Lack of clear No. 1 hurts Titans’ chance for big score

Friday, March 4, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 10

Have the Tennessee Titans picked a bad year to be bad? It depends upon how you view things.

Having the No. 1 overall pick in April certainly can’t hurt the Titans, despite the fact that the 2016 draft lacks that certain flair and doesn’t appear to have a can’t-miss talent that would make Tennessee’s choice on April 28 obvious.

The good news for the Titans is they don’t head into this draft fishing for a quarterback again. They were fortunate enough to solve that problem last season when they selected Marcus Mariota No. 2 overall, a pick that appears poised to pay dividends as soon as the supporting cast is upgraded.

But the lack of a clear-cut talent at the top this year has Titans general manager Jon Robinson going through his first NFL Draft with plenty of options, but not the clear No. 1 fans would prefer.

For instance, if there were a Calvin Johnson-type wide receiver or a Von Miller/J.J. Watt-type defensive talent there for the taking, no doubt Robinson and the Titans would gladly take that player with the first pick and not worry so much about the trade offers he likely covets.

Unless the Titans believe that Laremy Tunsil, Nashville area product Jalen Ramsey or Joey Bosa stand out among the crowd in this draft, Robinson would probably like to move back a handful of spots, add a couple of draft picks and still get a player a with high grade who can upgrade the Titans roster. Robinson said as much this past week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where the evaluation process kicked off in full force.

“We just want to explore every avenue that’s available to our football team, whether we stick and pick like I said before or whether we get an opportunity we really can’t turn down,” Robinson said. “Whatever decision we come to in April, we just want to come out of it a better football team. That’s the most important thing.”

By picking first overall and near the top in the later rounds, Robinson also believes the Titans can secure Day 1 starters from rounds two and three, as well.

But it is obvious that whatever direction he goes in the first round, he has to secure a foundational player.

“You want to get those right. Those are the building blocks of your football team that you send a message to the guys in your locker room that this is the guy we’re taking and guys that we’re going to build the football team around. So whether it’s one or later on, it’s got to be a cornerstone piece,” Robinson said.

That, however, is much easier said than done. As risky as taking a quarterback first overall is in the draft, it can be argued that taking a non-quarterback with the first choice is even more of a sketchy proposition.

In 11 of the past 15 NFL drafts, teams have selected a quarterback first overall. And while that list includes Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Eli Manning, of course, it also includes JaMarcus Russell and David Carr.

But of the four non-quarterbacks taken first overall in that span, the choices came from only two positions – two left tackles and two pass rushers.

If the Titans end up with Tunsil first overall, they have to hope that he fares better than Eric Fisher has for the Chiefs since being taken in 2013.

Fisher has already shown he is not elite and has been shifted to right tackle.

The other No. 1 overall tackle was Jake Long in 2008. He had a few decent years in Miami, but his career is going to fall far short of Canton.

Given a do-over, the quarterback-starved Dolphins probably wish they had taken Matt Ryan (chosen No. 3 by the Falcons) or Joe Flacco (18th by Baltimore).

The two pass rushers taken with the top pick were both drafted by the Houston Texans – with mixed results.

Mario Williams had some standout years in Houston after being chosen in 2006, but was still deemed expendable when his contract expired in 2012.

Two years ago, Jadeveon Clowney was the consensus pick of the litter, but his career has thus far been a disappointment due to a variety of injuries.

The Titans have now immersed themselves into the process of finding the best possible player at No. 1, or if there is no obvious choice, then trying to find some way to move out of the top spot and go for quantity over quality.

How and when the Titans arrive at the decision on No. 1 will help set the course for the direction this franchise is heading in the future.

“With the first overall pick, we’re looking to add an impact player,” Robinson said. “There’s a handful of players that we think fit into that. A handful could be a couple or 10, according to how big your hands are. We want to come away with somebody that is going to impact our football team.”

Taking a quarterback first overall has always been a risky proposition. For every Andrew Luck, Eli Manning or Cam Newton taken at the top, there is a JaMarcus Russell, David Carr or Sam Bradford.

With Robinson not in the quarterback market, recent history shows taking a position other than quarterback is even more risky than spending the top choice on a signal-caller.

Williams has been a productive player, but you have to go all the way back to 1997 when the Rams drafted left tackle Orlando Pace to find a non-quarterback chosen first overall who had a Hall of Fame-caliber career.

Clowney, Fisher and Long all proved to be unworthy of being the top selection. Going back a few years further, non-quarterbacks to go first overall include the likes of Ki-Jana Carter, Dan Wilkinson, Aundray Bruce and Steve Emtman. Not exactly an open door to Canton with any of those.

Robinson is correct to try and shop the top pick for as long as possible. But if he can’t find a taker, he has to make sure the Titans get the best impact player they can find at No. 1 and hope that Joey Bosa, Laremy Tunsil or Jalen Ramsey can buck the trend of top picks who didn’t quite pan out.

Tampa experience helps

This is Robinson’s first go-around as an NFL GM, and as fate would have it, he is in control of the draft as the Tennessee Titans have the first overall pick.

This past week at the Combine, Robinson was asked numerous questions about what the Titans hope to do at No. 1, and, of course, tried his best to evade any that talked about what the Titans might do with the pick, leaving all his options open there.

But even though Robinson is calling the shots as a GM for the first time in his career, he said it helps to be able to draw from the experience he had last season in doing draft preparation as the No. 2 man for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bucs, if you recall, had the first pick last season and eventually chose Jameis Winston over eventual Titan Marcus Mariota. “He was the best fit for that team,” Robinson said of the Bucs’ decision to go with Winston and bypass Mariota, whom he now has in Tennessee.

Nonetheless, from going through such an extensive evaluation process to determine what to do with the first pick, Robinson says assisting in the Bucs’ experience from a year ago should be invaluable as he now heads up the Titans’ research efforts.

“We were very exhaustive in our research of both Jameis and Marcus. We spent a lot of time with both of those guys, in meetings, board work, medically,” Robinson said. “We flew out and worked both out individually in a private setting. We just wanted to make sure that the player kind of fit what we wanted to do as a football team, and that will certainly help us anyway.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for