Outside of cornerback — which we covered extensively here last week — the Titans are mostly looking for depth in the 2020 NFL Draft. One of the spots that seems most ripe for some young reinforcement is the offensive line.
The starting five is pretty locked in with Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, and Dennis Kelly looking like virtual locks to open the season as the top unit, but this is quietly one of the older position groups on the roster. Three of the five starters will be on the wrong side of 30 when this season kicks off — Saffold (32), Jones (30), and Kelly (30) — and while that age marker for offensive linemen isn’t the cliff that it can be for other positions, it’s certainly something that’s worth monitoring over the next few years.
The Titans top backups — Jamil Douglas and Ty Sambrailo — are both 28 and have never been full time starters. It’s highly unlikely that either will emerge as a candidate to become a starter at this point in their careers.
Could you get by with this group in 2020 without adding any significant talent? Probably, but getting some young talent in the pipeline that could push some of the weaker starters in the short term and replace them in the long term would be a good idea, especially for a team that is built around their ability to run the football and physically dominate opponents up front.
Quality offensive linemen are very hard to find in the modern NFL, particularly at tackle. As Jon Robinson said yesterday, the number of humans on the planet that have that kind of size, strength, and athleticism is very small to start with.
It’s very difficult to have a good offense without a good offensive line and almost every team in the league has a spot on the line that they would like to improve.
Filling needs on the offensive line before you have to them is important. Rookies almost always struggle in the trenches at the NFL level. There are some exceptions of course, but most of the time you get something similar to what we saw from Nate Davis last year... frequent growing pains early on before eventual development. Skipping those growing pains by getting players in and bringing them along slowly is valuable, especially for a team that is intent on being a Super Bowl contender in 2020.
That brings us to the 2020 draft class. This is a very rare class of offensive tackles with four currently expected to go in the top half of the first round and another wave of potential long term starters behind them.
The interior offensive line class is much more shallow. Cesar Ruiz, Lloyd Cushenberry, and Robert Hunt are widely considered the top prospects at center and guard and there is a pretty good chance that none of them go in the first round. For that reason, I’ll be focusing on the strong tackle class as a potential source for a Titans draft pick.
The last time four tackles went in the first 16 picks? 2016, when Ronnie Stanley (6th), Jack Conklin (8th), Laremy Tunsil (13th), and Taylor Decker (16th) came flying off the board early. Three of those four have already earned either First Team All-Pro nods or been selected to the Pro Bowl, and the fourth — Decker — has been a solid starter for four years.
Where the 2020 class separates itself from the 2016 group as potentially the best tackle class of the last decade is in the second wave. In 2016, the next tackle off the board was Jason Spriggs at 48th overall — the only tackle of the second round — and then just two more tackles went in the third round (Shon Coleman and Le’Raven Clark), making a total of just seven tackles off the board before day three.
The 2020 class will feature four picks in the top half of the first round and there are another four tackles that could end up in the first round by the end of Thursday night. This is a really strong class of tackles up through OT9, but after that it kind of falls apart. There are a few guys outside of the top nine that have nice traits, but all of them are projects to some degree. For that reason, if the Titans want to go tackle this year, they should probably do it within the first two rounds.
Since the Titans run an offense that leans heavily on the outside zone run as it’s bread and butter play, they’ll be looking for players who can fit within that scheme. That usually means sacrificing some size/power in favor of more athletic linemen who can get out and move laterally, however there can be exceptions to that rule as we will discuss with one specific prospect below.
Tennessee used play action on over 30% of their dropbacks in 2019 — one of the highest marks in the league — and they ran the ball more than all but two NFL teams. That leaves few straight dropback pass attempts that the offensive line had to block for compared with other teams and that’s another element that could influence how the team sees these prospects relative to the rest of the league. Pass blocking is still important, but traditional pass sets may not be quite as critical for the Titans as it is for others.
Jon Robinson has drafted just two tackles in his career as Titans GM. He took Jack Conklin with the 8th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and he took Brad Seaton with the 236th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
He didn’t draft Lewan, but he did sign him to a five year, $80 million extension that made him the highest paid offensive lineman in NFL history at the time (he’s since been passed by Lane Johnson, Trent Brown, and Anthony Castonzo on an average salary basis).
He also famously traded Dorial Green-Beckham for Dennis Kelly in his first offseason as GM and recently re-signed Kelly to be the team’s starting right tackle. The only other tackle of note that Robinson has brought in is Ty Sambrailo, who was signed last month to potentially take Kelly’s old role as the top backup and part time jumbo tight end.
There isn’t a ton of common data to run with here, but height seems to be a theme. Lewan is 6’-7”, Kelly is 6’-8”, Conklin is 6’-6”, Seaton is 6’-7”, and Sambrailo is 6’-6”. That’s not uncommon — most tackles are among the tallest players on the team — but three of the five being over 6’-7” is noteworthy since that puts those three in the top 20% of all tackles measured in the combine’s history.
Athletic traits are all over the board. Lewan is an uber-athlete who tested off the charts in virtually every metric at the combine while Seaton and Kelly tested well below average even at the friendly confines of a pro day. Conklin and Sambrailo both qualify as slightly above average athletes for the tackle position.
So maybe the Titans want a tall tackle? I don’t know that we can safely assume that based on such a small sample size, but it’s really the one common thread that ties these five guys together. I think it’s also noteworthy that only Lewan really qualifies as a supremely athletic tackle. To be fair, Robinson was accumulating players for very different offense when he brought in Conklin, Kelly, and Seaton, but based on his decision to re-sign Kelly, it seems to me like he believes that crazy athleticism is not a prerequisite for excelling in the Titans current offense.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the top tackle prospects in the upcoming draft from a Titans perspective.
(If you don’t want to get your hopes up for a player that has zero chance of being available at 29, just skip to number 5.)
1. Andrew Thomas, Georgia
Thomas has been viewed as a potential top ten pick for over a year and now seems to be suffering from the over-analysis that comes with being that high profile for that long. Sometimes the media just gets bored with a guy — especially an offensive lineman named Andrew Thomas — and wants someone new to get excited about and I think that’s the main reason that he’s not getting quite the buzz that he probably should be.
That has course corrected over recent days as word in NFL circles seems to be coming back around to Thomas as the OT1 off the board.
Hearing from a lot of very difference sources this morning that Andrew Thomas could be the first OT off the board.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 15, 2020
At 6’-5” and 315 pounds, Thomas is a very good athlete for the position. Not quite elite, but certainly among the top quarter of tackle prospects when it comes to movement skills.
His elite traits are his length and technique. Thomas’ ridiculous 36-1/8-inch arms are among the top 3% of tackles measured in the history of the combine and they make his very good athleticism that much harder to deal with for opposing pass rushers.
A three year starter at one of the best programs in the SEC, Thomas allowed just 8 pressures and 1 sack in 410 pass block snaps in 2019 according to PFF despite facing top competition and often being asked to block on an island. He also helped clear the way for one of college football’s best rushing attacks over the past three years.
I’d be shocked if he doesn’t go in the top ten.
2. Jedrick Wills, Alabama
Wills is a very close second behind Thomas for me. The 6’-4”, 312-pounder started the last 28 games for Alabama at right tackle, protecting southpaw quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s blindside. Wills did that job admirably, allowing just one sack in over 900 pass protection snaps over the last two seasons per PFF charting.
However, his run blocking is his true calling card. A nasty mauler with excellent athleticism, Wills is the total package and he’s still not even 21 years old.
Some teams may look to move him to left tackle, but switching sides isn’t always as easy as it’s made out to be. For that reason, he might be best off sticking where he is now and competing with Lane Johnson for the title of best right tackle in the league in a couple years.
Wills is likely to go in the top ten picks in the draft as well so the Titans won’t get a shot, but he’d be a perfect fit if there was some crazy draft day fall.
3. Tristan Wirfs, Iowa
The order of the top four is extremely close to me. Some teams could just as easily have Wirfs at the top of their board and it wouldn’t seem crazy. After all, he’s the most athletic of this group, running the 40 in a blistering 4.85 seconds at 6’-5” and 320 pounds. His vertical jump and broad jump numbers both ranked in the top 1% of all tackles ever tested at the combine. He’s not just explosive, he’s arguably the most explosive tackle to ever enter the NFL Draft.
Wirfs was also a state champion in wrestling and the shot put in high school. He’s an extremely well rounded athlete.
His primary position during his three seasons at Iowa was right tackle, though he did get some work at left tackle. During the 2019 season, he allowed 2 sacks, 2 QB hits, and just 3 pressures on 461 pass block snaps in Iowa’s pro-style offense.
The drawbacks here are a lack of length — his 34-inch arms are adequate, but not exceptional — and a lack of a mean streak. He and Wills are very similar prospects overall, but Wills separates himself with that junkyard dog mentality and desire to bury opponents. Wirfs is a good run blocker, but he’s not quite the finisher that his counterpart from Alabama is.
That being said, I view him as a plug and play starter from day one with obvious Pro Bowl potential. Another likely top ten pick.
4. Mekhi Becton, Louisville
Any discussion with Becton obviously starts with his immense physical size. At 6’-7” and 364 pounds with 35-5/8-inch arms, he’d instantly join Orlando Brown and Trent Brown as jumbo sized tackles in the league.
However, he’s not just a big body. Becton ran a 5.1-second forty yard dash at the combine two months ago, registering in the 81st percentile among all tackles according to mockdraftable.com. That’s incredible speed for a guy his size. For some comparison, Trenton Brown and Orlando Brown — the two guys who most closely match his physique — ran 5.29 and 5.68 during their combine appearances. Becton did not participate in the three cone or short shuttle drills.
As you might expect, his calling card is his sometimes comical strength. He has some of the most fun highlight clips you’ll ever see from an offensive lineman, tossing defenders around like actual rag dolls at times.
Mekhi Becton, OT, Louisville:— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) March 26, 2020
• Bone crushing finisher (++)
• Disgusting nastiness levels (++)
• Plays through the echo of whistle
• Herculean strength (+)
• Outstanding athlete at 6’7”, 364
• Seek and destroy type of blocker
• Balanced/Poised pass protector (+) pic.twitter.com/l9e12XS1Nx
The question mark for Becton is pass protection. He isn’t a poor pass blocker by any means, but he’s also not as light on his feet as a guy like Thomas. His numbers weren’t bad — allowing just 1 sack, 5 QB hits, and 6 pressures per PFF charting in 2019 — but they were also somewhat helped by a Louisville offense that leaned heavy on play action, screens, and the run game.
He also played both right and left tackle during his time at Louisville so there is some evidence of versatility with him that isn’t as proven with most of the other top prospects.
While he did have a drug test flagged at the combine, it doesn’t seem like that is going to impact his draft stock too much.
What I'm hearing on 6-foot-7 offensive tackle Mekhi Becton, whose drug test was flagged at the NFL combine. pic.twitter.com/rM3E5QH1oc— Mel Kiper Jr. (@MelKiperESPN) April 19, 2020
According to Mel Kiper — and some anonymous scouts — the biggest concern with Becton is whether he’ll be able to keep his weight in the 360 pound range or if he’ll balloon up at the NFL level. Among the top four, I think he’s the most likely to have a surprise fall into the back half of the first round, but the odds of that happening are still very low.
5. Josh Jones, Houston
I struggled a little bit with where to rank Jones. On one hand, I think he’s a safe prospect — he was a four year starter at left tackle for Houston and graded out as one of the best blockers in the country according to PFF’s grading system (1 sack, 0 QB hits, and 3 pressures allowed in 325 pass block snaps in 2019).
There isn’t really a physical trait that separates Jones from his peers, but his tape is that of a first round pick. He’s an easy mover who showed at the Senior Bowl that he could make the downfield blocks required of a zone blocking tackle.
Josh Jones is burying linebackers 15 yards downfield pic.twitter.com/1vVidQJRzY— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 23, 2020
He’s also arguably the best pass blocker in the entire draft, allowing just 5 sacks and 19 pressures total over the last three seasons combined.
The downside to Jones is that he’s a little bit older prospect at almost 23 years old — more than two years older than a similarly graded tackle that we will talk about in a moment — and his level of competition at Houston leaves a little to be desired. While Wirfs, Wills, and Thomas were facing off against the likes of Chase Young and K’Lavon Chaisson, the best pass rusher Jones saw in his college career was probably Oklahoma’s Ronnie Perkins, a sophomore edge defender who finished with 6 sacks last season. Additionally, his sub-34-inch arms will have some teams looking at him as a guard.
I think there is a good chance that Jones goes before pick 29 as well, but the Titans have at least checked him out. He was one of just 10 players that the team was able to get into Nashville for a top-30 visit prior to COVID-19 shutting down travel and team facilities.
#Houston OT Josh Jones was able to make private visits w/ the #Titans & #Bears prior to COVID-19.— Justin M (@JustinM_NFL) April 8, 2020
Here's a list of teams he's met w/ via FaceTime: #Jets, #Ravens, #Packers, #Vikings, #Buccaneers, #Colts, #Cardinals, #Chargers, #Bears, #Patriots, #Eagles, #Broncos & #Chiefs.
If he is on the board at 29, I think there is a real chance that he could be the pick.
6. Isaiah Wilson, Georgia
Isaiah Wilson is a guy who has been linked to the Titans a lot over the past month. Initially, I was very skeptical. At 6’-6” and 350 pounds with poor marks in both the three cone (5.07 seconds, 7th percentile) and short shuttle (8.26 seconds, 6th percentile), Wilson certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a zone blocking tackle.
However, after going back and rewatching him, I am changing my tune on him. No, his change of direction numbers aren’t great, but his explosive numbers are. He jumped 29 inches in the vertical (65th percentile among tackles) and 110 inches in the broad jump (88th percentile) despite weighing in at 350 pounds. Those are eye popping numbers and they show up on the tape. He explodes off the ball at the snap and that allows him to often win positioning on zone blocks.
I’ve been resistant to the Isaiah Wilson idea, but after rewatching him I’m changing my tune on his fit with the #Titans.— Mike Herndon (@MikeMiracles) April 21, 2020
His testing numbers are not those of a traditional ZBS tackle, but he moves better than he tests on tape and once he gets his paws on you the rep is OVER. pic.twitter.com/gOYhfTcAO8
Of course that explosiveness — combined with his massive size/strength — also translates to the ability to generate movement once he latches onto a defender. The number of times that Wilson completely collapses the right side of opposing defensive lines is impressive. That’s backed up by Georgia backs averaging 2.8 yards before contact when running behind Wilson and 7.6 yards per carry total over the past two years in a system that used a lot of zone concepts similar to what the Titans like to run.
As a pass protector, Wilson is solid. In 2019, he allowed just 1 sack, 2 QB hits, and 6 hurries in 358 pass block snaps based on PFF charting and the year before was nearly as strong with 1 sack, 3 QB hits, and 11 hurries allowed on 400 pass block snaps. His enormous wingspan helps mask some of his change of direction issues.
Wilson carries his 350 pounds exceptionally well with thick legs, broad shoulders, and massive arms. He’s definitely a “first guy off the bus” type if I’ve ever seen one.
The drawbacks are there though. While his overall pass protection numbers are right in line with the top four tackles in this class, he did receive more help than his counterparts listed above. That likely will be necessary at the NFL level as well.
Wilson has a tendency to over-set when he’s on an island in pass protection, leaving him vulnerable to inside counters. That’s where his change of direction hurts him more as he struggles to recover once a rusher gets a step on him.
He also has some technique issues that could be improved. Wilson doesn’t always maintain his pad level which can lead to him getting out-leveraged by smaller, less powerful players. He also has a tendency to duck his head and go for the kill shot which can lead to whiffs. However, at just 21 years old, and with just two years of college experience, there is still a lot of development left to go for Wilson.
There is plenty of reason to believe that he will continue to get better at the NFL level too. For one, he scored 28 on the Wonderlic — a fantastic score for anyone, but especially for a hulking offensive lineman — but more importantly, his answers to media questions during combine interviews showed him to be a conscientious young player with a good understanding of the game. He lit up when talking about studying Trent Brown, Tyron Smith, Joe Thomas, Ronnie Staley, and Orlando Brown to find ways to better his game.
Wilson fits the Titans in a lot of ways. He brings an element of rare physicality to the team and he plays with an edge. Mike Vrabel often talks about “great finish” when discussing how his team plays football and Wilson can be seen frequently playing through the whistle and helping push piles at the end of plays. His mentality certainly meshes with the toughness that this football team prides itself on having.
Tennessee is also a great fit for Wilson. With Dennis Kelly in place, he wouldn’t be forced to start right away, giving him some time to work on some of the technique issues that could lead to early struggles if he was pressed into action right away. He’ll also be comfortable in the zone scheme right away given his work at Georgia, and finally, the Titans can afford to help him in pass protection more than most teams because of their scheme and the presence of a three time Pro Bowl left tackle in Lewan.
I don’t know if 29 would be great value for him. Media projections mostly have him as a day two player, but it seems as if the league is much higher on him than the media has been. While he hasn’t been directly linked to the Titans as a visit, he’s a guy to watch for Tennessee according to multiple plugged in draft analysts, especially if they trade back out of 29.
7. Lucas Niang, TCU
I think it’s possible that as many as eight tackles go in the first round tomorrow night, but Niang is probably not going to be one of them. The TCU tackle played much of last season with a torn labrum in his hip that severely impacted his play and required surgery to repair after the season. It also kept him from being able to work out at the combine so we have to rely completely on the tape to figure out what kind of athlete he is.
At 6’-6” and 315 pounds with 34-1/4-inch arms, he has prototypical NFL tackle size and length. The tape — especially going back to 2018 before the injury — shows a player with good athleticism and feet.
In three seasons as a starter at TCU, all at right tackle, Niang gave up zero sacks according to PFF charting. That’s right... zero. In 2019, playing with the torn muscle in his hip, he had to develop a weird backpedal pass set just to get by, but he was able to make it work, even if it was ugly.
Possibly the biggest feather in Niang’s cap came from expected second overall pick Chase Young, who called the TCU tackle the toughest opponent that he played against in college.
Chase Young on toughest opponent:— Ric Serritella (@RicSerritella) March 7, 2020
“The TCU tackle (Lucas Niang), my sophomore year, he was pretty good. I was a younger guy, that’s when I was really figuring out technique. Playing that game I definitely had to find out that I needed technique to win beyond my physical skills.” pic.twitter.com/f8NOjSXyOw
The biggest question marks with Niang are medical and finish. He’s big, powerful, and athletic, but he didn’t always show the finishing on tape that you see from guys like Wilson and Wills.
The Titans met with him at the combine and it would make sense for them to have some interest here. Jon Robinson hasn’t been shy about trusting the tape on his evaluation of guys with medical red flags. In fact, most of the team’s first round picks in his first four drafts have been guys who couldn’t fully test at the combine due to medical issues (Corey Davis, Rashaan Evans, and Jeffery Simmons).
Niang is a bit more challenging due to how much his injury impacted his 2019 performance, but the 2018 tape and the toughness he showed battling through a painful injury should make him an intriguing option on day two.
8. Austin Jackson, USC
Based on measurables, Jackson looks like a first round tackle. Good size mixed with top end movement skills.
The tape isn’t bad either. Jackson is an easy athlete who carries his 322 pounds with rare ease. 2019 was a bit up and down from him despite lofty expectations heading into the year. He allowed 4 sacks, 1 QB hit, and 9 hurries per PFF charting and got worked over pretty good by A.J. Epenesa in USC’s loss in the Holiday Bowl against Iowa.
However, there is some context that has to be applied to Jackson’s 2019 season. He donated bone marrow to his little sister last July, an extremely invasive procedure that left him unable to participate in much of USC’s preseason training/practices and caused him to lose 25 pounds. That’s a heartwarming story if you haven’t read it, but it certainly impacted his play to some degree last season.
The problem is that his 2018 tape wasn’t that of a first round pick and neither was his 2019, so it leaves teams to project what he will be at the NFL level rather than rely strictly on past performance. At 20 years old, Jackson is the youngest tackle in the class and it makes sense that his best football could be ahead of him. However, progression isn’t always linear and there are some clear technique/play strength issues that need to be improved before he can be a viable starting tackle in the league.
The Titans did meet with Jackson at the combine so there is some interest there, but I’m not sure he will still be on the board even at pick 29 based on recent reports that he is one of the guys who GMs expect to go higher than the media is currently thinking. I don’t think I’d touch him that early. Sure, he could put it all together with a healthy offseason and an NFL strength program to help develop his strength, but there is a lot of projection required to put him among the best 32 players in the 2020 draft class.
9. Ezra Cleveland, Boise State
Cleveland is a guy who has shot up draft boards following an electric combine workout. At 6’-6” and 311 pounds, he ran a 4.93 forty (96th percentile), a 7.26-second three cone (98th percentile), 4.46-second short shuttle (94th percentile), and broad jumped 111 inches (90th percentile).
The tape matches when it comes to athleticism. Cleveland rivals Wirfs as the best movers in the class and offers great technique to go with it.
Pass protection is his strength as a blocker, allowing 3 sacks, 2 QB hits, and 7 pressures in 502 pass blocking snaps as Boise State’s left tackle last year according to PFF charting. His athleticism allows him to get in the right positions in the run game, but he lacks the raw power to move defenders against their will.
Short arms (33-3/8-inches) are another knock on Cleveland. His excellent feet and movement skills offset much of the normal worries about length, but he’s really got the body of a guard more than that of a tackle.
The buzz on him is that he’s another guy that could sneak into the first round with the Browns as a potential destination.
Some buzz is building about the #Browns trading back and taking OT Ezra Cleveland in round 1. I wondered if it’s ever happened before where a drafted player shared the same name as his team’s city. Per @NFLResearch, it would actually be the fifth(!) time. pic.twitter.com/4ku8t1j2Sn— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 16, 2020
Like Austin Jackson, I have a little trouble getting a first round grade on Cleveland due to his lack of play strength, but it sounds like he’s likely to hear his name called on Thursday night by somebody.
The Titans have not been connected to Cleveland in the pre-draft process based on the reports available.
10. Saahdiq Charles, LSU
This is where the draft really falls apart for tackles. There are a lot of guys that you could make an argument for in this spot. Prince Tega Wanogho looks and moves like an NFL tackle, but he’s got injury concerns, short arms, and is far more project than finished product. Matt Peart has crazy length and good athleticism, but his play strength and finish leave a lot to be desired, especially against weaker competition. Ben Bartch has good tape, but against really sub-par competition in Division III and has short arms/small hands.
The guy that I’ll go with here has his own drawbacks and we can start with those up front. There is a chance that Saahdiq Charles goes undrafted due to concerns with his make up on and off the field. Multiple failed drug tests and a six game suspension due to a “violation of team rules” will scare some teams off.
That being said, his tape is that of a day two pick in the draft. At 6’-4” and 321 pounds, Charles ran a 5.05-second forty and has plenty of athleticism to stick outside despite his relatively short arms. He was the left tackle protecting the blind side for the best offense we’ve seen in college football in a long time. His pass protection numbers (2 sacks, 3 QB hits, and 15 hurries in 419 pass block snaps per PFF) aren’t on the level of the tackles listed above, but they aren’t bad either.
The Titans did meet with Charles at the combine. For all we know, that could just be to get some answers straight from him about some of the character red flags in his background, but they also might have some interest in the talent level. Still just 20 years old, there is certainly some room for growth into a quality NFL starter if an organization can help him get his life on track.
Matt Peart, UConn
Ben Bartch, St. John’s
Prince Tega Wanogho, Auburn
Alex Taylor, South Carolina State
Charlie Heck, North Carolina