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NFL Combine 2018: Winners and losers at the Titans biggest positions of need

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Taking a look at some of the best and worst performances at positions of interest for the Titans. Plus two draft hot takes that I actually believe.

NFL Combine - Day 4 Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The NFL Combine wrapped up today, giving us another set of data points to argue over with each draft prospect for the next two months. Let me state for the record that combine tests are not the be-all-end-all evaluation metric for me. It’s just another data point. However, I do feel like the combine is important with pass rushers. To be an elite pass rusher in the NFL, you essentially have to be a freak athlete. Look at the difference makers in recent years: Khalil Mack, Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald, Justin Houston, Ndamukong Suh, Joey Bosa. All those guys were special athletes who tested off the charts in at least one event at the combine.

Obviously, the biggest standout from the event this past weekend was the performance of UCF’s Shaquem Griffin. Griffin — who had his left hand amputated at a young age due to a rare disease — did 20 reps on the bench press using a prosthetic hand and then ran an unbelievable 4.38 40, the fastest time for a linebacker at the event since 2003. His story is incredible.

Outside of Griffin, the biggest winner of the combine weekend may have been Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki. It’s rare that a tight end dominates an event like this, but when you make a spider graph that looks like this, people take notice.

However, neither of those guys are likely targets for the Titans. Griffin, despite his incredible testing and tape, seems destined to be more of a coverage linebacker in the pros similar to what the Titans selected Jayon Brown to be just a year ago. In Gesicki’s case, I’d be very surprised if Tennessee chose to take another tight end in the first three rounds. Delanie Walker continues to play at a high level and Jonnu Smith was drafted in the 3rd round just a year ago and spent 2017 alternating between looking like an overwhelmed rookie and a future star. The team could also do far worse than Luke Stocker as a blocking tight end. It’s just not a position of need like some other spots on the roster.

That brings us to the guys that I wanted to highlight today. I believe the Titans top five positions of need to be edge rusher, inside linebacker, defensive line, guard, and running back heading in to free agency. When veteran players start signing in a few weeks we may see some of those needs go away, but we know one thing with certainty: the Titans won’t find their edge rushing solution in free agency. So let’s start there.

EDGE RUSHER STOCK UP

Harold Landry | Boston College

Landry is a guy that has been among the most popular mock draft picks for the Titans over the past couple months, but that’s about to end. His tape already showed a guy with an incredible get off along with the flexibility to bend the edge and convert speed to power. That’s the name of the game as an edge rusher in today’s NFL and now he has the combine numbers to back all that up.

There will be corners drafted that don’t have Landry’s movement skills and he’s posting these numbers at 252 pounds. The biggest metric to me for edge rushers is 3-cone because the drill most closely mimics actual movements that position requires in a game. Here is what a 3-cone drill looks like if you’re not familiar.

Landry’s 6.88 at 252 pounds puts him in elite company.

Now Renner’s list is somewhat selection bias-y since he is only looking at players who met this criteria AND were subsequently drafted in the first round. I would imagine that you could find plenty of busts who ran sub-6.9 3-cones at that weight in other rounds, but the first round designation would seemingly imply that the player has the tape/production to match. Landry does, and I think that makes him long gone by the time the Titans draft at 25. A trade up to go get him isn’t outside the realm of possibilities, but it would be a pretty expensive trade as I tend to think he ends up as a top 15 pick.

Hot Take #1: I think Landry is the best pass rusher in this draft class. Yes, including Chubb.

Sam Hubbard | Ohio State

Hubbard also helped his stock this weekend. He weighed in at 270 pounds and elected not to run the 40. His reasoning for not running was both refreshingly honest and a reminder that the 40 yard dash is kind of a silly event.

“you only get one shot at this” & prefers to run 40 at pro day. Also said: “I’ll do any football drill any day but I’ve only been training for track for a month and a half.”

If you want a reason that a lot of rookies struggle in the league, look no further than the amount of time they spend working with track coaches instead of football coaches in the time leading up to the draft. Hubbard will run his 40 at Ohio State’s pro day on March 22nd, essentially buying him three extra weeks to work on getting his track skills.

The drills that he did participate in were pretty impressive.

Like Landry, his 3-cone time is off the charts, especially for a guy checking in at 270 pounds. In fact, his numbers are eerily similar to his former teammate Joey Bosa. That’s not to suggest that Hubbard is the prospect that Bosa was in 2016, he’s clearly not, but the physical skill set to be a difference maker in the NFL is there.

Beyond the pure testing I thought Hubbard looked like one of the most natural movers in the edge rush group in other football drills.

Hubbard was mostly being mocked as a 2nd round pick prior to the combine, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start sneaking in to the end of the 1st round conversation after his performance in Indianapolis. I think he could be in play for the Titans at 25.

Marcus Davenport | UTSA

Davenport is one of three edge guys who are mostly being projected in the 1st round, joining likely top 5 pick Bradley Chubb and the previously mentioned Harold Landry. Davenport’s best drill was the 40 yard dash — which you can probably tell I’m not crazy about as a metric at this position — but his broad jump was also excellent, showing the lower body strength necessary to play with power at the point of attack.

While the 4.58 40 time is amazing for an athlete of his size, I expected him to score a better 3-cone time to go with it. However, any time you can start drawing Jadeveon Clowney comparisons, you are a winner.

Hot Take #2: Give me Hubbard over Davenport all day.

Josh Sweat | Florida State

Sweat is a tough guy to peg. On one hand you have his elite physical ability which he flashed at the combine, but on the other you have a history of knee injuries and underwhelming production in college. His combine performance was absolutely ridiculous though as he checked in as one of the best pure athletes of the class regardless of position.

That kind of athlete should have dominated college tackles, but Sweat was often too slow getting off the ball and appeared to give uneven effort during his time in Tallahassee, resulting in just 14.5 career sacks over three seasons.

However, if his medicals check out, you will struggle to find a player with a higher ceiling. Sweat is a player who needs some time to develop in the NFL which makes the Titans a great potential landing spot for him. He could rotate in behind Orakpo and Morgan in 2018 with the hope that he’s ready to take a job full time by 2019. Mike Vrabel, Dean Pees, and Shane Bowen would get a supreme athlete unlike any player on their current roster with a chance to mold him in to a great pass rusher. If the Titans go elsewhere in the first, Sweat could be a great 2nd or 3rd round selection.

Lorenzo Carter | Georgia

Carter is very similar to Sweat as a former 5-star recruit with elite athletic ability, but limited college production. In fact, Carter’s top comp on Mock Draftable is Sweat and vice versa.

Those are some measurements and they come without the injury concerns of Sweat. Carter has a wiry build and likely needs to add some bulk before being ready to be a full time starter in the NFL. Again, this is a spot where the Titans could make some sense. Tennessee’s need at edge is big, but its not urgent. They can afford to be patient and wait a year for a player to develop.

EDGE RUSHER LOSERS

Hercules Mata’afa | Washington State

This one hurt a little bit as I was a big fan of Hercules’ tape heading in, but this was a pretty rough showing.

The scores below the 50th percentile on 3-cone, broad jump, and vertical jump were particularly concerning. Mata’afa was already a tough projection due to his lack of a clear position. Washington State primarily used him as an undersized defensive tackle, but most think he is more likely to play as an edge rusher or off ball linebacker in the NFL. His hand usage and ability to defeat blocks are among the best in this class though. This combine performance likely keeps him out of the 1st round conversation, but I could see him being a nice pick up for a team in the 2nd or 3rd round.

Arden Key | LSU

Key checked in at nearly 6’-5”, but just 238 pounds. While being too heavy has been an issue for him in the past, I feel like 238 is too light for an edge defender in the NFL, particularly if you’re not an elite mover.

Its not that those numbers are objectively bad, it’s just that they are a little underwhelming for a guy who was supposed to be a super athlete and weighed in as one of the lightest players ever at this position group at the combine. I was just expecting more. I think this performance combined with his hot and cold tape and character concerns will keep him firmly out of the 1st round discussion.

RUNNING BACK WINNERS

Saquon Barkley | Penn State

Barkley shut down any remaining doubts — if there were any — about who is the best running back prospect in this draft class with this ridiculous combine performance.

The question coming up now is whether the Browns might take him first overall to ensure they get him and then follow up with their quarterback selection at the fourth pick. I can see the reasoning with the Giants and Colts unlikely to be in the quarterback market, but I think you’re opening yourself up to having the quarterback you like stolen by some team trading up to 2 or 3 if you select Barkley first. Regardless of how good Barkley is, he won’t matter unless the Browns find a quarterback to go with him.

Nyheim Hines | NC State

Hines is a guy that hasn’t really been a big part of the discussion surrounding this loaded running back class, but he probably should be, especially for Titans fans. His combine performance will help raise his profile a little bit.

While this isn’t a dominant showing like Barkley’s, that 4.38 40 time stands out. He is nowhere near a 1st round prospect, but he’s the kind of mid-round pick that I would love to see paired with Derrick Henry. As a converted wide receiver, he offers the kind of receiving skills the Titans need out of the backfield while also giving them a home run threat with that speed. Lance Zierlein’s description of him on NFL.com almost perfectly describes what Tennessee is looking for in a complementary back.

“Hines is a linear runner whose ability to cut and burst would fit with teams looking for a change of pace back in an outside zone running scheme.”

— Lance Zierlein

If the Titans don’t swing big in the 1st or 2nd round with a guy like Ronald Jones or JG’s Official 2018 NFL Draft Crush, Sony Michel, I would expect Hines to be on their radar in rounds 3-5. Think of him as a smaller version of C.J. Prosise.

Kalen Ballage | Arizona State

Ballage performing well at the combine isn’t really a surprise as the story on him has been that he’s a better athlete than football player at this point in his career, but it was still good to see him show out.

His size/speed combination is something that could be intriguing to many NFL teams, particularly when paired with his natural pass catching ability.

I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by him despite my reservations about size/speed backs coming out of schools in Arizona (thanks Mike Reinfeldt). The differences between Ballage and our old friend Chris Henry is that Ballage is expected to go on Day 3 instead of #50 overall and that he offers an NFL-ready skill as a pass catcher. Ballage is nowhere near a complete back right now and he may never be one, but the Titans don’t need him to be one either.

RUNNING BACK LOSERS

Mark Walton | Miami

Despite the fanfare around this year’s running back class, they had a relatively bad showing overall at the combine. Walton was among my favorite watches on tape thanks to his outstanding balance and ability to make defenders miss in the hole, but he had a rough weekend in Indy.

He measured small, slow, and not very explosive. I didn’t expect him to be a workout warrior, but those measurables are tough to get excited about at just 202 pounds. However, if you want an optimistic comp for him, you could take a look at Devonta Freeman. Neither guy has home run speed, but they beat you with agility, balance, and vision. I like Walton’s game on tape quite a bit more than his workout and he’s another guy who offers experience as a pass catcher out of the backfield.

Ronald Jones | USC

RoJo was mocked to the Titans in the 1st round of Mel Kiper’s last mock draft. Coming in to the combine he was considered one of the best 4-5 backs in this draft by pretty much every draft expert. However, his performance this weekend won’t help those projections.

A 4.65 40 is really bad for a back who is just 205 pounds. I would be surprised if he doesn’t improve on that number at USC’s pro day on March 21st. On tape, Jones is a slashing type runner with outstanding stop-start acceleration who would fit well in an outside zone running scheme so I can see the fit here. I firmly believe that the Titans should go defense with their first pick though and I don’t see Jones falling to the end of the 2nd round regardless of 40 times so it’s tough for me to see how he ends up in Tennessee, but you never know.

INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE WINNERS

Taven Bryan | Florida

Bryan had a ridiculous combine performance and probably pushed his draft stock in to the 1st round (some already had him there). His tape is fun to watch as his get off is so good that he often looks offsides. That explosion was confirmed with some absurd broad jumps and vertical jumps this weekend.

The downside with Bryan is his lack of production compared with his athletic traits. He finished his career with just 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in his 3 year career in Gainesville. He’s the kind of player that needs to go to the right situation with good coaches who can afford to patiently develop him.

Vita Vea | Washington

Vea is a freak of nature at 347 pounds with his movement skills. He is very reminiscent of Haloti Ngata when he was coming out and its not hard to see him being a monster in the middle of a defense like Ngata was for years.

41 reps on the bench press and a 5.1 second 40 are both outstanding results for him. He’s almost certainly a 1st round pick in April and my guess is that he’s gone by the time the Titans get on the board at 25.

INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE LOSERS

Tim Settle | Virginia Tech

Settle is another massive human being like Vea, but he had a rough day at the combine, scoring among the worst 12% for his position in every drill he competed in.

Settle was a guy that I got excited about watching on tape because he’s a violent, powerful guy who flashed some pass rush ability despite his massive size. However, this combine performance won’t help him.

Derrick Nnadi | Florida State

Like Settle, Nnadi really struggled in the combine tests.

He’s more of a pure run-stuffer as a player with very little pass rush juice so these tests pretty much lock his position as a Day 3 pick.

INSIDE LINEBACKER WINNERS

Leighton Vander Esch | Boise State

Vander Esch was already one of the top linebacker prospects in this draft class, but his incredible workout really cemented his status as a 1st or 2nd round pick.

These are absolutely stunning numbers for a 6’-4”, 256 pound linebacker and could propel him in to the 1st round (again, some already had him there). To me, this puts him firmly in play for the Titans at 25. He only started one season in Boise, but his production and tape were ridiculous in that one year. Vander Esch racked up 141 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions, 5 passes defensed, and 4 forced fumbles in 2017. He has a chance to be a special 3-down linebacker in the NFL. If he’s the pick at 25, I’m in.

Fred Warner | BYU

Warner is a guy who profiles as a coverage linebacker, but he put together a pretty impressive workout that should help his draft stock.

He is currently expected to be a Day 3 pick, but the Titans could find him to be an attractive option if they don’t decide to address inside linebacker earlier in the draft.

INSIDE LINEBACKER LOSERS

Rashaan Evans | Alabama

It’s hard to find a real “loser” among the inside linebacker group as all of the top group performed reasonably well. Roquan Smith shut down his combine early after experiencing hamstring tightness following his excellent 4.51 40 run. Evans’ workout wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t that impressive.

The 3-cone time is encouraging, but for a guy without great size the rest of his tests were pretty underwhelming. That, combined with Vander Esch’s dominant workout, may see him lose some ground in the race to become the 3rd linebacker off the board behind Smith and Tremaine Edmunds.