With less than a week left until the 2017 NFL Draft kicks off, here are five specific positions of need that the Tennessee Titans need to address when they’re on the clock.
5. Speed Edge Rusher
In Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo, the Titans have a duo of veteran edge rushers who have proven to have the ability to consistently make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Throw in a healthy Kevin Dodd, a second round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and you have a trio of outside linebackers that many teams in the NFL would covet.
There is, however, a missing element in the Titans’ group of edge rushers. All three of the aforementioned players—Orakpo, Morgan, and Dodd—are prototypical “power rushers.” They all have the ability to forcefully set the edge in the run game and to use their lower body strength to bully offensive tackles. For that reason, it would behoove the Titans to add a twitchier speed rusher into the mix.
At times last season, the Titans’ already underperforming cornerbacks were left exposed in man coverage for long stretches because of a lack of consistent pressure coming from a four man pass rush. Even with two Pro Bowlers in their four base pass rushers (Orakpo and Jurrell Casey), the Titans front still was at times hopelessly unable to get the job done.
This issue isn’t solved by replacing Morgan or Orakpo in the starting lineup. Rather, this issue is fixed by adding a rotational edge rusher to the roster who is more athletic, faster, can bend more fluidly, and who can run around offensive tackles, not just run through them. The Titans don’t need Myles Garrett, but what they do need is some variety. This variety would seemingly best be found in Rounds 3-4.
4. Explosive Kick Returner
Fans of the Titans have unconditionally loved Marc Mariani, also known as “Moonshine,” ever since he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie return specialist in 2010. In the early years of his career, Mariani was a smart and decisive kickoff and punt returner who utilized his quickness and speed to consistently make big plays with the ball in his hands.
Last season, Mariani’s first with the Titans since leaving for the Bears in 2014, he simply wasn’t anywhere close to being the same guy. He looked stiff, slow, and unconfident. If the Titans are serious about improving their special teams in 2017, they need to find Mariani’s replacement.
A lot of people think that Eric Weems, who was signed by the Titans in March as a free agent, was added to the roster to fulfill that responsibility. The more likely reason Weems is a Titan is so that he can play a role similar to what Matthew Slater plays with the New England Patriots: a savvy veteran with an understanding of how a successful special teams unit works who is used mainly for a traditional “special teamer” role. He probably wouldn’t be much of an improvement over Mariani as a returner.
You may not be able to find Tyreek Hill, but the Titans need someone returning kicks and punts who has blazing speed and can score anytime the ball is in their hands. If they select someone like USC cornerback Adoree Jackson or Washington wide-receiver John Ross for their position ability, they would, of course, be able to double as a productive returner. If the Titans choose not to select a versatile player like Ross or Jackson in the early rounds, they simply have to address that position with a separate pick on Day 3.
3. Coverage Linebacker
For the last few years, the Titans defense has developed a habit of making every opposing tight-end, regardless of talent, look like Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzales. In fact, Colts tight-end Jack Doyle, who signed a three year contract extension worth $18.9M last month, might legally owe some of that money to members of the Titans’ defense (pardon my sarcasm).
In all seriousness, the Titans clearly have a major problem covering not just tight-ends, but backs as well. This problem can be directly attributed not to the Titans’ corners (as most of the defense’s problems can), but to their linebackers.
Ever since his rookie year, Avery Williamson has been a productive starter in the Titans’ defense, leading the team in tackles each of the last two seasons. Wesley Woodyard, who was just signed to a two year contract extension, has also been a very productive player at times, in addition to being a team captain. Both linebackers are very talented and do a lot of things well, but neither of them has been able to consistently show quality coverage ability in their time with the Titans.
This weekend, Jon Robinson needs to give Dick LeBeau someone who can cover backs and tight-ends, possibly even as early as in Round 1. Whether is be a traditional athletic inside linebacker like Alabama’s Reuben Foster or a hybrid player like Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, the Titans need to make a priority of addressing this need.
If they don’t, get ready for C.J. Fiedorowicz and other tight-ends you’ve probably never heard of to have field days against the Titans again in 2017.
2. Receiver With Vertical Ability
As of now, the Titans only have three wide-receivers on their active roster: Rishard Matthews, Tajaé Sharpe, and Harry Douglas. Matthews was a pleasant surprise in 2016, finishing the year with nine touchdowns and nearly 1,000 receiving yards. Sharpe, a rookie last season, showed a lot of promise and potential, especially in his route running. Douglas was a healthy scratch for many games and struggled to produce in any form or fashion.
Case and point: the Titans need receivers in a big way. The question isn’t whether or not the Titans will select a receiver in the draft, but a question of how many. Sharpe and Matthews are both starter-quality players, but neither possesses enough speed to dictate coverage or make defensive backs worry about the deep ball. The Titans need someone who can do just that.
You don’t have to be DeSean Jackson or Brandin Cooks to be a productive downfield threat in the NFL, but you have to have some semblance of speed and separation ability. Marcus Mariota took multiple “coverage sacks” in 2016 because his receivers simply couldn’t separate from coverage before the pass rush got to him. If the Titans want their quarterback to take the next step in 2017, they need to get him a consistently reliable perimeter weapon.
The obvious choice for a downfield threat at receiver in this year’s draft is John Ross of Washington, who broke former Titan Chris Johnson’s forty yard dash record at the Scouting Combine. The Titans were admittedly interested in trading for Patriots WR Brandin Cooks in March, so it’s no surprise that they also have interest in Ross, who was brought into Nashville for a formal pre-draft visit earlier this month.
Whether it be Ross or someone else, the Titans need someone who legitimately scares defensive backs, can get separation to help Mariota, and take pressure off of DeMarco Murray in the run game.
1. Shutdown Cornerback
For the first few weeks of the 2016 season, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau ran a lot of Cover 3 on defense. Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox, who were the starting corners at the time, didn’t give up many deep passes, but the cushioned approach to coverage allowed opposing quarterbacks to dink and dunk their way down the field with wide open pitch-and-catch intermediate passes.
Seeing that the Cover 3 approach wasn’t working, LeBeau switched things up midseason. The Titans defense went from base Cover 3 to base Cover 2 Man. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, that didn’t work either, and arguably was even worse.
Frankly, the Titans could not come up with a way to stop opponents’ passing games from looking like the Greatest Show on Turf every single week, and it was no fault of LeBeau’s. The cornerback depth chart at the beginning of the year featured Jason McCourty, Perrish Cox, Brice McCain, LeShaun Sims, and Valentino Blake. Of those five corners, three are no longer on the team, and Sims was a raw fifth round draft pick. It ended up being a recipe for disaster.
Heading into 2017, the Titans still have McCain, who held his own in the slot last year, and Sims, who can contribute as a special teamer and rotational man coverage corner. In free agency, they added Logan Ryan, a physical jack of all trades corner who will start and likely be pretty productive. The cornerback situation in Tennessee is better now than it was at this time last year, but not by an incredibly wide margin.
It has been said over and over again that the 2017 NFL Draft is rich with defensive back prospects. Some analysts have even predicted that a whopping ten DB’s will be selected in the first round alone. With two first round picks and a talented class, the Titans need to select a cornerback early who has the size, speed, ball skills, and man coverage ability to consistently matchup with opponent’s #1 receivers and limit their productivity.
Taking a lackadaisical approach to filling this need simply won’t do it. Jon Robinson clearly likes finding blue chip guys in Rounds 3-5 who can develop into good players. In this instance, he needs to pull the trigger early. It doesn’t have to be with the fifth overall pick, but the Titans need to add a cornerback on Day One of the draft.