The Titans don’t have many starting jobs that are truly up for grabs heading into the 2019 season. Among the few that are, the right guard spot stands out as the most important to the team’s success. The players who end up claiming the two starting inside linebacker spots, the two non-Jurrell Casey defensive line spots, or the third wide receiver spot matter, but the guys who miss out on those roles will still get significant snaps as part of a rotation.
Offensive line is one of the very few positions that does not rotate. If you’re a starter on the offensive line, you’re out there for 100% of offensive snaps barring injuries. That’s why right guard should be the position most closely tracked during OTAs, mini-camp, and training camp over the next three months.
The job is open due to the release of Josh Kline earlier this offseason. Kline had started at right guard for the last 46 consecutive games in Tennessee and was just one year into a new three year deal that he had signed in March of 2018.
His release was a response to the continuation of a downward trend in his play since taking over the job from an injured Chance Warmack in 2016. Kline was solid in that first season as a part of an offensive line that produced the AFC’s leading rusher in DeMarco Murray and helped Marcus Mariota put up the best passing stats of his career, worse in 2017, and then downright awful in 2018.
Replacing Kline gives the Titans an opportunity to get better play from the right guard position, but that’s not a guarantee by any means. Simply taking a bad player out and throwing any warm body in there doesn’t instantly make things better. Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel are hoping that one of the options they have on the roster will step up and play well enough to take this position from a negative to at least a neutral in 2019.
Let’s countdown the top five options from least likely to most likely to be the starting right guard when the 2019 season kicks off in Cleveland.
(...and no, I’m not including Jack Conklin until the team actually gives any whiff of a chance that they would consider him there. They haven’t and continue to shoot it down with gusto every time it’s brought up. It would be really easy for Jon Robinson or Mike Vrabel to say “we’re going to put Jack in the best spot to help the team” when that question comes up, but they don’t. They say “we view Conklin and Kelly as tackles”. I think something would have to go really wrong for them to break the glass on pulling one of those guys inside.)
5. Aaron Stinnie
Weight: 312 pounds
NFL Starts: 0
2018 PFF Grade: N/A
Stinnie came to the Titans last season as an undrafted free agent after a successful college career at James Madison University. He started 42 games on the offensive line — mostly at left tackle — after starting out on the defensive line as a redshirt freshman. Stinnie is an above average athlete who put up good marks in the short shuttle (4.65-seconds) and three cone drill (7.63-seconds) especially.
Stinnie might have been the biggest surprise among the Titans initial 53-man roster at the end of preseason last year, but he ended up sticking on the 53-man roster for all 16 games of the regular season. Given the amount of shuffling Jon Robinson had to do to account for injuries in 2018, it’s notable that Stinnie never got bounced down to the practice squad. That tells me two things: 1) the Titans really liked him and wanted to see if they could develop him and 2) they thought he’d be scooped up if they put him on waivers.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Stinnie is a star in the making, but I do think he’s worth including on the fringe of this discussion for right now.
4. Corey Levin
Weight: 307 pounds
NFL Starts: 1
2018 PFF Grade: 54.3
Levin is heading into his third season with the Titans after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2017 draft out of UT-Chattanooga. He saw his first regular season game action last year as he served as the primary backup at all three interior offensive line positions. Levin started at left guard for an injured Quinton Spain in London against the Chargers and then came off the bench in the second half against the Jets to play center while Ben Jones slid over to replace an ineffective Spain.
Those appearances saw vastly different performances from Levin. In London, he struggled mightily, ending up on the ground far too often and giving up four pressures as a pass blocker. Against the Jets, he looked like a completely different player. He allowed just one pressure and was a bully in the running game, helping the Titans offense roar back late for a massive comeback win.
The natural question to ask about Levin is what caused those two games to look so different from him. Was it the fact that he was playing center — the position he’s spent the most time at in practice over the last two years — instead of left guard? Was it simply nerves in London? Was it the opponent? Did he just get that much better between Week 7 and Week 13?
That’s the problem with small sample sizes. There are so many variables here and not enough constants.
We do know that he was outstanding in the preseason in 2018, even drawing rare unprompted praise from Mike Vrabel at one point. Preseason is hard to take a lot from for obvious reasons, but it seems like the data suggests we are seeing an improving young player that should be looking to push for a starting position sooner rather than later if his trend line holds.
3. Ben Jones
Weight: 308 pounds
NFL Starts: 91
2018 PFF Grade: 69.8
I am ranking Jones above Levin here because I believe that it’s more likely that the Titans move Jones to right guard and insert Levin at center than the other way around. Jones has started 27 NFL games at guard in his career, including 11 at right guard specifically so he’s no stranger to the position. In fact, the two players on the Titans current roster with the most starts at right guard at Rodger Saffold and Ben Jones.
As I mentioned when discussing Levin, I have to believe that the Titans would love for Levin to become their center of the future. Him emerging as a starter there in 2019 would provide a lot of benefits from a roster building standpoint.
First, he would get a chance to play a season with Ben Jones playing next to him as he learns to make all the protection calls. Second, it would allow the Titans the flexibility to move on from Jones at the end of this season when his contract expires. The team has a ton of players on expiring deals and even though Jones wouldn’t break the bank, that’s a few million dollars that they can spend elsewhere if Levin emerges. Yes, you’d have to get Levin a second contract a year later, but you get one cheap year in 2020 at least.
Jones has been remarkably consistent during his time in the NFL. He’s basically a lock to provide slightly below average to slightly above average play every year and there is no reason to think that will change drastically this season. Fortunately for the Titans, it’s not a requirement to have five All-Pros on an offensive line for a team to have good blocking.
In fact, most teams with great offensive lines have three really good to great players and two below average to average players. Think about the Colts last year. Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, and Ryan Kelly were really good players while Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith were pretty average. The Cowboys have always had Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick as their stalwarts while rotating in poor to mediocre guys at left guard and right tackle.
The Titans are unlikely to get really good to great level play out of their center or right guard positions this year, but if they can get average from those two spots while Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, and Jack Conklin (or Dennis Kelly) do the heavy lifting, that could be a formula for a really good season up front.
2. Nate Davis
Weight: 316 pounds
NFL Starts: 0
2018 PFF Grade: N/A
Most seem to believe that Davis will end up winning this job before the start of the regular season, but I’m ranking him second here for a few reasons. First, third round rookies are no lock to start right out of the gates. In 2018, there were eight offensive linemen selected in round three. Out of those eight just one — Arizona’s Mason Cole — started in Week 1. Cole would also be the only one of this group to start all 16 games, but he finished the year ranked 34th out of 38 qualifying centers according to PFF, giving up a whopping 35 pressures on the season.
Brandon Parker — the Raiders 2018 third round pick at tackle — started the second most games of this group with 12, but he was similarly terrible, allowing 43 pressures (the 7th most among all offensive linemen last season).
Martinas Rankin — the 80th overall pick of the draft for the Texans — started just four games, but somehow allowed 31 pressures and finished as the lowest rated offensive tackle in the NFL per PFF (80th out of 80).
Chukwuma Okorafor — the Steelers third round tackle — started one game at right tackle, filling in for an injured starter and got some limited reps as a third tackle/jumbo tight end, but was primarily a backup.
The one real success story out of this group was the Ravens 83rd overall pick, Orlando Brown Jr., who started the final 10 games of the season at right tackle and finished 47th out of 80 qualifying tackles according to PFF (a couple slots below Jack Conklin).
Looking back over the past five years there have been 75 offensive linemen drafted in the third round or later. Just 30 of those 75 have started at least 8 games in their rookie season and only 8 started all 16 games.
My point here is that Davis stepping in, starting from day one, and providing even just an average performance at right guard would be the exception, not the rule when it comes to players who have come from similar backgrounds. Of course, it would be great if Davis was ready to start day one. He’s got the highest upside of this bunch and it would be an early indication that he might end up panning out as a long term starter.
I would imagine that a tie — or even a very very close competition — would go to Davis for that reason, but I’m not ready to place my chips on the rookie to be the starter by Week 1 just yet.
1. Kevin Pamphile
Weight: 315 pounds
NFL Starts: 35
2018 PFF Grade: 52.0
Pamphile is the guy to beat at this spot in my opinion. From the sounds of things, he’s currently working with the first team offense at right guard in OTAs as expected.
He’s starting his second season with the Titans after spending his first four with the Buccaneers. Pamphile was originally drafted by Tampa in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft while Jon Robinson was the Bucs Director of Player Personnel. He ended up starting 33 games there — mostly at right tackle and left guard — before leaving to join Robinson in Tennessee last offseason.
As a Titan, Pamphile started two games — at left tackle against Houston in Week 2 and at right tackle against Jacksonville in Week 3 — while playing the second half of the opener in Miami after Taylor Lewan went out with a concussion. Despite his low PFF grade, I thought he played pretty well in my film review, especially considering the fact that he played the end of the Jacksonville game with a torn biceps muscle that would end his season after just three games.
Pamphile is an outstanding athlete for a man of his size, turning in a 4.95-second forty yard dash, a 7.61-second three cone drill, and a 32-inch vertical at 6’-5” and 315 pounds in 2014. Those numbers are right in line with Chris Lindstrom, a guard that many (including myself) wanted the Titans to consider drafting early last month.
His pro career has been less than stellar, producing PFF grades of 56.1 and 59.8 in his only two seasons as a full time starter (2016 and 2017), but that’s right in line with the 58.0 grade the Titans got out of Josh Kline in 2018 so at least it wouldn’t be a downgrade. The silver lining to his PFF grades is that he’s always graded out average to above average as a pass blocker. His run scores are typically what hold him back. The Titans are likely to want to run left as much as possible in 2019 regardless of who starts at right guard, so I’d rather have a guy who will keep Mariota clean, but might whiff in the run game from time to time than the other way around.
I don’t think Pamphile is going to suddenly become an All-Pro guard, but I do think there is a good chance they could get him to average this season and that’s all they really need.