With the recent release of Vic Beasley, the Titans are now down to just three outside linebackers on the active roster with very little production from the position group. This is nothing new for the Titans. In fact during Jon Robinson’s tenure in Nashville, the Titans have not had a double digit sack edge rusher that Robinson acquired himself. It is certainly looking like that streak will continue in 2020.
Despite constructing a very competitive roster all around, it seems like edge rusher has been a perpetual need for the Robinson-led Titans. So it begs the question: Does Jon Robinson just have an issue evaluating the edge rusher position? Robinson has proven himself to be a great general manager, but I think this question is legitimate.
In order to answer this question, we need to go back through his all of his edge rusher additions and grade them relative to the draft capital or contract that was used. To keep it simple, I’ll grade the signings as good, bad, or neutral and then tally them up at the end to find a conclusion.
Jon Robinson’s first and coincidentally worst edge rusher acquisition was Kevin Dodd. Coming out of Clemson, Dodd exploded onto the draft scene with a 12.5-sack redshirt Junior season that featured an impressive three sack performance in the National Championship game against Alabama. However, before that season, Dodd was relatively unproven and had not registered a single sack.
Despite this lack of experience and production other than his last season, Robinson selected Dodd 33rd overall in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL draft. Dodd was a complete dud for the Titans. In just two season, Dodd started one game (playing in 18 total) and only had one sack and two tackles for losses. Dodd was then cut in the offseason prior to his third year and has been out of the league since. Considering the draft capital that was used to get him, Dodd has been Robinson’s biggest draft bust — so far (fingers crossed on Isaiah Wilson).
Grade: Very Bad
In the same draft class as Dodd, Robinson also selected Aaron Wallace out of UCLA in the seventh round. Wallace played for the Titans for three seasons before being waived at the start of the 2018 season. Wallace had a short stunt with the Broncos, but is now completely out of the league.
This selection isn’t one that you can really penalize Jon Robinson for because the seventh round in general is a complete shot in the dark. Prospects that are picked this late rarely amount to much more.
In the following year, Robinson took another seventh round flier on UCLA edge rusher Josh Carraway. Carraway would end up only playing one game for the Titans, which consisted of just two special teams snaps. Carraway would go on to have short stints with the Redskins and Rams before getting out of the league.
Similar to Aaron Wallace, you can’t really fault Robinson for taking a chance on a guy late in the seventh round. Just another shot in the dark that didn’t work out.
Harold Landry is by far Robinson’s most productive and successful drafted edge rusher. Coming out of Boston College, Landry had a monster 2016 season with a college football leading 16.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss. Landry returned to school for his senior season after receiving second round grade feedback from NFL teams. Unfortunately, his senior year was hampered by a significant ankle injury. There were also reports that Landry slid in the draft to the second round due to being medically flagged by multiple teams.
Now if we look at his career thus far with the Titans, we can see an increase in production from 2018 to 2019, where he doubled his sacks and more than doubled his tackles for loss. He also increased his total pressures from 34 to 54, which is a more stable metric than sacks. Just from looking at the statistics, it seems like Landry made huge strides in his development, but I don’t think that is the case. While Landry did increase his overall production, he also saw an significant increase in snaps as well. As a result, I would say that the increase in production was caused more by an increase in opportunity rather than a increase in effectiveness. This is evident on tape and through his slow start to 2020. Three years into his career, Landry has still not shown an effective counter to his effective speed dip and bend pass rush — making him too one-dimensional. Opposing offensive tackles can essentially eliminate Landry by setting out wide for his speed. Until Landry can develop more pass rush moves, he looks more like a side kick rather than the main source of pass rush.
For the sake of the grades though, this is still an excellent pick for Robinson. Having your second round pick get 9 sacks in his second year in the league is excellent value. I’m still holding out hope that Landry can develop into something more, but for now, he doesn’t look like a consistent double-digit sack guy.
In the 2018 preseason, the Titans traded a 2019 sixth round pick to the Ravens for Kamalei Correa. Correa was traded because he was buried on the Ravens’ depth chart behind the likes of Terrell Suggs, Matthew Judon, and Za’Darius Smith.
For the Titans, Correa was never an impact player, but he was well worth that sixth round pick as a rotational piece. Correa was solid against the run and played with very great effort. He even got a sack in back to back games against the Ravens and the Chiefs on the Titans’ AFC Championship playoff run.
However, Correa would request a trade this season due to lack of playing time, despite the Titans current lack of depth at edge. Robinson was able to steal a sixth round pick for Correa from the Jaguars. So essentially, Robinson was able to gain back the draft capital that he had used on Correa, while getting some meaningful snaps out of him.
In the 2019 NFL Draft, Robinson selected Georgia edge rusher D’Andre Walker in the 5th round. Walker was unable to play in his rookie year due to a season-ending injury. Then at the start of the 2020 season, Walker was abruptly cut by the Titans before he could ever play a snap for them.
Walker had a brief stint with the Seahawks before again being cut. Walker is now currently out of the league. While he was only selected in the 5th round, the fact that Walker never got a chance to play is a bit concerning. He must have not shown any promise in practice. As a result, this one is another miss by Robinson.
With the loss of long time veterans in Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, Robinson decided to refuel the Titans edge rushing veteran presence with Cameron Wake. Although Wake was turning 37, he had still been producing at a high level and remained pretty healthy throughout his 11-year NFL career.
Wake had a fantastic start for the Titans with 2.5 sacks and 2 TFL’s in week one. However for rest of the season, he was mostly a non-factor. Coming in on third downs and obvious passing situations, Wake was able to create some pressures, but failed to register another sack. Eventually, Wake would be placed on IR due to a season-ending knee injury during the middle of the season.
This one just didn’t make a lot of sense from the very beginning — giving a 37 year old edge rusher a three year/$23 million dollar contract. Robinson quickly admitted his mistake by cutting him in the following offseason.
Similar to Correa’s acquisition, the Titans traded a sixth round pick for Reggie Gilbert, who was buried on the depth chart due to a talented rotation of edge rushers, during the 2019 preseason. Gilbert was not quite as productive as Correa. Gilbert played in 11 games for the Titans, but was relatively unproductive in his snaps. Gilbert would be waived by the Titans before the start of the 2020 season. Currently, Gilbert remains on the Cardinals’ practice squad.
Robinson once again took a chance on an edge rusher buried on the depth chart, but given the draft capital that was used, there is no real harm in this acquisition.
This one also never made a lot of sense from the very beginning. The Titans clearly had a need this offseason at edge, but Beasley’s skillset did not offer the solution. He largely suffers the same issues as Landry — lacking an effective counter move. This is why his 15.5-sack season was an outlier year. Once opposing lineman figured his game out, he was unable to replicate that season. There were also questions from the coaching staff in Atlanta about Beasley’s desire to play football, which just makes this signing all the more puzzling.
Now just seven games into the season, Robinson decided to release Beasley after a lackluster performance from Beasley and the Titans’ defense overall. This is even more significant because Beasley’s salary is already guaranteed for the 2020 season. It’s clear that Robinson is trying to send a message to the team that mediocre production and effort is not tolerated on this team. Props to Robinson for quickly accepting his mistakes, but this one is brutal. The Titans already spent the money on Beasley and now lose even more depth at edge.
Clowney was Robinson’s big ticket free agent acquisition this past offseason. Clowney’s biggest knocks during his time in Seattle were his injuries and lack of sack production. Those same issues are reigning true with the Titans. Clowney currently has the most pressures without a sack in the NFL, which is crazy because he ranks 20th in pressures. This means that Clowney is effectively generating pressure, but is not finishing his plays. I wrote a tape study as to why that might be the case, so make sure to check that out for the detailed explanation.
Also, Mike Garafolo reported that Clowney is dealing with a meniscus injury that could have force Clowney to miss a couple of weeks or even the entire season.
Despite his extensive injury history, Robinson took a chance on Clowney late in free agency with plenty of other suitors, but the commitment was not that big. The Titans only gave Clowney a one-year deal worth up to $15 million ($12 million base and an additional $3 million in incentives). While Clowney hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype, he is still leading the team in total pressures and has the 2nd highest defensive PFF grade (among players with at least 200 snaps). The Titans still need to see more from Clowney, but he is still one of the best players on defense this season.
Through ten edge rusher acquisitions, Robinson had three good, four bad, and three neutral grades. Robinson has used a two second round picks, a fifth round pick, two sixth round picks, and two seventh round picks. In free agency, he signed Beasley and Clowney to one-year deals and Wake to a three year deal. Even considering the resources that he has used, it is safe to say that Robinson has not been great in his edge rusher evaluations.
If we look at the top ten leaders in sacks among edge rushers, eight out of the ten were either acquired in the first round of the draft or signed in free agency through a lucrative multi-year deal — neither of which Robinson has done so far. This tells us that it’s pretty difficult to acquire elite pass rushing edge talent without expending valuable resources. Maybe Robinson just doesn’t value the position as much as he does others on defense, but the most he has spent in the draft was a second round pick on Landry and a three year $23 million dollar contract in free agency on Wake. This is not a lot of commitment. This also might be because the Titans are usually drafting at the back end of the first round of the draft and have bigger needs in free agency.
Whatever explanation you want to use, it’s pretty clear to me now that if Robinson wants a true impact edge rusher, he is going to have to use the necessary resources to get it. Overall, I would point to a lack of using premier resources, football character misjudgments, and some bad injury luck as the main sources of Robinson’s edge rusher evaluation woes.
Looking ahead to the 2021 offseason, a couple of potential free agents include Yannick Ngakoue and Shaquil Barrett are set to hit the market as well as some potential first round draft talents including Joseph Ossai, Kwity Paye, and Gregory Rousseau. It might be time for Robinson to finally splurge on an impact edge rusher rather than try to find another “value” rotational piece.