Ten thoughts on the Titans as we approach the 2021 NFL Draft

After four months, countless mock drafts, and endless speculation NFL Draft week is finally here! If you’re like me, you’re both excited and relieved to finally get actual answers to what the 49ers are doing at No. 3, where Justin Fields ends up, and of course, what the Titans do at pick No. 22 on Thursday night.

I will be posting my one and only mock draft for the Titans here later this week, but before we get there I wanted to talk more broadly about this draft and how Jon Robinson might approach the nine picks that he has available to improve his roster. So let’s jump in.

1. The player is far more important than the position.

It’s easy to look at the Titans roster and think “they have to go wide receiver or corner at 22″, but forcing picks based on short-term needs is usually a mistake when it comes to roster building. I don’t believe in an absolute best player available approach — the Titans shouldn’t be taking a running back in the first round even if Najee Harris is the second coming of Walter Payton. However, I’d rather end up with an All-Pro linebacker or defensive lineman than wind up drafting a run-of-the-mill wide receiver or corner.

If Jon Robinson has a huge grade on Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, for example, and he’s clearly the best prospect on their board at pick No. 22… he should probably go ahead and take him. Is linebacker the Titans biggest need? Of course not, but if Koramoah is the next Derwin James or Darius Leonard — two guys that I think he profiles pretty closely to — then you absolutely want that guy on your football team. The biggest priority in any draft is to add elite football players, not plugging short term needs.

2. The draft is about the 2022 through 2024 seasons as much as — or more than — the 2021 season.

This is kind of an extension of my previous point, but we often get caught up in looking at how certain draft picks fit on the 2021 Titans roster and we lose sight of how those pieces fit long term. It’s easy to do since we have far more certainty about what the season right in front of us will look like than we do 2022 and beyond, but the simple fact is that rookies rarely step in and contribute at a high level right away. They take time to develop, and that’s especially true for guys taken outside of Round 1.

Ideally, you’d love for your first round pick to step in and start from day one, but even that’s pretty hit or miss, especially in the back half of the first round. Out of the 14 players picked between pick No. 19 and No. 32 last year, just half became primary starters for their teams as a rookie. The drop off continues into day two where just 9 of 32 second round picks (28.1%) and just 5 of 42 third rounders (11.9%) were primary starters in 2020.

Instant impact rookies are a huge lift for any franchise, but they’re also very rare and that’s why drafting with just the 2021 season in mind is short-sighted. Free agency is where teams should plug immediate needs — and there are still some quality free agents available by the way — but the draft is where you build your foundation for the next four years.

3. The wide receiver class is deep again and the Titans should take advantage of that.

My two points above should not be taken as a dismissal of the Titans needs at spots like wide receiver and corner. Those are real problem spots on the roster as it stands now and they aren’t just 2021 problems. At receiver, the Titans should feel great about A.J. Brown as WR1 and I am pretty comfortable with Josh Reynolds being a starter at the position, but I’m not quite as confident in the prospects of Reynolds serving as the clear WR2 — which he is right now — or guys like Cameron Batson, Marcus Johnson, or Nick Westbrook-Ikhine stepping up into a top-three spot in the rotation.

Fortunately, the college ranks continue to bless the NFL with a wide variety of talented and pro-ready receiver prospects. Most evaluators have between 15 and 20 pass catchers included within their top-100 prospects in this class and that means that there could be some real value to be found on day two at this position.

It’s also worth noting that the difference between first round and second round receivers has been almost non-existent in the last five years as Peter King pointed out in his Football Morning in America column this week:

Average season of all 1st-round wide receivers drafted since 2016: 42.3 receptions, 600.5 yards, 14.2 yards per catch.

Average season of all 2nd-round wide receivers drafted since 2016: 42.5 receptions, 538.7 yards, 12.7 yards per catch.

One thing that is very unique about this class is an unusually high number of guys that fall into the slot only or slot/Z only category based on size/build. It’s a receiver class that is very small in stature overall with Ja’Marr Chase (6-1, 201), Terrace Marshall (6-3, 205), and Nico Collins (6-4, 215) standing out as the only three out of the top 15 to top both six feet and 200 pounds. However, Titans already have good size in A.J. Brown (6-0, 226) and Josh Reynolds (6-3, 196) so they may not be too concerned about adding a different body type to that room.

I think you can make a strong argument that this position is the Titans biggest need, but if they don’t take one at No. 22 there is plenty of evidence from the last few seasons that receivers picked on day two can come in and contribute right away, especially in a defined role that doesn’t ask them to do it all immediately.

4. Don’t get too caught up in where players went in mock drafts.

In a normal year, there are always a few picks that shock everyone. Either a player that was expected to go early sliding deep into the draft or someone who was thought to be a potential third rounder for most of the pre-draft process sneaking into Round 1. This is an abnormal year with less information available to both teams and media than usual and that will probably make for even more surprises than we already are accustomed to seeing.

Also, if you are a mock drafter who loves running the simulation over and over to see what kind of haul you might be able to get… I’d suggest running mocks on multiple different platforms. What you can find at pick 100 on PFF is a lot different than what you’ll find on The Draft Network’s simulator or PFN’s or any other site. These boards all vary wildly after the top few picks and NFL team boards will vary even more drastically from the media’s since they often have better information (especially medical info) and are evaluating prospects for their specific teams.

I mention all that to say this… complaining about a pick a No. 53 because “he was always there at No. 85 in my mock drafts” is one of the worst possible ways to evaluate a draft pick.

5. The Titans roster needs largely align with the strongest positions in this draft class.

The argument over which position is the biggest need for the Titans generally produces a few different answers, but the most common answers are probably wide receiver and corner. Those two positions just happen to comprise exactly one-third of the top-100 prospects in the 2021 draft class according to Scouts Inc.

And I think you could make an argument for offensive tackle and edge rusher — the other two positions that seem deeper than usual — sitting right behind those two spots.

There are two big takeaways from this information that I think are useful. First, I don’t think this is just a happy accident for Jon Robinson. I think he generally does a good job of planning his offseasons around what positions are strong in free agency and which are strong in the draft. Even if you can’t guarantee a specific player will be available, you can certainly look at the overall make up of the class and decide that you’ll be okay finding a slot receiver who can contribute at some point by the end of day two of the draft and I think that’s exactly what Robinson has done this offseason.

The second takeaway is that you probably shouldn’t panic if the position that you believe to be the biggest need doesn’t get picked at No. 22.

6. The interior defensive line class is probably the weakest position in the draft and that could be taken one of two ways.

The flip side here is that the interior defensive line class is incredibly thin this year. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has called it “probably one of the worst defensive tackle groups that we’ve had in the last decade”. ESPN’s Matt Miller said “this interior defensive line class is the weakest I’ve ever evaluated”. It’s ugly out there for this position group.

Like most spots around the roster, the Titans have solid starters on the defensive line in Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry, but are paper thin behind those two. I am a big proponent of Teair Tart and think he could make an impact in a limited snap count role, but even I will admit that is a projection based of just a few flashes from his rookie season. Larrell Murchison — the Titans 5th round pick a year ago — was a non-factor as a rookie and while that doesn’t mean he should be written off entirely, it’s also hard to project him into a significant role heading into 2021.

Miller — who nailed the Titans last two first round picks in his final mock draft — has reported that interior defensive line is a priority for Tennessee and that it could cause them to take one of the few talented defensive linemen in this class — Alabama’s Christian Barmore or Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike, specifically — at pick No. 22.

I have mixed feelings about this idea. On one hand, I can understand the logic of taking a defensive lineman early in a class that has precious few to choose from with the plan to take advantage of positions with better depth on day two and day three. However, I also feel like Barmore and Onwuzurike would have no business being first round picks in a “normal” year for defensive linemen. Overdrafting a positional need based on scarcity feels like a recipe for a bust.

This is one of the tougher problems to solve for Jon Robinson in my eyes. I’m not a fan of reaching for Barmore or Onwuzurike at pick No. 22, but with so few viable alternatives later in the draft, I can at least understand why they might consider it.

7. Where do the Titans find Jonnu Smith’s replacement?

Let’s say this up front… it’s exceedingly likely that Anthony Firkser and Geoff Swaim end up sharing the majority of the reps at tight end for the Titans early in the season regardless of who they pick in this draft. Kyle Pitts will be long gone by the time Tennessee goes on the board and he’s the only guy in this class that seems likely to step in and start from day one.

However, the Titans still need to find a long term replacement at this position. Firkser and Swaim are both on one year contracts and the other options on the roster — Tommy Hudson, Parker Hesse, and Jared Pinkney — have a combined total of zero NFL snaps.

Like the interior defensive line position, tight end is a position with very little depth in this draft class. Behind Pitts, the consensus TE2 seems to be Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, who could go early in the second round, with Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble, Miami’s Brevin Jordan, and Boston College’s Hunter Long as other day two options. The drop off after those five is steep and it’s hard to see any of the other options turning into long term starters.

If the Titans want a long term answer at tight end, they’ll need to spend one of their four top-100 picks on one most likely.

8. Don’t trade up.

History has proven that trading down in the NFL Draft returns more value than trading up. One of the great fallacies of the draft is the hubris of teams truly believing that they are significantly better at projecting the future of a 20 to 22 year old athlete than other teams. Studies have shown that no GM regularly beats the market when it comes to drafting players. Trading up — especially in the first round — implies a great deal of certainty that the player being chosen is going to be a star when history tells us that certainty does not exist in this setting.

Instead, the teams that are regularly rewarded in the draft are those that accumulate more picks through either trading down or earning compensatory picks. Taking more swings seems to increase your odds of finding a star far more than moving up for “your guy”.

The last time the Titans traded up in the first round, they gave up a fourth round pick to move up three spots to take Rashaan Evans. Your mileage may vary with your perception of Evans through three years, but I think we can all be pretty confident that he hasn’t proven to be worthy of a first round pick, much less the first and fourth round picks Robinson gave up to get him. In fact, had the Titans sat at pick No. 25 and seen Evans come off the board — he was rumored to be coveted by the Patriots and Steelers, prompting Tennessee’s move to get him — they might have ended up with Darius Leonard or Fred Warner. Those were the next two inside linebackers off the board in that draft and both were 2020 First-Team All-Pro selections.

To be fair to the Titans, I searched and found exactly zero draft boards with either Leonard or Warner rated above Evans before the 2018 draft. In fact, many boards had Leonard and Warner behind the likes of Jerome Baker, Oren Burks, and Malik Jefferson. But that’s the point I’m trying to make here… the draft is unpredictable. Even when ALL the experts agree that Rashaan Evans is a better prospect than Darius Leonard, it doesn’t always pan out that way. Gather picks and take as many educated swings as you can. Don’t fall for the trap of hubris.

The Titans are also not in a great position to trade up from a roster depth standpoint. There are pretty big holes in the depth across nearly every position group besides running back as things stand today and backfilling those holes with draft picks seems absolutely vital to both the short and long term success of this football team. The third or fourth round pick that would be required to move up in the first would be a tough pill to swallow even if you were sure that the guy you were picking was going to be a stud.

9. Medicals will play a large role.

Medical evaluations are always a large part of the pre-draft process. That is the reason that the combine was initially started back in 1982 — all the underwear Olympics stuff was added later — and with no combine for the first time this offseason, teams are having to work around medicals differently than they have in regular years.

Some guys who have known medical question marks that could be targets for the Titans include:

  • CB Caleb Farley (ACL, back)
  • CB Greg Newsome (ankle, lower body)
  • OL Trey Smith (blood clots)
  • OL Landon Dickerson (ACL)
  • EDGE Jaelan Phillips (concussions)
  • DL Dayo Odeyingbo (Achilles)
  • WR Rondale Moore (hamstrings, lower body)
  • WR Jaylen Waddle (ankle)
  • WR Terrace Marshall Jr. (unknown)

There are almost certainly other guys who have had issues pop up medically during the pre-draft process who haven’t been widely reported on yet. Sometimes a medical issue causing a player to drop can lead to great value for a team, but obviously there is considerable risk involved with any potential lingering long term issue.

10. Players that I’m planting my flag on.

There are a lot of fun players in this draft class, but some stand out to me more than others. Here are 20 prospects that I love this year:

(Note: This is not a list of options at 22. It’s just guys that I really loved studying.)

  • Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss
  • Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
  • Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB/S, Notre Dame
  • Teven Jenkins, RT, Oklahoma State
  • Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
  • Tommy Tremble, TE, Notre Dame
  • Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
  • Joseph Ossai, EDGE, Texas
  • Payton Turner, EDGE, Houston
  • Amari Rodgers, WR, Clemson
  • Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford
  • Spencer Brown, RT, Northern Iowa
  • Kendrick Green, C, Illinois
  • Patrick Jones II, EDGE, Pitt
  • Josh Palmer, WR, Tennessee
  • Dayo Odeyingbo, DL, Vanderbilt
  • Ben Cleveland, G, Georgia
  • Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
  • Elerson Smith, EDGE, Northern Iowa
  • Aaron Robinson, CB, Central Florida

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