Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt made some comments a few weeks ago at the NFL Owners Meetings that stirred up a lot of discussion. While some believe that his feelings are genuine, a lot of people seem to believe that the Titans are putting on a show in order to "sell" the number two overall pick in the draft. While at a glance this seems to have some possible validity to it, the idea seems to be more questionable after taking a further look for a number of reasons.
First, pretending to like Marcus Mariota in public, while working to trade the pick would be a highly ineffective technique. The "smokescreen" technique in the draft is typically utilized in a way that forces teams to jump past them, not directly to their pick. If the Titans really were actively trying to trade down, anything that they say to the media about Marcus Mariota would be irrelevant, because actions speak louder than words. If they are calling around selling the pick, teams are not going to buy any kind of faux interest in Marcus Mariota, and will be willing to sit back and wait. While the counterargument may be that a team still needs to trade to pick two in order to secure the fact that they get their man, the fact is that the next two teams—Jacksonville and Oakland—are not going to take a Quarterback, which would allow teams to save a pick or two in a trade up scenario.
Next, past draft day trades indicate that Ruston Webster is a follower of the traditional Jimmy Johnson trade value chart. Jumping to pick number two, based on the chart, requires a giant haul that teams may be unlikely to give up. Taking this a step further, it is fair to wonder if a reliance on the Johnson chart is what stopped a trade in the first round of last year’s draft. There was a lot of talk of a trade going into the night, especially with the 49ers as a possible partner. Since then, it has come out that the 49ers wanted to trade up for Odell Beckham Jr., who was the next pick after the Titans selected Taylor Lewan, but they were ultimately uncomfortable with the asking price. In a recent article, Matt Maiocco of Comcast SportsNet's Bay Area outlet said that "General manager Trent Baalke later said the price in draft picks would have seen the 49ers, in essence, give up the rights to select Jimmie Ward, Marcus Martin, Chris Borland and Carlos Hyde to select Beckham." In matching these players' selection slots, this all but matches the cost on the Johnson chart to move up to pick 11 from the 49ers standpoint, only putting them 39 points over. Admittedly, this is an assumption on my part, but it is a very fair one. Ian Rappoport’s most recent report saying that the Titans asking price will be very high reinforces this.
After Whisenhunt made his comments, a lot of people began to call "smoke". A number of fans and media members were very quick to brush everything that he said off as a smokescreen. While it very well ultimately could be, it led me to ask one major question—if all of us "normal" people behind our computers can so easily detect a smokescreen, why would seasoned, NFL executives believe it? It seems highly unlikely that a team would be so blatant if they were trying to blow smoke. These kinds of tactics are typically employed behind closed doors, whether it is through media leaks or phone calls to other teams. When it comes to public comments, sometimes it is as simple as calling a spade, a spade.
This is especially true when specifically talking about the Titans. Ruston Webster and Ken Whisenhunt have been quite transparent when it comes to their draft intentions in previous years. For example, the Titans 30 official facility visits are usually very indicative of where the team’s head is at. Every first round pick in the Ruston Webster era has visited the facility. In 2014, Taylor Lewan, Bishop Sankey, Zach Mettenberger, and Avery Williamson all visited St. Thomas Sports Park. A lot of the prospects that come through end up getting drafted by the team, and at the very least the visits indicate the level of the position that they are targeting. Last year, while the Titans showed interest in Quarterbacks, they were part of the "second tier"—Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger—instead of the main, first round guys. Their actions in the draft confirmed this. This year, the only Quarterbacks that they have shown any visible interest in are Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. There are a number of other examples of their transparency, as well. Last year, Ken Whisenhunt ruled out Running Back and Cornerback as first round possibilities which turned out to be true. With the Cardinals in 2011, he mentioned that "no Quarterback stands out," and the team eventually drafted Patrick Peterson and traded for Kevin Kolb. Ruston Webster made comments on a radio show in Nashville, The Midday 180, two days before the draft that strongly suggested their openness to drafting an offensive tackle in the first round, even though the team already had two penciled in starters for 2014. This is not to say that we should take everything that we hear from Webster and Whisenhunt to heart, but the past shows that you can make some very strong inferences based on the actions of the team.
While there is no way for any outsider to be certain of the team’s plans, it is important to look at every factor in order to make the best educated guess. Even after taking things into consideration, we will not know until draft night. The team may not even know, because anything could happen when the clock starts ticking. However, as the clues continue to roll in, April 30th very well could end up being a confirmation, rather than a shocker.