“A lot of what comes into play is really how much does football matter to them, how much does winning matter to them and will they do the things, when they’re in this building, to help us win. … In the end, it’s really how important football and winning are to them and will they do the things it takes for us to win for the Titans.”
With those statements in his pre-draft press conference, Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster summed up the players he would draft in the next couple days as well as anyone could. For good or for ill, the best way to sum up the 2014 Titans draft class is as the Character Draft. All six players the Titans chose-offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, running back Bishop Sankey, defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, defensive back Marqueston Huff, linebacker Avery Williamson, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger-were team captains in 2013, a role typically chosen by teammates and/or coaches for showing in their level of play on the field and in the locker room just how important football and winning is to them, and that they will do the things it takes for the team to win. It’s certainly an understandable approach. Football is a team game, and maximizing your physical talent and helping your teammates maximize theirs is a big part of the game, and teams are interested in players with great football character for good and smart reasons. Of course, hilariously inept former Jaguars general manager Gene Smith was also heavily swayed by drafting team captains, so it’s not quite a surefire strategy for success.
But if that was all, this would be the Team Captain Draft instead of the Character Draft. That Webster quote came from a question about giving players second chances. After a couple troublesome high draft choices resulted in some door closing of Jeff Fisher’s Home for Wayward Boys, the Titans seemed to place as high an emphasis that their players stayed clean off the field. With the notable (and good-sized) exception of Kenny Britt, Titans players in recent years pretty much never made headlines for reasons a PR director wouldn’t want to deal with. I wondered if that wasn’t to the team’s detriment, but it seemed like the way of things. When I heard Webster’s comment, I wondered if that represented a change in how the Titans would operate under Ken Whisenhunt as head coach. When the Titans then selected Lewan with the 11th pick in the draft, the change was confirmed. After all, Lewan (a) played a position with absolutely no immediate need, so was not a forced pick in any way and (b) had drawn off the field headlines before, including some pending assault charges. That change was then confirmed by the subsequent selection of Mettenberger, a prototype example of the sort of player selected in a round later than his physical talent would suggest because of multiple red flags, a sort of player the Titans had not taken lately. That combination of the captains and the off-the-field issues is what made it the Character Draft in my eyes.
What else will define this draft? For one, a first-round pick that was responsive to an immediate need. This is the fourth draft Ruston Webster has been associated with the Tennessee Titans. Their previous first-round picks: Jake Locker, at a time when Rusty Smith was the only quarterback under contract (remember, lockout, Matt Hasselbeck would not be signed for another three months); Kendall Wright, after a season in which we found out what happens when Lavelle Hawkins and Damian Williams get a combined 175 targets (I keep having to remind myself about that); and Chance Warmack, to fill a ridiculously glaring need at right guard. To then select Lewan, who oh by the way happens to play the same position as the best player on offense, was a sign of change. Even for me, who didn’t expect much 2014 impact from that first-round pick, the lack of immediate expected impact a Lewan pick represents is a surprise. Then again, second-round pick Sankey was like Warmack, tabbed to fill a a position where everyone knew the Titans were going to, and simply had to, pick an immediate contributor.
The other question I have is one I keep wondering about, namely when will the Titans start getting something out of their late-round picks? Outside of Karl Klug’s splash as a rookie, Jason McCourty is the only player the Titans have selected after the fourth round to have done anything notable with the Titans on his rookie deal since they picked Cortland Finnegan back in 2006. Can Williamson and Mettenberger prove exceptions to the rule? What about Huff, as the Titans haven’t done so well with late fourth-round picks either? I thought this could be a good year for those late round picks to gain jobs, due to the scheme change. Will that actually be the case, or will the Titans have once again gotten all their player evaluations 100% correct? When I write about this draft six years hence, I’d really like for it to be “the one where the Titans re-discovered late round picks weren’t all entirely worthless” instead of being “the character draft.” We’ll find out in 2020 whether it’s one of those or neither, I guess.