Sunday, April 27, 2008

Titans' Early Draft Picks Add More Puzzlement to Off-Season Maneuvering

ESPN’s John Clayton categorizes the Titans as one of the NFL Draft’s “first-round losers.” I’m inclined to agree.

Like everyone else in Nashville, I sure hope first-rounder Chris Johnson (#24 overall) turns out to be a winner. The guy’s lightning fast. His footage is impressive as hell. (Go plug his name into YouTube.) What’s weird is that he wasn’t showing up on any common lists of elite running backs prior to the draft.

Surely the Titans weren’t surprised when RB Felix Jones of Arkansas was taken by the Cowboys at #22. So they had to be interested in the still-available Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois. Only the Steelers at #23 stood between the Titans and Mendenhall, and why would Pittsburgh take a running back when they’ve got Willie Parker? Surprise! The Steelers did.

I’m not sure if Titans fans saw the import of this moment, mainly because most of ’em probably figured the team would grab one of the many wide receivers available, to procure some weaponry for Vince Young. Devin Thomas, DeSean Jackson, Limas Sweed, Malcolm Kelly—all four of these highly regarded WRs were still on the board. Matter of fact, not a single wide receiver was drafted in the first round, so the Titans had the pick of the litter. It wasn’t to be.

Now the Titans will head into rounds 3-7 knowing that all four of the highest-profile WRs are gone, snapped up quickly by others in Round 2.

So here’s the message the Titans sent to VY on Draft Day: “We’re so skittish about your abilities as a quarterback, that we’re not going to waste an early draft choice on an elite receiver, and have to spend another year watching you figure out how that works. Instead, we’re going to get a running back with what we hope is major upside—unlike last year’s pig-in-a-poke Chris Henry—and pair him with LenDale White and do the thunder-and-lightning thing on the ground and hope you can hit newcomer Johnson out of the backfield with short passes and let his 4.24 speed do the rest. If we happen to pick up a decent wide receiver somewhere along the line in the later rounds, then that’s gravy. Otherwise, you can stay familiar with Justin Gage and Roydell Williams, and get newly familiar with free-agent tight end Alge Crumpler, and, if we’re lucky, we’ll actually have an offense of some kind.”

So then, with their second-round pick (#54 overall), the Titans go weirdo again, selecting Eastern Michigan defensive end Jason Jones. Now, the Titans certainly need help on the D-line, especially after waving bye-bye to Antwan Odom, Randy Starks and Travis LaBoy in free agency, and gutting some essential working parts that helped make All-Pros Kyle VanDen Bosch and Albert Haynesworth so effective.

Yet who is Jason Jones? You won’t find a single highlight reel or workout film of him on YouTube. Jones was a productive performer—in the MAC—though his 3.5 sacks this past season don’t exactly appear exceptional. Of course, there’s always the chance he’ll be better than Jevon Kearse, acquired by the Titans as a free-agent this off-season, and surely a high-risk venture if ever there were one. Kearse, after ACL surgery, has yet to regain his All-Pro form, which seems long ago indeed. His most recent four seasons with Philadelphia never measured up to his first five with Tennessee. On September 3, Kearse turns 32. He’s trying to make a comeback on a reconstructed knee. How many serious observers realistically think that Kearse will excel in ’08? And if he doesn’t, is Jason Jones the man?

Day 2 of the draft may yet bring some needed help. And maybe Johnson, from East Carolina, will indeed be the second coming of Tony Dorsett. Alas, as impressive as his highlights are, his performances came against Conference USA competition, and that’s why a lot of observers are saying the Titans reached for this pick—because you just never know, and guys from bigger and better conferences seem more battle-tested for the pro game.

So let’s tote up the past few months in Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt’s reign:

1. Losing DLs Odom, Starks and Laboy, up-and-coming guard Jacob Bell, and tight end Ben Troupe to free-agency.

2. Signing Crumpler from Atlanta. He’s 30 and hasn’t been at peak health the past two years.

3. Signing Kearse on a wing and a prayer.

4. Drafting an unknown running back after the big ones got away, and following up with a DE draft choice who wasn’t even a world-beater in his mid-major college conference. (And they’ll have to pay the guy second-round money.)

These should all be interesting experiments... but that doesn’t mean the results will be good.

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