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Offensive line, pass rush, or pass catcher? Where should the Titans go with the 19th overall pick?

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Tennessee’s top pick seems likely to be spent on one of these spots, but which position would make the biggest impact on the 2019 Titans?

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Heading into free agency, the Titans top roster needs were interior offensive line, edge rusher, defensive line, wide receiver, backup quarterback, and safety in some order. Jon Robinson aggressively attacked all of those spots with the lone exception of defensive line in the first wave of free agency, re-signing Kenny Vaccaro, trading for Ryan Tannehill, and adding Rodger Saffold, Adam Humphries, and Cameron Wake.

Looking around the roster, it’s a little tougher to find glaring holes now. We know the Titans are set at quarterback and running back for 2019. Maybe they add a running back later in the draft or as a priority UDFA to come in and compete with David Fluellen for the RB3 spot, but I certainly wouldn’t expect a major expenditure in cap space or draft capital there.

The same largely goes for inside linebacker and cornerback on the defensive side of the ball. The Titans have Wesley Woodyard, Jayon Brown, and Rashaan Evans returning at inside backer with Daren Bates still on board as depth that can contribute on special teams. The Titans could possibly use more depth there with Wesley Woodyard heading into the final year of his contract and getting up there in age, but there is no need for an immediate impact player at inside linebacker. At cornerback, the Titans feature a solid top three of Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, and Logan Ryan with high level depth players in LeShaun Sims and Tye Smith behind them. I understand the notion that “you can never have too many good corners” and the Titans do have Ryan and Sims heading into the final year of their current contracts, but I can’t imagine the Titans spending the 19th overall pick on a player that would be unlikely to crack the top three at the position in 2019.

The Titans also aren’t likely to use a high pick on an offensive tackle or safety either. Taylor Lewan, a healthy Jack Conklin, and Dennis Kelly make up one of the league’s best trios of tackles while Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are locks to start at safety with Dane Cruikshank set to back them up and be a key special teamer. The Titans would probably like to add some depth at safety, but that won’t be coming in the form of a top 100 pick in the draft. My guess is that they could look to bring a veteran safety in on a cheap deal once the safety market in free agency dries up, possibly even a re-uniting with Johnathan Cyprien (which would be the ideal scenario from the Titans standpoint).

Obviously, there is a lot of merit to the idea of simply taking the best player available, but it’s still really hard to see the team spending the 19th overall pick (or the 51st for that matter) on any of those positions or special teams players. So that leaves interior offensive line (particularly center and/or right guard), pass catchers (I’m lumping wide receiver and tight end together and I’ll explain why later), and pass rusher (again, lumping defensive line and outside linebacker together) as the most viable options for Jon Robinson near the top of the draft. So let’s explore each option, who might be available, and what they could bring to the table for the 2019 Titans.

Interior Offensive Line

The Titans filled one hole on their offensive line when they signed Rodger Saffold to replace the departing Quinton Spain, but they created another one by releasing struggling right guard Josh Kline. It’s not hard to understand why the Kline move was made. The team actually ended up saving $5.25M against the cap for 2019 thanks to some offset language in his contract that left them with just $1.5M in dead cap charges on the books. Kline was the clear weak link in the line last year so just removing him from the equation and replacing him with even an average right guard combined with the addition of an elite left guard in Saffold would advance this unit on paper quite a bit.

The other spot that the Titans could look to address on the interior of the offensive line is center. Ben Jones hasn’t been terrible these past three years, but he hasn’t been great either. Jones is also headed into the final year of the four year, $17.5M deal that he signed back in 2016 so a decision on his future and the future of the Titans center position is approaching rapidly. Jones is position flexible having played both guard spots for the Texans during his first three years in the league before moving to center and sticking there since. If the Titans found a center they loved in the draft, they could certainly take him and slide Jones over to right guard. In fact, if you’re looking to break a rookie center in, having a smart veteran like Jones next to him to help with calls is a pretty nice luxury to have.

The team does have a few options on the roster right now to take that fifth starting spot. They brought back Kevin Pamphile who has 35 career starts under his belt including two for the Titans in 2018 before he suffered a torn biceps that shelved him for the remainder of the season. Pamphile is a good athlete who can really play all five positions on the offensive line if needed. That is part of the reason that he never really got a true look at guard last year. Pamphile spent the majority of camp working at tackle due to Jack Conklin being out with an injury and that’s also where we saw him during games early in the season when he was pressed into action.

They could also look at starting third year center/guard Corey Levin who got one start against the Chargers and also saw action in the second half of the Jets game last season. The team seems to like Levin at center more than guard so if he’s the answer, Jones likely bumps to right guard.

Then you have 2018 UDFA Aaron Stinnie who was a surprise keep on the original 53-man roster and managed to remain on the roster all season despite not seeing any playing time. The fact that the team felt the need to stash Stinnie on the roster and protect him even as injuries caused them to continuously churn the roster in other spots tells me that they feel like there is real potential there. Again, Stinnie fits the mold of an athletic lineman that the team prefers in its zone blocking based run scheme. Could he be ready to compete for a starting job after essentially a redshirt year?

Finally, the team signed Hroniss GrasuMarcus Mariota’s former teammate at Oregon — earlier in the offseason. The former third round pick is primarily a center, but has struggled with injuries early in his career. He’s now on his fifth NFL roster and hoping to finally break through, but I’d certainly put the odds of him grabbing a starting gig very very low right now.

Obviously, none of these options are particularly inspiring choices to fill out the offensive line and the Titans have repeatedly stated that they don’t view Jack Conklin as an option to kick inside and play right guard. So that leaves a pretty clear and pressing need at right guard or center heading into the draft.

The draft offers some quality options on the interior offensive line for the Titans to add a plug and play starter at either center or right guard if they choose to spend a top pick here. Some of the players that might be in play for the 19th overall pick here are position flexible guys that could be looked at as both interior offensive linemen or tackles, but for the Titans purposes, I think it’s fair to say that they will primarily be looking at these guys as interior options, at least initially.

So let’s look at the interior offensive linemen options in tiers based on who might be there at 19, 51, and 82:

First Round Options

  • Jonah Williams, Alabama — Once projected as the top tackle in the draft, Williams’ measurements at the combine have many second-guessing his ability to play outside at the NFL level. With Jawaan Taylor and Andre Dillard now pushing him for the top tackle spots on draft boards, could Williams fall to 19 and potentially offer the Titans a short term solution at guard and possibly a long term solution at right tackle (if Jack Conklin fails to return to his 2016-2017 form)?
  • Garrett Bradbury, NC StateBradbury has seen his stock continue to climb following a phenomenal combine that confirmed him as the elite athlete that showed up on tape. His value would be maximized in a scheme that features the outside zone run like the Titans. Not only is Bradbury’s athleticism a perfect fit for the outside zone scheme, he’s also had plenty of practice. NC State’s offense has heavily featured that run during his time there and he executes some of the most difficult blocks that it can ask of a center with ease. For that reason, it feels like the floor for Bradbury is the Rams — who have a huge need at center after releasing starter John Sullivan and rely heavily on the outside zone in their offense — at pick 31.
  • Cody Ford, OklahomaFord, like Williams, is capable of playing tackle and might be drafted by a team looking to play him outside before the Titans get on the clock. As a player, Ford is a bit of an odd match with the outside zone scheme. It’s hard to see him excelling at climbing to the second level and picking off linebackers or reaching 1-techniques on the backside. However, what Ford can do is add a healthy dose of the “nastiness” Jon Robinson claims to be looking for in this class. Ford is a big-bodied mauler with outstanding play strength.
  • Dalton Risner, Kansas State — Risner is the last of the tackle-guard flexible guys that we will talk about at the top of the draft and he also marks the point where we start looking at guys that could fall into the second round. After starting his decorated college career at center, he moved to right tackle as a sophomore and stuck there over his final three years in The Little Apple. Risner truly excels as a pass protector first and foremost. He allowed no sacks and just five total pressures on 352 pass protection snaps in 2018 per PFF charting. Risner would slot in as a day one starter for the Titans at center or right guard and could offer some insurance at right tackle long term as well.

Second Round Options

  • Erik McCoy, Texas A&MMcCoy is a guy that is more likely to fall into day two of the draft, but there is at least an outside chance that he sneaks into the back of the first round, particularly if Bradbury goes early. While he isn’t quite the perfect scheme fit that Bradbury is, he does have the athleticism to make a smooth transition to the Titans offense. McCoy is generally considered a top 50 player on most boards so seeing him drop to 51 would require some good fortune for Jon Robinson (or a trade up to go get him).
  • Chris Lindstrom, Boston College — Lindstrom, like McCoy, could potentially end up as a first round pick, but most have him slotted towards the top of day two right now. He’s the most athletic guard in the draft — second only to Bradbury among all interior offensive linemen when it comes to movement skills — and has a TON of connections to the Titans staff. First, he was molded from a 235 pound freshman into a 308 pound senior over four years by strength coach Frank Piraino who left Boston College earlier this offseason to take the head strength and conditioning coaching post with the Titans. Joining Lindstrom in the Golden Eagles offensive line group in 2018 was Mike Vrabel’s son, Tyler. Finally, of course, the Titans drafted Lindstrom’s former teammate, Harold Landry, in the second round last year. If any team is going to know Lindstrom on and off the field, it’s going to be Tennessee. I would imagine they’d be thrilled to land him at 51, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s off the board before then.
  • Elgton Jenkins, Mississippi State — Jenkins seems like a day two lock as one of the consensus top three centers in the draft class (not counting Risner). He’s not quite as mobile as Bradbury or McCoy, but as a four-year starter at Mississippi State he helped key one of the nation’s best ground attacks and was credited with just 3 sacks allowed and 25 total pressures allowed over his entire college career. It doesn’t hurt that he’s spent most of his college career battling with Jeffrey Simmons in practice either.

Third Round Options

  • Connor McGovern, Penn StateMcGovern played both center and guard for the Nittany Lions so he would offer some position flexibility inside at the NFL level as well. He’s a guy that seems likely ticketed for the third round, but it’s not crazy to think he could slip into the second given the desperate need for offensive line help across the NFL. McGovern is a good athlete who seems like an easy scheme fit for the Titans outside zone, but the question for him comes in pass protection. He allowed 9 sacks and 41 hurries in three years as a starter at Penn State. His pass block efficiency grade ranked him just 72nd among draft eligible guards per PFF in 2018.
  • Nate Davis, Charlotte — Davis has good feet and play strength even if he’s not much more than an average athlete from a testing standpoint. He has a few off the field concerns (failure to qualify academically in 2014 and then a four game suspension for undisclosed reasons last season) that would need to be checked out.
  • Michael Deiter, Wisconsin — Deiter is just a below average athlete which likely limits his ceiling to some degree at the NFL level — particularly in an outside zone based scheme — but he was highly effective during his time at Wisconsin.

There are certainly some other options out there that could sneak into day two (Beau Benzschawel, Lamont Gaillard, Shaq Calhoun), but I think the ten listed above are pretty comfortably the best fits for the Titans. Among that group, I’d say the seven guys listed as first and second round options would be considered plug and play starters in 2019. That means that the Titans likely need to have their guy before the end of round two unless they feel pretty comfortable with Kevin Pamphile or Corey Levin or Aaron Stinnie in the starting lineup this season.

Pass Rusher

Like the interior offensive line, the Titans have already addressed this position this offseason by signing legendary Dolphins edge rusher Cameron Wake in free agency, but more is needed to boost a pass rush that very rarely got pressure without the help of a blitzing linebacker or defensive back in 2018. For the purposes of this discussion, I am lumping edge rushers (3-4 outside linebackers) and interior defensive linemen (3-4 defensive ends and nose tackles) together because the Titans are really trying to fill a role here, not a depth chart. Whether the pressure comes from the inside or outside doesn’t matter as much as the fact that pressure does, in fact, come.

The depth chart at outside linebacker is certainly less proven so let’s start there. The Titans 2018 second round pick, Harold Landry, is their top returning edge rusher, and he will be expected to play a big role on this defense in year two. I’m not sure if Cameron Wake will technically be a “starter” or not for this team, but that also doesn’t really matter. On the most important downs of the game, Wake will be on the field barring injury. He’s still one of the most productive pass rushers in the game on a per snap basis.

Behind those two, the Titans have a few young potential pieces in Sharif Finch, Kamalei Correa, and Gimel President. Finch and Correa played a good bit last season with Finch coming on late in the year to get some pretty significant playing time. The 2018 UDFA signee likely slots in to the third spot at this position as the roster stands right now. Correa was acquired before the start of last season for the Titans 2019 6th round pick and was mostly just a passable role player. He lacks any real pass rush ability and mostly gets by on effort and physicality. There’s nothing wrong with him as a backup and special teams contributor, but he’s not likely to turn into much more than that. President is a fringe roster candidate that you would hope the Titans find a way to do without in 2019.

Bumping inside, the Titans return their starting trio of Jurrell Casey, Austin Johnson, and DaQuan Jones along the defensive line. Casey has long been one of the team’s best players and that continued in 2018. Johnson and Jones are relatively effective run stuffers, but offer very little in the way of pass rush or dynamic playmaking ability. Behind the starters are Darius Kilgo — a journeyman veteran who played some snaps for the team in 2018 — and Matt Dickerson. Dickerson is an interesting piece. Like Aaron Stinnie, Dickerson was a UDFA rookie that stuck on the 53-man roster all season despite appearing in just three games. In preseason action, he showed some ability to get after the passer from an interior position so it will be interesting to see how he develops heading into year two. You certainly don’t want to rely on him, but there is some upside to be explored.

It could certainly be argued that the 2019 Titans pass rush is already improved from its 2018 version simply due to replacing Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan’s heavy snap counts with Wake, Landry, and Finch. That’s not meant to be a slight at Orakpo and Morgan who were both very good players for the Titans in years past, but 2018 saw their pass rush production grind to a halt despite a lot of opportunity.

So let’s take a look at some players that could be available at 19, 51, and 82 that could help the Titans pass rush:

First Round Options

  • Ed Oliver, Houston — I know, I know... Oliver should go in the top 10 easy, maybe even top 5, but there seems to be at least a chance that the NFL repeats the mistake they made with Aaron Donald five years ago when 12 teams decided that the back-to-back reigning Defensive Player of the Year was too small to play inside at the NFL level. To be clear, I don’t think Oliver is Donald — he doesn’t have the incredible play strength that Donald combines with his elite athleticism — but he is the closest thing we’ve seen to Donald since 2014. The Titans have shown considerable interest in the former Houston star, including hosting him on a top 30 visit (check out Justin Graver’s outstanding visit tracker here), having Mike Vrabel get hands on with him at Houston’s pro day, and asking him to work out as an outside linebacker at the combine. Regardless of where Oliver ended up on the depth chart, he would be a big time weapon for Dean Pees to move around the defense and create mismatches with.
  • Brian Burns, Florida State — Burns is another player that should go before 19 in my opinion, but there are surprises in every draft and ultimately, there are going to be some really good football players available when the Titans go on the clock. If the former Florida State edge rusher is one of them, I’d expect the Titans to have some real interest. Burns offers a similar speed/bend package to Harold Landry, but adds to it some great length at 6’-5” and a plethora of counter moves off that devastating speed rush. The questions with him mostly center around how he will hold up in run defense, but there is little doubt that Burns will be an impact pass rusher. The Titans have hosted him on a top 30 visit as well so it’s safe to say that he’s in the mix if he’s on the board at 19.
  • Montez Sweat, Mississippi StateSweat was once a popular mock draft target for the Titans, but a scintillating combine performance that saw him run a 4.41-second forty at 260 pounds has pushed his stock up to the top 10 to 15 range on most boards. Like Burns, Sweat has great length at nearly 6’-6” with over a 7-foot wingspan, but he’s a very different player. Where Burns wins with bend and technique, Sweat wins with power and explosion. The Titans did meet with Sweat at the combine, but haven’t been as connected to him as they have been to Oliver and Burns (at least from what information has been reported at this time).
  • Clelin Ferrell, Clemson — Ferrell seems to be the forgotten man among the top edge rush prospects despite a highly decorated and highly productive college career at Clemson. Once considered a top 10 pick, most seem to have dropped him down towards the end of round one due to just average athleticism for the position. However, Ferrell didn’t rack up 27 sacks and 50.5 tackles for loss over the last three years by accident. He’s a master with his hands and capable of stringing together multiple pass rush moves to beat his opponent. Some see him as more of a 4-3 defensive end, but frankly, I don’t really think that distinction matters anymore. The Titans played with four down linemen in their nickel package on about 70% of snaps last season. Most draft analysts seem to have Ferrell with the best odds of falling to 19 among the top of the edge class and if he’s there, I’d certainly be interested if I was the Titans.
  • Rashan Gary, Michigan — Gary is one of the most polarizing prospects of this draft class. His measurables scream top five pick — he ran a 4.58 forty at 6’-4” and 277 pounds and then hit a 38-inch vertical — but his production on the field in Ann Arbor never matched up to his physical ability. He finished his three year college career with just 9.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss total, notching just 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in 2018. Naturally, the questions about effort level follow. I certainly understand the intrigue with his athletic gifts, but Gary is one of the biggest boom or bust prospects in the draft to me.
  • Christian Wilkins, Clemson — Like his teammate, Ferrell, Wilkins didn’t test terribly well at the combine, but had excellent production over a decorated career at Clemson. His 16 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss over four years is really strong for an interior player and he finished with his best season, tallying 5.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2018. The Titans have shown a good bit of interest in Wilkins, including a hands on workout session with Vrabel and his famous chest pad at Clemson’s pro day. Vrabel and Wilkins actually have a relationship that goes back to Vrabel’s Ohio State days when he was trying to recruit Wilkins to play football in Columbus. Wilkins is known to have a phenomenal work ethic and was a star in the classroom at Clemson as well. He’s a 100% character fit for what the type of person that Jon Robinson has brought into the Titans locker room since he took over as GM so it doesn’t surprise me that the Titans have interest here. He’s also become a very popular mock draft selection for Tennessee at 19, but some believe he will go higher.
  • Jeffrey Simmons, Mississippi State — Simmons tore his ACL during training for the combine earlier in the offseason and is unlikely to play in 2019 so that makes his draft stock tough to calculate. He was a first round lock — and probable top 15 pick — before the injury, but we’ve seen guys of his caliber like Jaylon Smith and Sidney Jones fall to the top of the second round after suffering season ending injuries during the draft process previously so there is a chance he drops to the top of round two. The Titans have been connected to Simmons throughout the process. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller claimed that the Titans love for Simmons was “the worst kept secret in the draft industry” prior to his injury. It’s hard to see the Titans, who appear to be all-in on the 2019 season, taking a player at 19 that can’t help them win this season, but you never know. Maybe Simmons is a guy they could target after trading back or maybe even grab at 51 if he falls that far (I don’t think he will).
  • Dexter Lawrence, Clemson — The third of the trio of Clemson defensive linemen expected to go near the top of the draft, Lawrence is the prototypical nose tackle in the modern NFL. At 342 pounds, he’s a load to move in the middle and he’s an outstanding athlete for a man of that size as well (as evidenced by his 5.05-second forty time). He’s a lot like Vita Vea who went 12th overall to the Buccaneers last season in my opinion. It’s doubtful that he goes that high in this draft due to the depth of the defensive line group, but he’s a similar talent. Lawrence is a better pass rusher than you might think given his physical build too. He produced the fourth best pass rush productivity score among all draftable interior defensive linemen per PFF in 2018, getting a sack, hit, or hurry on 13.8% of his pass rush snaps. Lawrence is likely never going to be a big time sack producer, but he’s the type that can push the interior of the pocket and take away the space for quarterbacks to step up into when edge rushers like Cameron Wake and Harold Landry come screaming around the corner.
  • Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame — Tillery is another relatively polarizing prospect. Some have him outside the top 50 while others have him entering the top 10 discussion. Where he actually falls on draft night is anyone’s guess, but if the Titans have a lot of interest in Wilkins and Simmons it would make sense for them to have some interest in Tillery too. He’s an extremely long interior defender at over 6’-6” tall and he’s a tremendous athlete, turning in a 4.93-second forty time and a 4.33-second short shuttle at 295 pounds. He reminds me a bit of Malik McDowell coming out, though where McDowell’s off the field concerns were earned, Tillery’s certainly don’t appear to me. It seems to me that Tillery’s “off field problems” stem from two things. First, he had a couple incidents of poor judgement on the field during a USC-Notre Dame game in 2016. There is no excuse for either of those actions and they should be judged harshly, but they also happened over two years ago and he’s done nothing questionable on the field since. Second, Tillery is getting a bit of the “Josh Rosen Treatment” in that he’s being labeled as a guy who “doesn’t care about football” simply because he has interests outside of the sport. I’m sorry, but a guy who wants to travel the world, cook food, and study economics shouldn’t be a red flag in any walk of life. Tillery may not end up in the first round, but I’d be pretty shocked if he fell all the way to 51. He could be a good option if the Titans trade back towards the back of the first round.

Second Round Options

  • Chase Winovich, Michigan — Winovich is another player that seems like a “J-Rob guy”. He was pretty productive in college with 18.5 sacks and 43 tackles for loss over three years and he’s way more athletic than he gets credit for. His 4.59-second forty time, 6.94-second three cone, and 4.11-second short shuttle were all in the 90th percentile or higher among edge rushers in the history of the combine. Winovich could certainly end up at the bottom of round one and it would be pretty surprising to see him fall to 51, but there is a chance.
  • Jachai Polite, Florida — Polite was once a popular mock draft selection for the Titans at 19, but a bad combine followed by a worse pro day has his draft stock plummeting (at least among the media) as we get closer to April 25th. His 2018 tape — the reason he was widely considered a first round pick to begin with — is still good so maybe a team could catch some value in the second round if he falls on the real draft boards.
  • Charles Omenihu, Texas — Omenihu is an interesting prospect. As someone who has watched every Texas game during his career, I headed into 2018 expecting Breckyn Hager to be the breakout pass rusher for the Longhorns, but it turned out to be Omenihu as he totaled 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss despite playing in a defensive scheme that rarely let him truly rush off the edge. He’s an interesting option for the Titans if he makes it to 51 — I have my doubts that he will — because of his ability to play both inside and outside. At over 6’-5” tall and 280 pounds, he could line up as a 4-tech or 5-tech in the team’s base 3-4 and he could bump either outside or inside to rush the passer in nickel packages.
  • Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech — Ferguson is going to be one of the ultimate production versus athleticism test cases at the NFL level. He broke Terrell Suggs’ NCAA career sacks record in 2018, finishing his career with 45 sacks and 67.5 tackles for loss. Ferguson easily saved his best for last too as he racked up 17.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss in 2018 alone. Those are absolutely absurd numbers, even in Conference USA. However, after being “uninvited” from the combine due to a fight he was involved in as a freshman, Ferguson posted really poor testing numbers during Louisiana Tech’s pro day. The reported 8.08-second three cone is particularly disturbing as that drill most closely mimic the movements required of a pass rusher on the field. To put the 8.08 into perspective, Ravens tackle Orlando Brown ran a 7.87-second three cone last year at 6’-8” and 345 pounds. My guess is that Ferguson lands somewhere on day two, but I wouldn’t be entirely shocked for him to fall all the way to day three either. It will be interesting to see where he lands.
  • D’Andre Walker, Georgia — Walker had to wait his turn on a loaded Georgia defense, but finally got the opportunity to be a full time starter in 2018 and took advantage, leading the Bulldogs with 11 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. He is similar in size to Harold Landry, but he doesn’t have the elite get off and bend. I see Walker as a pretty safe prospect, but don’t think he has the upside to become a difference maker as a pass rusher.
  • L.J. Collier, TCUCollier is another guy that seems to be pretty polarizing. Some see him as “just a guy”, others see far more talent. He’s definitely more of a fit as a traditional 4-3 end, but as I mentioned above I don’t think that’s non-starter for 3-4 teams. Collier is a rugged, powerful player who uses heavy hands to win as both a pass rusher and a run stuffer.
  • Dre’Mont Jones, Ohio State — Jones, like Polite and Ferguson, looks more athletic on tape than he tested. Coming from a school that is known to crank out productive NFL defensive lineman — thanks in large part to defensive line coach/guru Larry Johnson — Jones checks in just shy of 6’-3” and 281 pounds so he would likely play on the interior of the defensive line in Tennessee. His 8.5 sacks in 2018 show the effect he can have as a pass rusher on the inside, something the Titans could really use next to Jurrell Casey. The Titans would have some “insider” knowledge of Jones from former Ohio State defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs.

Third Round Options

  • Anthony Nelson, Iowa — Nelson is a player that should be getting a lot more buzz in my opinion. I like him more than several of the players that I have listed above. At 6’-7” and 271 pounds he tested off the charts, including mind-blowing 6.95-second three cone. He wasn’t just a workout warrior though. Nelson put up 23 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in three seasons for the Hawkeyes, including 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2018. He’s a bit of a tweener for the Titans, but I think he could play inside on early downs and then pass rush from anywhere. One of my favorite prospects in the draft.
  • Zach Allen, Boston CollegeAllen is a similar player to Nelson. He’s not quite the athlete that Nelson is, but he’s athletic enough and brings the same tough, power-based game to the table. Like Lindstrom, the Titans will know a ton about Allen through their BC connections.
  • Christian Miller, Alabama — Miller is an excellent athlete and had a productive season in his only season of real action at Alabama with 8 sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 2018. He has some injury concerns attached as a biceps injury cost him a big chunk of the 2017 season and then a hamstring injury held him out of the national title game three months ago. He’s certainly a big projection at the NFL level, but he’s got the tools to develop into a really good player if he lands in the right spot.
  • Khalen Saunders, Western Illinois — Everyone’s favorite back-flipping big guy. Saunders was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl with his easy athleticism at 324 pounds. Despite his stature, Saunders sometimes struggles to hold his anchor in the run game. His true value is as a pass rusher. He totaled 7.5 sacks in 2018 and was even lined up as an edge rusher for the Leathernecks occasionally.
  • Oshane Ximines, Old DominionXimines is a bendy edge rusher that profiles as a true 3-4 edge rusher at the NFL level. His production was outstanding — 32.5 sacks and 51 tackles for loss — albeit against a lower level of competition in Conference USA. He didn’t test particularly well at the combine, but there is still a chance that he manages to sneak into round two with his production and tape. If he’s still around at 82, he’d be among my favorite options for the Titans.
  • Renell Wren, Arizona State — Wren is a raw-but-impressive athlete at 6’-5” and 318 pounds. His production at ASU was less than stellar — just 3 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss total in three years — so the bet here would be that the team could develop those physical tools into something more at the next level.
  • Maxx Crosby, Eastern Michigan — This is one of my favorite options if the Titans choose to spend their top picks elsewhere. Crosby was a highly productive pass rusher at Eastern Michigan, tallying 18.5 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. He further piqued my interest when he blew up the combine, running a 4.66-second forty, a 6.89-second three cone, and a 4.13-second short shuttle along with a 36-inch vertical and 122-inch broad jump at 6’-5” and 255 pounds. Crosby is the kind of guy that could develop into one of the NFL’s top pass rushers with some good coaching and development.
  • Ben Banogu, TCUBanogu is a similar prospect (and another of my favorites). He was productive in two seasons at TCU — 17 sacks, 34.5 tackles for loss — after transferring from UL-Monroe. He also blew up the combine, particularly when it came to tests that measure explosiveness. He jumped 40 inches in the vertical and 132 inches in the broad jump. Both are among the top 3% all-time among edge rushers.
  • Jordan Brailford, Oklahoma State — Rounding out this trio of similar prospects is Brailford. He was slightly less productive over the course of his college career compared to Crosby or Banogu, but is coming off the best 2018 of that bunch. He notched 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last season for the Cowboys and then checked in with high marks in the forty (4.65 seconds), vertical (37.5 inches), and broad jump (126 inches).

There are still a few other guys that could climb into the mix in the first three rounds (Armon Watts, Trysten Hill, Gerald Willis, Shareef Miller), but the guys listed above are the most likely options in the first three rounds. Realistically, if the team wants a day one starter and impact player, it’s likely going to have to come in round one. Could they strike gold with a guy like Crosby, Banogu, or Brailford in the third (or even later)? Maybe, but history suggests it’s pretty unlikely.

Pass Catchers

The Titans added Adam Humphries in free agency and they’re effectively adding Delanie Walker back to the roster in 2019 as well. Those two combined with another year of development for Corey Davis should provide Marcus Mariota with a much improved set of targets compared to what he worked with in 2018. However, Jon Robinson shouldn’t stop there. Taywan Taylor, Tajae Sharpe, Darius Jennings, and Cameron Batson have yet to show that they are capable of being effective starters at the NFL level and while I think it’s still too early to write off Taylor completely, I don’t think he should be handed a top three wide receiver spot without outside competition in 2019.

At tight end, the Titans will welcome back Walker with open arms after missing him desperately for most of last season. However, he will be 35 years old before the start of the regular season and coming off a major injury so it’s probably not a great idea to expect him to jump right back into 800-plus yards and 6 touchdowns.

Whatever slip in production Walker may have could be picked up by further development from Jonnu Smith heading into his third year in the NFL (and his first where he isn’t learning a new offense). Smith has shown flashes and certainly has the athletic profile to become something like what Walker has been for the Titans over the last few years, but he is still highly inconsistent as both a route runner and a blocker. I view Smith very similar to the way I view Taywan Taylor. He’s got it all physically, has shown flashes, but hasn’t put it all together at the NFL level yet.

The Titans lost Luke Stocker to the Falcons in free agency so the third tight end spot on the roster as things stand today would go to either Anthony Firkser or MyCole Pruitt. Firkser was very good as a “third down tight end” in 2018, showing a knack for getting open and catching everything that came his way, but he’s not a plus blocker and that’s going to limit his ability to take on a larger role in this group. Pruitt is largely the opposite. He blocked very well in his action on the field last season, but only offers marginal value as a pass catcher.

The Titans played their tight ends more than most NFL teams in 2018. Whether that was due to a lack of options at receiver or how they want to go about playing offense is hard to know for sure, but I think it’s safe to expect them to be in 11-personnel somewhere around 55-65% of snaps.

The reason that I combined wide receiver and tight end into the same category is that they both fill the same function: adding a weapon for Marcus Mariota. It doesn’t really matter where these guys line up on the field to me. I just want to know if they can get open and make plays in the passing game. Here are some of the top options that could be available in the first three rounds:

First Round Options

  • D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss — Metcalf is both the consensus top receiver in the draft and a polarizing prospect. There is no mystery about why people like him. There just aren’t many 6’-3”, 228 pound guys who can run a 4.33-second forty and jump over 40 inches in the vertical. However, there certainly are some drawbacks. For one, Metcalf never finished a college season with more than 646 yards receiving. That’s partially due to an injury suffered during his final season when he was on pace for close to 1,000 yards, but that brings me to another concern: injuries. Metcalf missed most of the 2016 season with a broken foot and then sat out the back half of the 2018 season with a neck injury, finishing his three year career with just 21 total games played. The final concern is his flexibility and agility. Even Metcalf’s supporters will admit that he’s more of a straight line athlete, but his combine results in the three cone and short shuttle drills were outright alarming. He improved slightly on those at his pro day, but his ability to stop and start quickly are certainly in question with times like those. I doubt Metcalf ends up dropping to 19, but even if he did I would prefer the Titans go elsewhere with the pick. There are just too many red flags here even if the upside is incredibly high.
  • T.J. Hockenson, Iowa — There is some debate between the two Iowa tight ends with regards to which will be a better pro. I lean towards Hockenson, but think they are both excellent and very different players. Hockenson has the best run-blocking tape I’ve ever watched from a college prospect, but don’t let the blocking highlights fool you. He’s far more than “just a blocking tight end”. Hockenson is a weapon in the passing game, showing outstanding route running, excellent athleticism, and the body control to go up and make tough, contested catches all over the field. If the goal is to add a weapon to make the offense better, it’s hard to find a better weapon than a guy that can both beat defenses up on the ground and offer a mismatch in the passing game. He’s the kind of tight end that makes it hard for a defense to be in the “right” personnel. I don’t think he is going to be around at 19, but if he is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Titans were interested. New tight end coach Todd Downing was at Iowa’s pro day last week.
  • Noah Fant, Iowa — The “other” Iowa tight end is among the best athletes to ever enter the NFL at the position. His combine performance saw him run a 4.50-second forty, jump 39.5 inches, and turn in a ridiculous 6.81-second three cone time at 6’-4” and 249 pounds. Fant’s size and leaping ability make him a big time red zone target, hauling in 18 touchdowns over the past two seasons for the Hawkeyes. While he’s not the blocker that Hockenson is, he’s not a liability either and has shown improvement during his time in Iowa City. Fant is the type of tight end that creates matchup nightmares when split out wide. It’s not hard to imagine him being used as a jumbo receiver from time to time at the next level.
  • Hakeem Butler, Iowa State — To me, Hakeem Butler is what everyone thinks D.K. Metcalf is. He’s a massive target at over 6’-5” tall, 227 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan and he ran a 4.48-second forty at the combine. On tape he shows an uncanny ability to drop his hips and get in and out of breaks for a player his size and has a track record of making difficult catches down the field. Butler’s big drawback is his drop rate. He dropped 12 passes in 2018, a whopping 16.7% drop rate. Some view Butler as more of a second or third round pick, but I think there is a good chance he gets into round one after that combine.
  • A.J. Brown, Ole Miss — Brown is largely expected to be a first round pick. He was massively productive during his time in Oxford, posting back-to-back seasons with over 1,200 yards. He spent most of his college career working in the slot, but was productive outside as well when he filled in for Metcalf towards the end of 2018. At just over 6’-0” and 226 pounds, Brown is a compact receiver with good speed (4.49) and great hands. He is a natural hands catcher that plucks the ball out of the air. One of my favorite receivers in the draft. The Titans reportedly met with him at the combine.
  • Marquise Brown, Oklahoma — “Hollywood” has been flying under the radar a little after surgery to repair a lisfranc injury prevented him from showing off his elite speed at the combine. Reports still seem to point to Brown being in play in the first round despite weighing in at just 166 pounds in Indianapolis. The comp for Brown is pretty obvious: DeSean Jackson. The injury and the weight scare me quite a bit about his potential longevity in the league, but there is no better deep threat in the draft.

Second Round Options

  • N’Keal Harry, Arizona State — Harry is a player that I could see sneaking into the back of round one, but most boards have him outside the top 32 for right now. He’s a big, prototypical outside receiver who can also line up inside as a jumbo slot. His body control, ball skills, and run after catch ability are what makes him special, but there are questions about his ability to create separation.
  • Deebo Samuel, South Carolina — Deebo is a hardcore draft crush of mine. His quick feet and excellent route running allow him to create easy separation all over the field. He’s competitive at the catch point and hard to bring down after the catch. The only real drawbacks for me are his ability to win outside — he mostly played in the slot for the Gamecocks though his ability to win clean releases make me think his game could translate outside as well — and his injury history. He dealt with multiple ankle injuries during his time in Columbia.
  • Kelvin Harmon, NC State — Harmon was once in the discussion to be the best wide receiver in this class, but a poor combine showing has dampened his stock a bit. At 6’-2” and 221 pounds, he makes up for his below average speed and quickness with a “my ball” mentality that stands out when you watch him. He’s outstanding at the subtle art of creating “late separation” and knows how to use his body to box out defenders and make contested catches. He’s not going to be a burner by any means, but he’s the kind of receiver that a quarterback will love because of his ability to win at the catch point.
  • Riley Ridley, Georgia — Ridley, like Harmon, is a below average athlete for the position, but he’s the kind of guy that just does everything else well. He runs good routes, blocks like a maniac, and catches the football when it’s thrown his way. He’s got a great mentality towards the game that is likely to be attractive to GMs and coaches.
  • Mecole Hardman, Georgia — Ridley’s teammate, Hardman, is one of the draft’s many speed merchants at the wide receiver position. He ran a 4.33 at the combine and Matt Miller believes that speed will make him a top 50 selection in the draft. Hardman doesn’t have the production that a guy like Hollywood Brown does and spent most of his time working from the slot so I think that’s a little high for him, but the NFL does tend to fall in love with speed.
  • Parris Campbell, Ohio State — Speaking of speed... Parris Campbell’s 4.31 forty time confirmed what he showed constantly on tape: he’s really really fast. However, unlike Hardman and Brown, he checks in at over 200 pounds and added a 40-inch vertical and an elite short shuttle as well. He put up big numbers in his final year at Ohio State and I would be shocked if he doesn’t go before the end of round two. The big drawback with Campbell is the fact that he was rarely asked to run routes downfield in Columbus. The Buckeyes used him on screens and short routes over the middle from the slot to accentuate his ability after the catch. Can he take his physical gifts and translate them outside the numbers or will he be a slot only type player at the NFL level?
  • Irv Smith Jr., Alabama — Smith is the pretty clear TE3 in this draft and my guess is that he goes somewhere near the top of round two. He’s more developed as a receiver than a blocker at this point in his career, but he shows good effort even if he’s not a mauler like Hockenson. Smith is a move tight end who certainly plays on the smaller side of the tight end position, but he’s a very natural pass catcher.

Third Round Options

  • Andy Isabella, UMass — Isabella certainly has a chance to go higher than this after his ultra-productive college career at UMass culminated with a 1,698-yard, 13-touchdown final season. He’s a true burner with 4.31 speed and a decorated track background so spare me the lazy comparisons to Wes Welker. Those guys are very different players. Isabella played over 63% of his snaps at UMass outside the hashes with great success so he shouldn’t be pigeon holed as “just a slot guy”. He would offer the Titans a legitimate deep threat — he was one of the most proficient deep threats in college football per PFF charting — along with the threat to take it to the house from anywhere on the field.
  • Miles Boykin, Notre Dame — I also have a sneaking suspicion that Boykin might go higher in the draft than he’s currently slated to go. He was a bit of a late bloomer at Notre Dame, not really getting many opportunities until 2018, but he’s an unbelievable athlete. At almost 6’-4” and 220 pounds, Boykin ran a 4.42 forty, jumped a 43.5-inch vertical, and jumped an eye-popping 140-inch broad jump in addition to agility times that put him in the top 25% of all wide receivers in combine history. If you want the high upside option outside the first round, this is your guy. The tape isn’t bad, but it does show some inconsistencies and he struggled with press coverage at times despite his elite physical ability. Those are things that can be improved with coaching at the NFL level though. If Boykin gets paired with the right receivers coach and puts in the work, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him become one of the top receivers in the league one day.
  • Jace Sternberger, Texas A&MSternberger is among the top end of the remainder of the tight ends that will fall somewhere in the middle rounds. He was a big time producer in his only season at Texas A&M after transferring from Kansas, picking up 832 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Aggies. He’s not a wow athlete by any means, but he’s got enough wiggle to get open in the middle of the field and the ball skills to make it count at the catch point. I think he’s a more natural pass catcher than Jonnu Smith, but he’s certainly not the same level athlete and he would likely struggle as a blocker early in his career as well. Sternberger — and most of the tight ends from this point on — would be more developmental players to help ease the blow when Delanie Walker retires than day one impact performers in my opinion.
  • J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford — JJAW is one of my favorite prospects in this class. At 6’-2”, 225 pounds, he’s a big-bodied receiver who knows how to use his frame to win at the catch point better than just about any pass catcher I’ve studied. He has yet to do any athletic testing, but has told MCM’s own Justin Melo that he plans to “do everything” at Stanford’s pro day on April 4th. I wouldn’t expect him to run under 4.5 based on his tape, but as long as he’s in that neighborhood it would confirm him as a potential steal on day two. He’s the son of two professional basketball players and his basketball background shows in the air where he’s dominant. His production at Stanford last year — 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns — reflects his red zone prowess.
  • Emanuel Hall, Missouri — Hall is a local kid, playing his high school ball at Centennial High School in the suburbs of Nashville. He had a relatively productive career at Missouri, totaling over 800 yards receiving and at least 6 touchdowns each of the last two years while being used primarily as a deep threat. Hall’s athleticism is off the charts. At 6’-2” and 201 pounds, he ran a 4.39-second forty, posted a 43.5-inch vertical, and posted the second best broad jump in the history of the combine at 141 inches. The drawbacks with Hall include a history of soft tissue injuries — a hamstring injury in 2017 and a groin injury in 2018 — and a lack of contested catch ability. He’s a field stretcher in the truest sense though and is the kind of player that can make a big impact without requiring a ton of targets.
  • Darius Slayton, Auburn — Another burner in a class that seems filled with them, Slayton was a big play waiting to happen during his Auburn career. He posted yards per catch averages of 19.5, 22.2, and 19.1 in 2016, 2017, and 2018 and ran 4.39 at the combine to go with some very impressive numbers in the vertical (40.5 inches) and broad jump (135 inches). Like Hall, he’s still more athlete than receiver and needs to improve his route running and ability to win at the catch point at the next level, but can offer a homerun threat from day one.
  • Terry McLaurin, Ohio State — More speed! McLaurin is an interesting prospect that could go much higher than the third round in the draft, but projections for him are all over the place. His production at Ohio State was very middling, topping out with just 701 yards in 2018 (though he had 11 touchdowns to go with it). The reason for the McLaurin hype is two-fold. First, his tape and athletic testing (4.35 forty at 6’-0”, 208 pounds) suggest that he was probably under-utilized in the Buckeye offense last year as his teammate, Parris Campbell, got a lot of the easy underneath looks while McLaurin was used to threaten over the top. Second, he’s the kind of guy that loves to do the dirty work associated with playing receiver. He’s a good blocker and an outstanding special teams player so he will be able to contribute right away even if he isn’t necessarily a “starting” receiver on offense.
  • Kehale Warring, San Diego State — Warring is a bit of a project due to the fact that he only started playing football as a high school senior, but he’s a big time athlete and flashed enough at San Diego State to pique the interest of NFL teams. He’s going to need time, but he has big time upside.
  • Dawson Knox, Ole MissKnox is another local prospect having played his high school ball as a quarterback at Brentwood Academy in the Nashville suburbs. He moved to tight end at Ole Miss and eventually became a starter and regular contributor. His production is modest at best — just 15 catches for 284 yards in 2018 — but that’s not necessarily surprising on an offense that also boasted D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, and Demarkus Lodge at wide receiver. Knox has the measurables that the NFL covets at the position and is a good enough blocker that he can get on the field early in his career. I could see him dropping into day three of the draft due to the lack of production, but I like him as a mid round tight end prospect.

Like the other positions, there are certainly some other names that could be called before the end of day two (Demarkus Lodge, Josh Oliver, KeeSean Johnson, Stanley Morgan Jr.), but I think this group captures the most likely top targets in the draft. It’s a deep and diverse group.

Draft Strategy

So which position should the Titans take at 19? That’s a debate that will rage on from now until the name is called on draft night and it’s one that depends entirely on your point of view of the Titans current roster, the prospects in the draft, and the importance of each position on the football field.

When I look at the Titans current roster, I would say that right guard would currently be the biggest hole on the team. Kevin Pamphile and Corey Levin may turn into a quality starter-level players in 2019, but that’s the spot I would be most concerned with if the season kicked off tomorrow.

Jon Robinson’s draft history has suggested that he will address the biggest hole in his roster on day one of the draft. In 2016, that meant trading back and then trading back up to get Jack Conklin to play right tackle. In 2017, it meant sticking and picking Corey Davis and Adoree’ Jackson in the first round to fill the team’s two biggest need spots. Last year, it was trading up to grab Rashaan Evans to fill a hole caused by Avery Williamson’s departure in free agency. This year, I think that spot is right guard/center.

However, we’ve been saying for months now that this is a special draft class when it comes to defensive line and edge rushing talent and history shows that finding an elite performer outside of the first round as a pass rusher is much more difficult than finding one at these other positions. I broke down the top 20 players at each of the positions we are looking at — interior offensive line, defensive line/edge, and wide receiver/tight end — based on PFF grades for offensive line, pass rush productivity for defensive line/edge, and receiving yards for wide receiver/tight end and found the draft round distribution to be as follows:

Interior Offensive Line

  • 26.7% 1st Round
  • 41.7% 2nd/3rd Round
  • 31.7% 4th Round or later

Defensive Line/Edge Rusher

  • 56.7% 1st Round
  • 23.3% 2nd/3rd Round
  • 20.0% 4th Round or later

Wide Receiver/Tight End

  • 33.3% 1st Round
  • 41.7% 2nd/3rd Round
  • 25.0% 4th Round or later

The first thing that jumps out to me is that the majority of your elite pass rushers come from the first round of the draft. That’s not necessarily surprising, but it’s extremely pronounced when you look at these numbers. If the Titans want to add an impact player at all three of these positions, they’d likely maximize their odds of doing so by taking the pass rusher first and then picking up offensive line and receiver later.

Personally, I don’t think the Titans can wait til the third round to draft an offensive lineman if they expect to get a day one starter. In fact, I’d feel a little queasy about waiting til 51 for that pick. What if McCoy, Lindstrom, and Jenkins all go off the board between 19 and 51? That’s certainly possible and it would leave the team hurting at a critical position. A starting right guard that’s going to play 100% of the snaps when healthy is certainly a far bigger factor in the team’s 2019 success than a rotational wide receiver or a rotational edge rusher would likely be.

My guess is that the Titans take either a pass rusher or an interior lineman at 19 with wide receiver coming into the picture at 51 at the earliest. Maybe that changes if the team trades back and picks up an extra top 100 pick or two, but as things stand today, I’d be pretty surprised by a first round wide receiver for the second time in three years.

My dream scenario at the top of the draft sees the Titans land Brian Burns at 19, Chris Lindstrom at 51, and then J.J. Arcega-Whiteside at 82 (or maybe even dip back into the pass rush pool again with a guy like Anthony Nelson and then pick up a wide receiver like Lodge or Morgan in the fourth round). What’s yours?