If I had to sum it up with one adjective, I'd say I'm satisfied with the work that Mike Reinfeldt put in as general manager. Like many others, I'd say the same about the first year that Mike Munchak had at head coach, so when Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive guard himself, comes out and says that it's unlikely that the team will look to address offensive guard in the first round, I hop on the bandwagon and start looking at defensive ends, tackles, and cornerbacks that might fit what they're looking for.
Thing is, Munchak's strategy of not filling one of the more gaping holes on the team might initially seem counterproductive. Wouldn't you want to help patch up the offensive line? It's probably the most important unit on the field all game, it would be a real asset to have a group of guys who really knew what they were doing. Look closer though, you'll see that Munchak's words carry water, and a lot of it.
My main concern about the offensive line has nothing to do with their ability to keep the quarterback safe. Say what you will about their run blocking, their pass blocking is a lot of fun to watch and make no mistake, it has to be to keep a fragile old statue like Matt Hasselbeck healthy enough to not miss a start. Since I'll be using Football Outsiders and their offensive line rankings to justify my position later, I'll use it here too. The Titans ranked second overall in pass blocking in 2011. If getting to the quarterback is the most important aspect of defense, protecting him must logically be the most important aspect of offense, and that was something that the Titans did really well last year. What's more is that they did it without a single first-round pick on the line. Michael Roos and Dave Stewart, easily one of the best pair of pass blockers you'll see in the game today, were taken in the second and fourth round of the 2005 draft. Two other starters, Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano, were taken in the fourth and seventh round respectively. The only starter on the offensive line not drafted by the Titans was Jake Scott, a fifth round pick who signed as a free agent in 2008. The second best unit in the whole league in terms of pass protection has nary a first round pick, not even at left tackle, and boasts a seventh round pick at center.
Surprisingly, the only team better than the Titans this year at pass protection was Buffalo. From left to right, their starting lineup consisted of Chris Hairston, a rookie picked in the fourth round out of Clemson, Andy Levitre, second rounder in 2009, Kraig Urbik*, originally picked in the third round by Pittsburgh in 2009 but claimed off waivers in 2010 by the Bills, Chad Rinehart, third round pick of the Redskins in 2008 and signed to Buffalo's practice squad after being cut by the Jets, and Erik Pears, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Bills after bouncing around with three teams since his first stint with the Broncos in 2005. This ragtag group of castoffs and mid-low round picks made up the most dominant (by a wide margin) pass blocking unit in the league.
This is only the tip of the iceberg though. Using the same system we used to find that the Titans and Bills ranked at the top of the league in QB protection, we find that out of the top ten teams in that category, six of them made the playoffs. New Orleans (3rd), Cincinnati (4th), New York (6th), Atlanta (7th), New England (8th), and Detroit (10th) all rode the strong play of their quarterbacks to postseason berths. You'll notice that that list includes both the Super Bowl winner and the runner up, so clearly they're doing something right, and I genuinely think that protecting the quarterback is a huge part of that success. Other playoff teams, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Houston, Green Bay, San Francisco, and Denver come in at 12th, 20th, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, and 29th respectively. I think the results of having poorer pass protection showed during each of these teams' playoff runs. For example, Houston lost a seven point game on the road against the Ravens with their third string quarterback, rookie T.J. Yates, playing. Imagine if they had been with starter Matt Schaub. Chances are their well-oiled offense would have found a way to score more than 13 points, and in a game that came down to the final drive, that extra touchdown would have gone a long way. Green Bay is another good example. They looked unstoppable until they met the Giants at Lambeau. New Yorks' front four were too much and limited Green Bay's offense to 20 points in a dominating effort. The Pack's high flying offense never had a chance to get going. Denver, after shocking the world in a game that was won by timely turnovers more than anything else, got absolutely demolished by the Patriots in embarrassing fashion. Tim Tebow isn't a great quarterback to begin with, but even he's better than the line he put up in New England on that fateful night in January.
One thing you may notice about the playoff teams that excel in pass blockin is an overall dearth of first round selections on the offensive line. I won't go into the specifics of each team, but among the six teams that made the playoffs in the top ten, there are a total of 5 first rounders, 1 guard (Logan Mankins), as opposed to 8 undrafted/seventh round picks, 6 of which are guards/centers. If I had to put an average draft position for all of them, I'd place it somewhere in the fourth round.
So you see that, as a whole, teams that can protect the quarterback are both likely to make and go on extended runs in the playoffs and also do not spend high-round picks on linemen, especially on interior linemen. Back to the point about drafting a guard to improve the run blocking; while five teams in the top ten made the playoffs, of the two who were not on the top pass blockers list, Houston and Baltimore, one made an early exit because they couldn't protect their starting quarterback and the other, while they came very close, came up short as well despite having perhaps the most complete roster in football.
What does this say to me? First, you don't to take interior offensive linemen in the first round. Ever. Maybe Dave DeCastro is a future Hall of Famer, but it's just way too easy to find quality players in later rounds who can hold down the position well and come together with other mid-late round picks to make a heck of a unit to justify taking him that early. If he's there in the second? Absolutely, his talent and upside make him well worth the 40th overall pick, but steer clear of him in the first round. Second, I've learned that the best units don't always include the best players. Jake Long, Joe Thomas, Mike Pouncey, Nick Mangold, all of these guys have earned reputations for being some of the best in the game today, none of their teams shows up in the top ten pass blocking teams in football. In this case, it seems as though it may be a case of quantity over quality, that is to say that it's much better to have a complete unity of decent starters who excel in one area (preferably pass protection) than it is to have one superstar on the line. Finally, I've decided that while the offensive line was totally broken when it came to run blocking last year, it really didn't matter that much. Anyone they sign or draft will be an instant upgrade over Jake Scott in run blocking and probably pass blocking too, as long as the pass pro stays consistent, the inevitable increase in run blocking efficiency (there's literally nowhere to go but up) is going to be an added bonus. The Titans missed the playoffs and a division title by one game with the worst run blocking unit in the league (and it wasn't particularly close, either). There is no need to spend a ton of money and a high draft pick to improve the run game by leaps and bounds. Instead, why not target another area that the Titans struggled in that has a much larger impact than the run game, pass rush and deep coverage? A lot rides on the next few years, I'd really hate to see the Titans screw themselves over by taking a guard over a potential pass rusher or shutdown corner or game-breaking receiver in the first round, it's just not something that good teams do.
h/t to ShawnG for pointing out that Eric Wood, Buffalo's usual starting center, was both injured for about half the season and a first rounder.