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VOL. 45 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 23, 2021

Titans GM looks to erase the worst fail of his 5 NFL drafts

Coupled with a pair of big free agent whiffs, the 2020 offseason was one to forget for Titans

By Terry McCormick

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Titans GM Jon Robinson

COVID-19 changed many things in 2020. Everything from how we do our work, to dining, shopping, attending church, even casting votes, all changed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The mighty National Football League proved even it wasn’t immune to the impact of the virus. There was a virtual draft, canceled offseason and preseason work and virus outbreaks within teams that conspired against the league in 2020.

Somehow, though, the league persevered, playing in empty or limited capacity stadiums and scheduling around quarantines that postponed games and created such oddities as Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon football.

The Tennessee Titans endured their share of hardship – being the first team to suffer through a locker room outbreak of the virus, feeling the scorn of those who jumped to conclusions too quickly about the outbreak and eventually drawing a fine from the league for their COVID transgressions.

As the Titans and the league now prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft – April 29-May 1 in Cleveland – it’s easy to see how the COVID-influenced, fly-by-the-seat-your-pants approach that teams were forced into in evaluating draft prospects a year ago wrought havoc in that process.

After meeting players at the NFL Combine a year ago, the evaluation process was essentially shut down – no pro days, no private workouts, no bringing in prospects in for visits. Just Zoom calls, as much networking as scouts could do remotely and then hoping for the best with the players picked on draft weekend.

No team was bitten harder than the Titans.

Consider the well-chronicled fiasco of first-round pick Isaiah Wilson, who seemed to lose focus and interest in football as soon as he cashed his first NFL paycheck. That the Titans eventually gave up and shipped him to Miami for the equivalent of a rusty blocking sled and a bag of used footballs is telling enough.

The fact that Wilson wore out his welcome with the Dolphins, getting released less than a week after being acquired, says all you need to know about just how bad a pick that was for the Titans.

“We did a lot of work a year ago leading up to selecting him, the evaluation process, talking to different sources, visiting with him countless numbers of times,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson explains. “For whatever reason, the player that this fall was here in Nashville wasn’t the guy that we spent time with last year.”

Beyond that, Robinson basically had no luck with anything from the 2020 draft class, and he vows that under a similar evaluation process this offseason (pro days are allowed, but no in-person visits to the facility, no pro day film study sessions and no Combine in February), he and his staff must do better this time around.

Cornerback Kristian Fulton, the Titans’ second-round pick in 2020, was limited by a knee injury and played just six games during his rookie season.

Last year, second-round pick Kristian Fulton and third-rounder Darrynton Evans both were injured early and contributed little to a team that went 11-5 and won the AFC South. Fifth-round defensive tackle Larrell Murchison and seventh-round cornerback Chris Jackson also didn’t find consistent roles on game day as the season went on.

Add to that free-agent flops Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney, and it shows how remarkable 2020 was on the field after the offseason moves that did not work out.

“It’s important that this offseason that we learn, that I learn personally from last year, that we try to improve,’’ Robinson says. “I would say that there has been more positive in the roster building than negative around here.

“The last five years, I’m proud of what we’ve done, so far. We’re one of, I think, three teams to have five consecutive winning seasons, and we’ve been to the playoffs three times, won the division this last year, won 11 games to get in the playoffs.

“Not to toot our own horn, but that’s a positive thing and we’ve got to be better. … We all have to be better and it starts with me.”

Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel won’t use COVID as an excuse as to why last year’s class fell flat. But former Titans director of scouting Blake Beddingfield, who left the organization in 2017, says that all the unusual circumstances of 2020 conspired to hurt evaluators and rookies league-wide.

“It was tough from the standpoint that the older scouts, the veteran scouts that had a routine,” Beddingfield explains. “They had a routine when they go to schools. Teams that have a lot of talent, they’ll go to see two or three times a year during the fall and that was taken away from them.

“Being able to schedule things the way you normally have was a little bit of a task this year compared to the way it was done in previous years. The younger scouts had an even harder time. They’re just kind of learning their way in this business and not having the ability to go into a school and create a network of people with information was really tough on someone that really didn’t have a lot of experience in the business and didn’t have a lot of network or contacts.

“It made it kind of difficult to do their jobs, especially being kind of new or green to the industry.

“When they picked up the phone and called somebody, those people on the other end of the phone really didn’t know them very well. Not really knowing who’s on the other end, it’s very difficult for coaches on the college level to really trust you.”

Running back Darrynton Evans never had a shot at cracking the starting lineup with 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry on the roster. He did have a receiving touchdown as a backup.

Once picks were made, the normal acclimation process of getting rookies ready for their first training camp was also derailed by the virus. Even the preseason cancellation took a toll, Beddingfield adds.

“Sometimes it takes players at those rookie mini-camps, the mini-camps in May and June, to kind of get their feet on the ground. Usually in training camp, those players start to emerge a little bit later in camp and in preseason, and that was also taken away. That really hurts some of their development,” he adds.

Did those things have an impact on the injuries suffered by Fulton and Evans last year? And did they stunt the growth of late-round picks like Murchison and Jackson to be able to improve and contribute? Whether directly related or not, it certainly didn’t help.

In a sense, the Titans and other teams almost have two rookie classes coming in this summer, the players they draft this weekend and the 2020 class that will certainly benefit if there is a more normal offseason of work.

“I thought that Kristian, he played for us early,’’ Robinson points out. “I think he had an interception in the Jacksonville game early on for us, got dinged and then came back and really started to get back to form late in the season.

“Darrynton Evans, another one that had some bumps and bruises early on, but then he provided some value for us late in the season. Larrell Murchison, he did some good things and he continues to improve.”

The Titans did get lucky on a few undrafted rookies last year as receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, defensive tackle Teair Tart and offensive lineman Aaron Brewer actually outperformed most of the 2020 draft choices.

So what are the Titans doing in preparation for this draft under not-so-ideal circumstances again that they hope will make their 2021 draft fare better than what happened last year?

At the very least, they must avoid complete washouts like Wilson and quarterback Cole McDonald, a seventh-round selection who was released after one week in training camp.

“We’re spending time with those guys virtually, we get five of those Zoom calls – it’s unlimited phone calls, but the Zoom calls, the face-to-face interactions, you get five, so trying to maximize our time there,” says Robinson, who made sure the Titans were represented at virtually every school’s pro day this offseason by scouts, coaches or some sort of evaluator.

Even that process of attending pro days was tricky because of COVID regulations and guidelines varying from state to state and school to school.

Another wild card, Beddingfield says, is how to be well-informed on players who were in the transfer portal or, worse yet, opted out of the 2020 season.

Robinson's legacy

2016-2019 draft classes, all under GM Jon Robinson's watch:

2016

Rd.PlayerPos.Current status
1 Jack Conklin T All-Pro tackle, Browns
2 Kevin Dodd DE Out of football
2 Austin Johnson NT DT, Giants
2 Derrick Henry RB All-Pro RB, Titans
3 Kevin Byard S Pro Bowl safety, Titans
5 Tajae Sharpe WR Receiver, Chiefs (practice squad)
5 LeShaun Sims CB Cornerback, Bengals
6 Sebastian Tretola OL Out of football
7 Aaron Wallace LB Out of football
7 Kalan Reed CB Out of football

2017

Rd.PlayerPos.Current status
1 Corey Davis WR Signed by Jets as UFA
1 Adoree' Jackson CB Signed by Giants after release
3 Taywan Taylor WR Receiver, Browns
3 Jonnu Smith TE Signed by Patriots as UFA
5 Jayon Brown ILB Starting linebacker, Titans
6 Corey Levin OL Signed with Jets
7 Josh Carraway OLB Out of football
7 Brad Seaton OT Out of football
7 Khalfani Muhammad RB Out of football

2018

Rd.PlayerPos.Current status
1 Rashaan Evans ILB Starting linebacker, Titans
2 Harold Landry OLB Starting linebacker, Titans
5 Dane Cruikshank S Backup safety, Titans
6 Luke Falk QB Out of football

2019

Rd.PlayerPos.Current status
1 Jeffery Simmons DT Starting DT, Titans
2 A.J. Brown WR No. 1 receiver, Titans
3 Nate Davis G Starting right guard, Titans
4 Amani Hooker S Projected starting safety, Titans
5 D'Andre Walker OLB Out of football
6 David Long ILB Backup linebacker, Titans

“You’ve got a lot of kids that transferred, and a lot of kids that opted out,’’ Beddingfield explains. “I would have my scouts spend a lot of time talking to their high school coaches, their counselors, their academic people. Find out where these opt-out players have been over the past 12 months.

“When you talk about some of the high-level players that have opted out this year, where have they been? It’s tough. It’s been probably over a year now since they’ve been in the building at their university. Where have they been and how can you dig that information up?

“This is a different part than they’ve ever had to do before. Where have they been training? Who have they been training with? Who have they been around? Where have they been spending their nights.

“When they’re not in the building, who knows where they are and what they’ve been doing. That’s going to be vital. That’s going to be big-time information.

“People who can find out that information, they’re going to be ahead of the game.”

One way to try and do better this year, Robinson acknowledges, is that the Titans are involving more people in the evaluation process than last year, especially when meeting with the players on the Zoom calls.

“I think that it’s going to be similar to what we did last year. You’re trying to develop a relationship and get to know these players over a Wi-Fi connection, which isn’t the best way to do it, but it’s the hand that we’ve all been dealt,” Robinson notes.

“I think what I have tried, and what we’ve talked about trying to do, is being more inclusive with other members of the organization of the football staff to have maybe more people on the call. They can read body language, they can look at and listen to these prospects, so that we get different opinions on how they’re performing on the questions that we’re asking.”

Robinson says the Titans have had as many as eight or nine people on Zoom calls with the prospect, assessing him and asking questions.

Vrabel says the situation isn’t ideal but the Titans’ staff is working hard to do its due diligence in assessing the players both on the field and their personalities and backgrounds. The biggest detriment, he adds, is not being able to meet the players at their pro days and carve out time to watch film with them as part of the get-to-know process.

“I think that it’s allowed us probably more time than what we’ve had,” he says. “You can’t meet with them at pro days, so that’s probably the biggest change, is that you can still go to pro days, just those meetings that you have with players after pro day in the film room at their colleges is something that’s not happening,” Vrabel says. “We’ve had a lot of interaction with some of these players whether it be Jon and I, our coaching staff or both.

“Our scouting department is working hard, and we’re making sure that we’re having every pro day covered with some people. Just excited to get to know these guys.

“You see what guys are like after the second and third interview, how they are at the first one and maybe the comfort level that you start to have with a certain player and how they may be on a daily basis once they’re on your team.”

Despite last year’s Titan-ic whiffs, it still comes down to doing as much evaluation as the situation will allow, then trusting that the process still works, despite unusual obstacles that exist, when the time comes to select players.

“I think we have to continue to do our due diligence and trust in our process. We’re excited about the guys that we have from that draft coming back, and then hopefully we’ll be able to add to that here this year,” Vrabel says. “Just looking for good players. That’s Jon (Robinson) and I’s challenge with the assistance of the scouting department, the assistance of the coaching staff and everybody here.

“We’re just trying to find players who will come in, have a competitive spirit, love football, be willing to learn and improve, put the team first, and all those types of things that we think are important, and then being talented.”

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