There’s a perception among Tennessee Titans fans that there aren’t any glaring draft needs that would force general manager Ruston Webster to use the No. 11 pick on one certain position. This gives him the luxury of drafting based on a best-player-available approach. Adding Shaun Phillips means that the team doesn’t have to use its No. 11 pick on a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Signing Michael Oher, who comes following a forgettable season with the Baltimore Ravens, means that the team doesn’t have to spend a high first-rounder at offensive tackle. The Titans signed a slew of serviceable-to-good free agents, eliminating most of the need of having to focus on any one position during draft days.
Some of those additions are bound to flop. Those signings don’t eliminate the draft needs as much as reduce the necessity for a Week 1 starter. The Titans could let a rookie come along for at least one-half of the season. If the veteran doesn’t perform well or gets injured, then the rookies are better-prepared to step in.
All of the Titans’ offseason moves haven’t eliminated the No. 1 draft need. Other than consistent and effective quarterback play, what they’ve needed and craved since the pre-Mike Munchak era still exists.
Let’s take a look at the top-five draft needs. Some of these are to better prepare the team for future success. Other needs are meant to pay off within the next two seasons. Mixing the top draft need with a healthy Jake Locker would catapult this team from mediocrity to playoff contender.
No. 5: Left Tackle (Developmental)
There isn’t much depth along the offensive line. 25-year-old Byron Stingily doesn’t appear like he’ll develop into anything more than a fringe-starter right tackle. This leaves the Titans without a successor for starting left tackle Michael Roos, who’ll turn 32 next October. It’s wise to plan ahead and avoid any situation where a team has an ineffective left tackle trying to contain a team’s top pass-rush specialist. It becomes even more important if Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack join the division.
This isn’t a first-round need, although the team would have to consider Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson if they fell out of the top 10. Early draft visits include in-state Ja’Wuan James and James Stone.
No. 4: Inside Linebacker (Possible Year 1 Starter)
Here are the projected top four inside linebackers on this roster:
It sure isn’t Patrick Willis or a healthy NaVorro Bowman. Serviceable inside linebackers aren’t making many dominant 3-4 defenses, hybrid schemes or not. A top-tier prospect such as C.J. Mosley isn’t out of the question. Maybe this defense would benefit more during these first couple of seasons with Kyle Van Noy‘s versatility. That’s because inside linebacker isn’t the only need…
No. 3: Pass-Rushing Outside Linebacker (Developmental, Possibly Immediate Starter)
A 3-4 defense relies on the pass rush from its outside linebackers. An elite defense that loses its top pass-rusher can quickly become vulnerable. Lose two of them and the rest of the defense can fall apart. Look at the Green Bay Packers. Most of their pass rush comes from Clay Matthews. An injury forces him to miss time. Suddenly, an average-at-best defense becomes one of the NFL’s worst units. Quarterbacks have all day to throw. The back seven can’t cover for the prolonged periods.
Is Akeem Ayers ready to break out? Ayers appears like the young man who’s destined to become the primary pass-rushing specialist. Possibly a tall order for someone who has nine sacks in three seasons. Are the Titans confident that his regression from the 2012 season was all on first-and-only-year linebackers coach Chet Parlavecchio? Ayers is the primary example of a talented player who, for whatever reason, never reached his full potential under Mike Munchak‘s coaching staff.
Regardless of whether Ayers breaks out or not, more depth is needed. Former UCLA defensive coordinator Lou Spanos spent two seasons coaching Anthony Barr from a running back into a top-15 linebacker prospect. Seeing that Tennessee and UCLA both run 3-4 schemes, Barr at No. 11 may provide a perfect fit. Now it’s a matter of whether he falls past No. 10 (Detroit Lions).
No. 2: Running Back (Year 1 Committee, Year 2 Starter)
Running backs aren’t worth a first-round pick, at least not worth the No. 11 pick. Round 2-4 is when management must take notice of available running backs. This team mustn’t enter 2014 with a running-back-by-committee that includes Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle, and Dexter McCluster, a utility player who has just one season with more than 18 rushing attempts. If Greene gets injured, then this offense becomes more one-dimensional than those four-game stretches when Chris Johnson had like 46 carries for 70 yards. The Titans don’t have the passing attack to overcome such ineptitude.
It’s a real possibility to see the first running back come off the board at No. 42.
No. 1: Game-Changer (Playmaker, Star…)
The Titans have talent. What they don’t have are two of the most important elements that separate the mediocre teams from the playoff teams:
- Consistent and effective quarterback play
- Game-changers (playmakers)
The Titans have good players. Those good players aren’t stars. They don’t have playmakers who can shift the momentum of a game. A game-changer is the 2009 version of Chris Johnson. Something bad happens to this team, nobody makes any plays, then the team goes into “here we go again” mode. A 21-10 lead quickly becomes a 51-28 shellacking.
Some of the current players must develop into those types of players. Kendall Wright had a great sophomore campaign that included 94 receptions. Those 94 receptions won’t mean as much until his two touchdowns become closer to 12. Derrick Morgan must turn those quarterback pressures and hurries into sacks. Hopefully, Dexter McCluster adds a big-play element to an offense that’s loaded with talented wide receivers, two of whom are top-35ers.
But what the Titans need more than anything (other than maybe a quarterback, verdict is still out on that): a playmaker, game-changer, star—whatever you call him. Someone that puts teams on notice. It doesn’t matter what position—just find him. I should say “them” because they need more than one.
5 “Other…Not Necessarily Lesser” Needs
- Tight End (Rotational Pass-Catcher): Reportedly, the Titans are interested in Eric Ebron:
— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) April 22, 2014
What happens if Delanie Walker gets injured? Taylor Thompson and Craig Stevens combined for five catches in 2013. Tight ends play far too important of a role in Coach Whisenhunt’s offense. Don’t expect that to change now that he’s assembled a coaching staff with three former tight-end coaches (including himself), two of whom played professionally. Despite his role as a No. 2 tight end, San Diego Chargers’ Ladarius Green flourished in Whisenhunt’s only season there.
- Cornerback (Developmental): This depends on how they feel about Tommie Campbell and Khalid Wooten. Definitely could use another Round 4-5 project competing for the No. 2 spot with Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh. No reason to spend a first-rounder on anybody unless it’s a prospect that the defensive coaches love.
- Tall, Explosive Pass-Rushing Defensive End: Someone with Ra’Shede Hageman‘s skill-set. Hageman is a versatile 6-foot-6 defensive lineman with a 35.5-inch vertical jump. He’s explosive off the snap and very good at getting his hands into throwing lanes, batting down passes. It’s a nifty change of style when compared to other under-heighted defensive lineman such as 6-foot-1 Jurrell Casey.
- Kicker. Someone must replace Rob Bironas. With just six draft picks, the team should focus on undrafted free agents.
- Quarterback (Developmental): Jake Locker will get one more season—likely. If Coach Whisenhunt believes that a surefire quarterback prospect falls to him at any point in the draft, the Titans should draft him. Don’t forget that Tyler Wilson could provide a developmental quarterback option. Who knows how the new coaching staff feels on him.