ guy there as soon as next season.
The biggest concern is off-field stuff; Lewan is facing three counts of assault stemming from a fight with Ohio State fans last Dec. 1. There are two sides to the story and since the Titans appear to be buying Lewan’s. They’d better hope they’re right, because the last thing the franchise needs when the ratio of off-field problems to playoff wins over the last decade is already far out of balance is more of the same.
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington: The Titans’ recent struggles haven’t shocked me because most years, I’ve been underwhelmed with their drafts. But when the Titans took Sankey, a smile spread across my face like it hasn’t in maybe a decade.
I saw Sankey play some at UW and came away impressed. He sees the field well and is able to make extra yardage out of plays as well as break some big runs outside the tackles. Plus, he catches the ball quite well.
The NFL has de-valued running backs in recent years because they take a pounding and decline so quickly, and the fact that Sankey had a whopping 677 touches in his last two years could be concerning. But there are absolutely no character questions and there was tremendous productivity, and if he can just play as he’s capable for four or five years, the Titans could get first-round value here.
DaQuan Jones, DT, Penn St.: The Titans may have gotten a boom-or-bust guy in the fourth round with Jones. Some saw a guy who is moving in the right direction; he shed 15 pounds last season and made first team All-Big Ten before leaving after his junior year. Others saw a guy who was a bit lazy and graded out lower than the fourth round. He’ll get a shot to contribute immediately; whether he does or not is up to him.
Marqueston Huff, S, Wyoming: Only 46 guys can play each Sunday, and that’s one of the reasons that the Titans took Huff, who can play safety, corner and special teams. He played on one of the NCAA’s worst defenses, but managed to make first team all-conference anyway.
Avery Williamson, ILB, Kentucky: Another guy stuck on a bad defense, Williamson was quite productive, but was it because he was a star, or because nobody else around him could make plays? He’s not overly athletic but he plays hard and smart and should help on special teams. He may have gone a round early, but there should be some return here.
Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU: Speaking of boom-or-bust players, there may not be a bigger one in the draft than Mettenberger. The 6-foot-5, 224-pounder projected as a first-rounder late last season but tore his ACL in November and that knocked him all the way to Round 6, where Tennessee nabbed him. He’s got a strong, accurate arm and just looks the part of an NFL quarterback. The production was there, too, as he averaged an outstanding 10.7 yards per throw last year. (Of course, throwing to first-rounder Odell Beckham and second-rounder Jarvis Landry didn’t exactly hurt.)
Here’s the problem with Mettenberger: in addition to the knee injury, there have been recent questions about his back and there are serious off-field questions. Rather than prattle on about the latter, I’ll just suggest you read this and this. Mettenberger’s defenders say that in the first, he’d been a model citizen and it was the only real trouble he’s ever been and to the second, he was having cramping issues and trying to stay hydrated.
But let’s be honest: that’s a whole boatload of red flags, and it’s the only reason while Mettenberger lasted until the sixth round. Is Mettenberger an injury-prone troublemaker, or is he a franchise quarterback in waiting? If it’s the latter, it’ll be one of the bigger draft steals of the last decade.
Overall thoughts: Perhaps the Titans tipped their hand about how good they think they’ll be this year, because between free agency and the draft, they haven’t exactly done a stellar job of addressing pressing needs. Where did the Titans, transitioning to a 3-4 defense, address a pass-rushing linebacker or defensive end? Where’s an immediate-impact cornerback to replace Alterraun Verner? And maybe the biggest question was this: is there a franchise quarterback on the roster?
The last question bugs me the most. I couldn’t believe it when, with so many good quarterbacks on the board, the Titans didn’t address the position (A.J. McCarron? Aaron Murray? David Fales?) in the fourth round. I was apoplectic when all three of those guys were still on the board in the fifth round and yet the Titans went with Williamson. In Tennessee’s defense, maybe they understood that the draft was chock-full of quarterbacks and saw them all as commodities, knowing that a Mettenberger or a Brett Smith or a Connor Shaw would be there in the sixth. (Of course, Mettenberger was, and the other two wound up being available in free agency.)
But did the Titans have to have Williamson so much that they took him there and left themselves vulnerable at the most important position on the field, leaving a major part of your franchise’s future to the whims of other GMs around the league, who’d determine what they could and couldn’t pick next time around? Maybe the Titans felt the pressure then, because they jettisoned their seventh-rounder to move up eight spots to nab Mettenberger. Williamson probably would have been there later; what was wrong with taking another quarterback with fewer question marks in the fifth round, taking Williamson or another linebacker next and then keeping your seventh-rounder to address another need?
And yes, the defensive questions are there, but if the Titans aren’t thinking of contending this year, the weekend’s effort becomes a little more palatable. The Titans addressed receiver in the last two drafts and if everything goes well, you could make the case that the Titans found cornerstones of their offense in Lewan and Sankey, and even potentially in Mettenberger (Not that I’m pulling the plug on Jake Locker just yet, though I have the same reservations as everyone else.) Perhaps the Titans simply wanted to devote this year to building an offense that sustains them for the foreseeable future, while having a year for Ken Whisenhunt and the new coaching staff to evaluate which holdovers fit the 3-4 and which don’t, while addressing that side next year.
At least, that’s the hope. Otherwise, the team’s five-year playoff drought becomes a bit more difficult for fans to digest without some tangible hope for a better future.