Titans draft discussion has largely centered around interior offensive linemen, wide receivers, and pass rushers so far this offseason, and rightfully so. Those are pretty clearly the most pressing of the team’s roster needs.
However, the draft isn’t just about 2019, it’s about the next four to five years. That’s especially true for day three of the draft when it becomes pretty rare to find an instant impact player. Outside of the glaring immediate needs, there are a few other spots that the team seems likely to address in some form or fashion later in the draft or through priority UDFAs.
The Titans seem set to roll with Derrick Henry as the lead back and Dion Lewis as a change of pace and third down back for the 2019 season. Despite Lewis’ up and down debut season, I still believe that is one of the better one-two punches in the NFL.
So why would the Titans spend a draft pick at running back?
Well, for one, the current RB3, David Fluellen, is a perfectly fine backup and special teams contributor, but he’s certainly not a guy that couldn’t be upgraded. However, the bigger reason for shopping in the running back market on day three would be related to the current contracts of Henry and Lewis.
Henry is heading into the fourth and final year of his rookie contract and is scheduled to become a free agent next spring. While I know that most fans would love to see 22 back here in 2020 and beyond, there are a couple potential hiccups to that plan. If Henry can’t retain the momentum he created in the last half of 2018, the team might decide that they’d rather start over at running back with a young, cheap contract instead of investing big money in a second contract with Henry. On the other hand, if Henry does pick up where he left off and has a massive year combined with a good season from Mariota, it might be hard for the team to be able to afford new contracts for both players.
If the team does end up re-signing Henry, it seems likely that they would choose to move on from Dion Lewis. Lewis’ cap hit of $4.9M in 2019 is largely offset by the fact that Henry is making just $1.7M, keeping the total spend at the position relatively low. If the Titans chose to pay Henry next offseason, they could get out of Lewis’ deal with very little dead cap space and keep the total cost of the running backs on the roster relatively close to where it is now. Lewis will turn 29 this season so it’s not hard to imagine the team beginning to prepare some contingency plans for him moving forward.
Adding a rookie running back through the draft would give the Titans flexibility on all those decisions. The team has already been connected to a slew of running backs through the draft process, including: Jordan Scarlett (Florida), Miles Sanders (Penn State), Ryquell Armstead (Temple), Trayveon Williams (Texas A&M), Darrell Henderson (Memphis), Devin Singletary (Florida Atlantic), and Alex Barnes (Kansas State). Most of those guys are currently projected to go somewhere on day three, though Sanders and Henderson could certainly go higher. Barnes is one of my personal favorites in the draft.
Titans fans have feuded with several draft analysts who have projected cornerbacks to Tennessee at the 19th overall pick this offseason, but I do believe that corner could be in play later in the draft. As the passing game becomes more and more important on offense, stopping the passing game becomes more and more important on defense.
I mentioned this in a piece I wrote after the Super Bowl, but I believe that there is some merit to the idea that coverage may be even more valuable than pass rush given the fact that quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball quicker than ever. Then there is the fact that corners pretty much never come off the field while pass rushers generally rotate, playing at most 70-80% of snaps.
The Titans currently have one of the better trios of corners in the league. Malcolm Butler started slow after signing a big free agent contract last offseason, but finished on fire, allowing the lowest quarterback rating in the NFL on throws into his coverage over the last 8 weeks of the season. Logan Ryan has proven to be an excellent signing by Jon Robinson. He allowed the fourth fewest yards per snap in the slot last season and also brings a lot of leadership to the group. Adoree’ Jackson is still a work in progress, but he was mostly good in 2018 and should continue to grow heading into year three.
Behind the top three, the Titans have a solid CB4 and CB5 in LeShaun Sims and Tye Smith. Those are both guys who have starts under their belt and won’t kill you if you have to put them out there. The also have a 2018 UDFA in Josh Kalu who finished the season on the roster and could compete for a spot this summer.
So why would the Titans draft a corner?
The biggest reason is that Ryan and Sims are both heading into the final year of their current contracts. Like Henry, I’m sure the team would like to have Ryan back in 2020, but I wouldn’t say it’s a lock by any means. Sims is talented enough that he might get a chance to start elsewhere so even if the Titans wanted to retain him, they might not be able to. Depending on how he performs in 2019, the team might also have a decision to make regarding Butler’s contract heading into his age 30 season.
Drafting a corner this year could give them a chance to develop the player and see what they’ve got before making any decisions about these other contracts. The Titans have met with a bunch of the corners in this class to, including: Jimmy Moreland (James Madison), Jamel Dean (Auburn), Joejuan Williams (Vanderbilt), Blace Brown (Troy), Isaiah Wharton (Rutgers), Derrick Baity (Kentucky), Tim Harris (Virginia), Justin Layne (Michigan State), Ka’dar Hollman (Toledo), Zedrick Woods (Ole Miss), and Ladarius Wiley (Vanderbilt). Out of that group, Layne and Williams are likely day two picks while the rest will probably have to wait until the final day to hear their name called.
Again, this is about creating roster flexibility as the team heads into uncertain territory with some of the contract decisions coming up.
Like running back and corner, the Titans are pretty set here for starters in 2018. Wesley Woodyard, Rashaan Evans, and Jayon Brown should form one of the better sets of inside linebackers in the NFL. Evans and Brown seem likely to take over as the primary starters with Woodyard serving as a rotational player who can take some of the early down work off Brown’s shoulders and provide leadership for the group. They also still have Daren Bates on the roster to provide additional depth and special teams work.
So why would the Titans draft an inside linebacker?
Again, we come back to contracts. Woodyard is heading into the final year of his deal and will be 33 years old before the season starts. It’s highly likely that this is his final year in the two-tone blue. Bates is also on a contract that expires after this season. With Evans and Brown locked in through 2020, the Titans are still going to be OK here, but they need to go ahead and start re-stocking the depth.
That’s especially true if the team wants to use Evans as a situational edge rusher more in 2019, something that Turron Davenport talked to the former Alabama linebacker about in this excellent article earlier this offseason. The Titans experimented with Evans as a pass rusher a bit last season — Brown too for that matter — but it sounds like an expanded package could be coming this fall. Dean Pees took full advantage of the versatility of his linebackers during his first season with the Titans and adding another one to join the rotation would only give the team more options and depth moving forward.
The team has met with several linebackers, including: Blake Cashman (Minnesota), Dre Greenlaw (Arkansas), Drew Lewis (Colorado), Connor Strachan (Boston College), Ryan Connelly (Wisconsin), Curtis Akins (Memphis), Ty Summers (TCU), Ben Burr-Kirven (Washington), Tevis Bartlett (Washington), Sione Takitaki (BYU), and Jordan Griffin (Vanderbilt). They really have shown extended interest in Cashman in particular. He’s an athletic former walk-on who is also the highest ranked among the linebackers that the Titans have visited with.
Obviously, the Titans currently have just six picks in this draft thanks to Jon Robinson’s trade to acquire Kamalei Correa prior to the start of last season so addressing all these spots plus their glaring needs will be tough unless they are able to trade back a couple times and acquire some extra picks. These could also end up being spots where the Titans focus their UDFA efforts if they don’t end up making a pick.