Looking back now, we should have seen this coming. Not the picks themselves, but the Titans strategy of aggressively moving around the draft board with a focus on quality over quantity. The Voice of the Titans saw it coming. Titans Radio announcer Mike Keith mentioned the possibility of the team trading up and only drafting a few players during a radio interview weeks ago, but he was one of the few.
The signs were there though and looking back I think this was Jon Robinson’s plan all along. After landing big fish free agents Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis — and re-signing some of his own guys in Josh Kline, DaQuan Jones, and Quinton Spain — he went to work adding quality veteran depth with starting experience all over the roster. Kevin Pamphile and Xavier Su’a-Filo were brought in to compete and provide depth along the offensive line. Will Compton and Michael Campanaro will do the same at inside linebacker and wide receiver. Finally, Bennie Logan likely becomes the starting nose tackle which frees Austin Johnson up to be a high end rotational player.
All those additions meant that the Titans entered the draft with very few glaring holes. The two biggest need positions were pretty clearly inside linebacker and edge rusher. Jon Robinson traded up in both the 1st and 2nd round to address those needs with two outstanding prospects in Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry. He then traded up again in the 5th to grab versatile safety Dane Cruikshank, before finally grabbing a quarterback with his final pick in the 6th round to groom as a backup to Marcus Mariota.
Could the team have used a 3rd running back or more competition at the 3rd or 4th wide receiver spots? Sure, but those were far more wants than needs. What the Titans truly needed — especially when you look at the 4-5 year window — was a true 3-down, difference-making inside linebacker and a dynamic edge rusher. Making sure they filled those needs with two of the top prospects in the entire draft is well worth the sacrifice of a 3rd or 4th round wide receiver. Evans and Landry should be foundational pieces to a suddenly impressive looking Tennessee defense for years to come.
One side effect of those trades to move up is that the Titans became a very attractive destination for top undrafted players to sign. Without a big draft class to overcome — drafted players almost always get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to roster decisions no matter how much the coaches insist that kind of stuff doesn’t matter — UDFA’s likely saw Tennessee as an attractive destination. That has seemingly panned out as some top undrafted players like Akrum Wadley, Deontay Burnett, Damon Webb, and Nick DeLuca are among more than 20 UDFA’s that will be heading to Nashville for rookie mini camp in the next couple weeks.
It’s an interesting draft strategy and we won’t truly know if it was effective until a few years from now, but for right now this draft haul looks extremely impressive. We will have detailed breakdowns on all these guys coming soon, but here’s how I see each of the new pieces fitting on the Titans 2018 roster:
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
No player in the 2018 draft fit Mike Vrabel’s descriptions of an ideal Titan better than Rashaan Evans. Some of Vrabel’s constant refrains since being hired include “front multiplicity”, “know what to do and play fast and aggressive”, and “if you can’t play more than one spot, you can’t play here”. Evans ticks all those boxes with authority and adds to it great leadership traits and a football obsessed personality that should play well in the Titans locker room.
I would expect Evans to be a starter from day one on this team, likely joining veteran Wesley Woodyard on early downs. Right now I would expect Jayon Brown retain his role as a passing down specialist with Compton providing depth, but it remains to be seen how Dean Pees will want to split up the reps at this position. Daren Bates was a strong special teams contributor last season, but he and Nate Palmer will probably find themselves on the bubble when we get down to the 53-man roster cuts.
How Evans is used on 3rd downs will be fascinating to watch. At Alabama, he was mostly asked to pass rush or spy at the line of scrimmage on passing downs, very rarely dropping in to coverage down field. The Titans may opt to do something similar as his ability to generate pressure as a rusher was elite in college. A rush package featuring Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Jurrell Casey, and Harold Landry with Rashaan Evans blitzing behind or spying to clean up an escaping quarterback is pretty fun to think about.
Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College
Most assumed that Landry was the target when the Titans traded up from 25 to 22 in the 1st round Thursday night, so to say they got a steal when they traded up to select him with the 41st pick is probably an understatement. Landry was my single favorite pick for the Titans in the entire draft as the best pure pass rusher available. It’s hard to overstate how much I love the fact that they got him in addition to Evans.
Tennessee desperately needed an edge rusher in this draft. Orakpo and Morgan are good starters, but they’ll be 32 and 29, respectively, heading in to 2018 and both are on the final year of their current contracts. Behind them were Kevin Dodd, Aaron Wallace, and Josh Carraway. Dodd, the 33rd overall pick in the 2016 draft, has been a disappointment so far in his pro career. That may be in large part due to a foot injury that has held him out of participating in offseason training and practices the past two summers, but without seeing much of anything from Dodd on the field the past two seasons, its hard to trust him until he shows that he’s anything more than what he’s been fo this point. Aaron Wallace and Josh Carraway were both late round picks in the 2016 and 2017 drafts. Wallace has shown flashes at times during his rookie season and in the preseason last year, but coming off a back injury that cost him all of 2017 its hard to know what to expect from him either.
Landry’s addition makes those question marks far less troublesome. I would expect Landry to immediately slot in as the first edge rusher off the bench behind Orakpo and Morgan, essentially taking over the role that Erik Walden manned during the 2017 season. While the defense will change with the shift from Dick LeBeau to Dean Pees and roles may not be the same, it’s worth noting that Walden was on the field for over 50% of defensive snaps last season.
I believe Landry has an outside shot at pushing either Orakpo or Morgan for a starting role in camp. That’s not a shot at the vets, but rather how good I think Landry is going to be. At the very least Landry should be a premium pass rush specialist, rotating in on passing downs to take advantage of his special speed rushing skill set. I won’t be shocked if he leads the Titans in sacks in 2018.
Dane Cruikshank, S, Arizona
After waiting around for over 100 picks, Jon Robinson’s trigger finger got itchy again in the 5th round so he traded up to grab Cruikshank, a size/speed freak of a safety at 6’-1” tall, 209 pounds with a 4.41 40 yard time.
Cruikshank is a guy that the Titans met with prior to the draft so its no surprise that they were targeting him here. Similar to Evans, his game can best be described as versatile. At Arizona Cruikshank played both safety spots as well as corner. His size, speed, and power — in addition to blazing times in speed and change of direction drills, he also led all safeties with 25 reps on the bench press — make him a viable option for all those spots at the NFL level as well.
I’ve seen some suggest that Cruikshank could challenge for Johnathan Cyprien’s starting job right away, but I think he’s more likely to start the season as the team’s 3rd safety and a key special teamer. He’s known as a big time hitter so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become one of the top special teamers on the Titans right away. Long term, I expect Cruikshank to become a viable option to start across from Kevin Byard. His flexibility to play both in the box and over top makes him an ideal compliment to the similarly verstile Byard.
Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
This was probably the most surprising pick of the Titans draft to me. I had thought there was a chance that they would take a late round quarterback, but figured those chances dwindled when we traded down to just four total selections. My expectation was that this pick would be either MTSU wide receiver Richie James, Miami receiver Braxton Berrios, or Iowa running back Akrum Wadley. However, Falk was largely seen as a great value at 199 overall — the “Tom Brady pick”. Jon Robinson described Falk as a “guy that was kind of sticking out on the top of our board” so its safe to say the Titans had a grade much higher than 6th round on the quarterback.
Falk is a highly experienced, highly productive player who owns nearly every Pac-12 passing record. Add to that his prototypical NFL size at 6’-4” and 223 pounds and its not hard to see why they might have liked him. Opinions on Falk as a prospect vary, but he’s universally viewed as a high character, strong work ethic type of player who should fit in well in the Titans QB room.
I haven’t studied Falk closely yet, but there are some pretty high opinions of him floating around on the internet.
Luke Falk is a steal. He will need to sit 2-3 years, but I see a lot of Kirk Cousins to him. Quarterback evaluators much smarter than me have told me they see him as an intriguing long-term play based on his intelligence, accuracy and prototypical quick release.— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) April 28, 2018
I’ve long been a fan of the Patriots/Packers model of drafting developmental quarterbacks behind your long term starter and then flipping that asset for picks prior to the end of their rookie contract. It’s a little bit similar to buying a house instead of renting. You’ve got to have a backup quarterback anyway so why not invest in one, try to fix him up, and then sell him after a few years and start over again?
In the short term, Falk’s presence will at least make the second half of preseason games more interesting. He will likely get a shot to compete with Blaine Gabbert for the QB2 role, however I think easily the most likely scenario here is that the Titans keep three quarterbacks with Gabbert serving as the top backup and Falk being inactive on gamedays.
Undrafted Free Agents
As I mentioned above, this appears to be a particularly strong crop of UDFA’s for the Titans. Iowa running back Akrum Wadley stands as the most likely guy to make the roster in my opinion. He had back to back 1,000 yard seasons as the feature back for the Hawkeyes and was largely projected as a possible 4th-5th round pick. He’s on the small side, but has good wiggle and comes from an offense that runs a zone blocking scheme which should allow him a smooth transition to the Titans new offense. He’s a good pass catcher out of the back field as well. I could definitely see him pushing David Fluellen for that third running back spot.
Deontay Burnett, the wide receiver out of USC, is another guy who has a real shot at the roster. Wide receiver was probably the biggest “need” position that the Titans didn’t address via the draft. Burnett is a small-but-speedy slot type receiver who was highly productive in college, finishing his career with a 1,000 yard season in 2017. He may have been drafted if not for a torn hamstring that kept him out of the combine and hampered his pro day workout. He’ll get a shot to compete for a roster spot at wide receiver where the Titans have just five players with NFL experience in Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews, Taywan Taylor, Tajae Sharpe, and Michael Campanaro. The Titans brought in five UDFA receivers — the most of any position group — but Burnett is the most accomplished of the group.
The other UDFA that sticks out as a roster candidate is Ohio State safety Damon Webb. Like Wadley, he was seen as a draftable player and the Titans had been connected to him pre-draft. He has the obvious connection to Titans defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs, but he also benefits from a lack of numbers at safety. Returning starters Kevin Byard and Johnathan Cyprien are locks to make the roster and you would expect Cruikshank to be on the 53 after they traded up to grab him. The rest of the safeties are question marks though. Brynden Trawick made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer last season, but played just four snaps on defense. Denzel Johnson was a 2017 UDFA who hung around on the practice squad all year. Last year the Titans kept five safeties — Byard, Cyprien, Da’Norris Searcy, Curtis Riley, and Trawick — so there could be room for Webb on this roster.