The Titans selection of Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley carries a ton of similarities to the 2019 Draft when Jon Robinson took Jeffery Simmons with the 19th overall pick. Like Simmons, Farley is coming off a serious injury that caused him to drop much further in the draft than he normally would have with a clean bill of health.
The injuries are quite a bit different — bulging discs in the lower back for Farley versus a torn ACL for Simmons — but the result was the same. A top-10 talent dropped into the back half of the first and Tennessee snatched them up. Things have worked out pretty well for Simmons to this point and the Titans will be hoping for a similar result with Farley.
Before we get into the player, let’s address the injury concern because that’s the elephant in the room with this pick. First, Farley tore his ACL on the first day of practice after arriving at Virginia Tech as a freshman in 2017. After redshirting for a year to recover, he returned and switched positions, moving from receiver to corner and saw some limited action during the 2018 season. In 2019, he broke out and became one of, if not the, best cornerbacks in the country. But his season was cut short when he herniated his L5 and bulged his S1 in his lower back while deadlifting in the weight room. He had surgery to repair the herniated disc, but they left the S1 to heal on it’s own. However, after dealing with some sciatic symptoms he re-injured the S1 while preparing for his pro day in March and opted to go ahead and have the S1 surgically repaired as well.
Experts vary on their level of concern with the back remaining an issue moving forward, but most seem to agree that getting the second disc surgically repaired should help Farley put this behind him. ESPN’s sports injury expert Stephania Bell believes that a return play at a high level is likely with the key being a patient approach from the team.
Mike Vrabel’s insistence on letting players get fully healthy before returning to the field seems to make this a good fit for Farley. However, I don’t think we will have to wait too long to see the new corner in action. Farley expects to be fully cleared to return to practice before the start of training camp which would give him plenty of time to ease back into full contact prior to the start of the season.
Obviously, back injuries are notoriously tricky and there is absolutely some risk associated with this pick. If there wasn’t, Farley would have been gone inside the top-10 and the Titans wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to add a potential blue-chip player in this draft class. There are examples of players with similar injuries who have recovered and played long, productive careers. The most notable would be Rob Gronkowski, a player that Jon Robinson helped evaluate and draft for the Patriots back in 2010. Gronk missed his entire final year of college due to a microdiscectomy to fix a herniated disc similar to the procedure Farley had done. That caused the former Arizona tight end to fall in the draft despite an obviously unique physical skill set, but 11 years later Gronk is still an effective NFL player. Sure, he’s had his fair share of injuries along the way, but they haven’t prevented him from becoming the best tight end in NFL history.
Could that experience have helped Jon Robinson get comfortable with the prospect of taking another unique physical talent coming off a similar injury? I certainly would think so. While the medical evaluations of the Titans training staff were certainly the biggest factor in signing off on this pick, having a GM who witnessed a player overcome a college back surgery to have a Hall of Fame career may have helped grease the tracks for Farley-to-Tennessee as well.
So with that, let’s talk about Farley the player for a minute… at 6-2 and 207 pounds the Virginia Tech corner has an ideal build for the modern NFL with long arms and enough strength to battle with bigger receivers. However, his biggest gift is the speed that saw him register a speed of 24.16 miles per hour during a game in college. To put that in perspective, the fastest speed registered for a ball carrier since the NFL started making that data public in 2016 was Tyreek Hill hitting 23.24 miles per hour on a kickoff return in 2016. That’s almost a full mile per hour slower than Farley’s velocity and Farley is four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Hill.
It’s a shame that he didn’t get a chance to run the 40 at Virginia Tech’s pro day, but Farley says he runs in the 4.2s and I’m inclined to believe him based on the tape. The burst and make-up speed is incredibly evident on pretty much every snap, allowing him to cover up mistakes and take calculated risks.
Take a look at the snap below. Farley takes the bait on the double move, but his easy stop-start acceleration and elite long speed allow him to stay in the hip pocket of the receiver through the entire route. Most corners are toast as soon as they come downhill on this route, but Farley recovers without ever losing contact.
For a player that has only been playing corner for two years — he was a high school quarterback and started his college career at wide receiver before eventually making the move to corner — Farley has fantastic feet that allow him to effortlessly match and mirror his receiver in and out of breaks. When the ball is in the air, he looks like the receiver that he began his college career as, easily locating the ball and frequently making a play on it.
His college stats are eye-popping. In 2019, Farley was targeted 50 times, but allowed just 18 catches (36%) for 257 yards (5.14 YPA), 1 touchdown, 9 passes defended, and 4 interceptions. Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 26.8 when throwing at Farley, meaning they were actually better off throwing the ball in the dirt every snap than they were testing the big Hokies corner.
At Virginia Tech he was asked to play a lot of man coverage on an island and that’s really where his game excels. I’ve been banging the drum all offseason about the Titans wanting to be a secondary who can match up and play man coverage throughout the game and this pick continues to hammer that point home. The idea of Farley, 2020 second round pick Kristian Fulton, and free agent signee Janoris Jenkins getting the opportunity to lock up in man coverage throughout games should be pretty attractive for Titans fans. All three excel in that setting and being able to match up on the back end opens up all kinds of options to get creative up front.
Beyond the injuries, Farley’s biggest concerns are his tackling and his relative inexperience at the position, but both of those things are correctable and given time and health there is zero reason why he can’t become a top-5 NFL corner.
Day Two Strategy
The Titans have three picks to work with today:
Round 2: Pick 53
Round 3: Pick 85
Round 3: Pick 100
With corner addressed, the positions that jump out for a pick on day two are wide receiver, offensive tackle, edge rusher, and tight end. Obviously, the Titans can’t get to all those needs unless they’re able to pick up an extra pick or two, but there are lots of good options left at each spot. Justin Melo has his best available list up to check out here, but I want to hit on a few of my favorite options:
Elijah Moore – WR, Ole Miss
Moore was my favorite pick at 22 and I’m pretty surprised that he’s still on the board heading into the second round. Rashod Bateman and Kadarius Toney both going ahead of him seems like a bit of an upset. I’d be surprised if he lasts to pick 53, but we saw Kristian Fulton drop all the way to 61 last year so I suppose anything is possible. The Jets, Panthers, Lions, Giants, and Cardinals stand out as threats to take the speedy Moore before the Titans next pick.
Other WR Options: Terrace Marshall, Nico Collins, Tylan Wallace, Rondale Moore, Dyami Brown, Amari Rodgers, Amon-Ra St. Brown
Teven Jenkins – OT, Oklahoma State
Like Moore, I thought Jenkins would go in the first round, but the Raiders Raider’d and took Alex Leatherwood which dropped Jenkins out of the top round. I know offensive line remains an unpopular position to pick, but I’d have a hard time passing up Jenkins if he’s there at 53.
Other OT Options: Dillon Radunz, Sam Cosmi, Liam Eichenberg, Spencer Brown, Walker Little, Spencer Brown
Joseph Ossai – EDGE, Texas
Azeez Ojulari maybe the most surprising player at this position to not get selected in the first round, but I keep coming back to Ossai for the Titans. He’s got prototypical size and is an elite athlete for the position. His tackle for loss production in college projects well for him at the NFL level despite playing off the ball for half of his career at Texas. He’d be another great pickup at 53.
Other EDGE Options: Azeez Ojulari, Ronnie Perkins, Jordan Smith, Patrick Jones II, Elerson Smith
Tommy Tremble – TE, Notre Dame
I’ve been a huge fan of Tremble’s game throughout the entire draft process. He’s a guy who should be a plus blocker in the run game from day one and his athleticism suggests that he could be a bigger producer in the passing game than he was for the Fighting Irish. I think 53 might still be a bit of a reach, but I’m also not sure he makes it back around to 85.
Other TE Options: Pat Freiermuth, Hunter Long, Brevin Jordan
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – LB, Notre Dame
Probably the biggest shock to fall out of the first round for me. JOK is a hybrid defender that requires some imagination for how he will be deployed at the NFL level, but the playmaking speaks for itself. The Titans linebacker situation isn’t the most pressing of their needs, but don’t write off the fact that Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown are both likely entering contract years. Upgrading and securing the future of this position could be a bigger priority for Jon Robinson than you might think.
Other LB Options: Nick Bolton, Baron Browning, Jabril Cox, Dylan Moses, Chazz Surratt