On the 2018 Tennessee Titans

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

Sunday, Week 1, gameday, which mean it’s time for my to prognosticate about what the Tennessee Titans might look like this year. Offense first, defense second, and then some overall thoughts.

Offense
Much of the talk about the Titans goes about Marcus Mariota. To my way of thinking, the definitive piece about him remains Eric Stoner’s piece from the before the draft dubbing him “The Task-Oriented QB.” Players improve in various areas, but they rarely change their playing identity, and my thinking about Marcus’s style hasn’t progressed from there. When he’s comfortable with the play design and what he’s asked to do fits his skills better, he can be greatly successful. To my way of thinking, Matt LaFleur matters for Mariota much more than Mariota does himself. That’s not to say that Mariota’s offseason work on throwing from a better base is not important, just that it’s not the greatest variable to me.

LaFleur’s job is made more challenging by the wide receiver depth chart. The parallel I settled on was to the Titans’ 2011 receiver group, a group that ended up completely insufficient after Kenny Britt’s torn ACL in Week 3 (don’t let your opinion of Britt now affect what he did his first two seasons, which was a lot more than Corey Davis did as a rookie). The Titans are counting on a lot from Davis, Taywan Taylor who looked lost too often as a rookie, Rishard Matthews who missed the entire preseason, Tajae Sharpe who missed all of last year, and, well, Matthews is still the only receiver on the roster who’s had at least 10 catches in multiple seasons in the NFL, so there are an awful lot of question marks here.

What strikes me the most about this is this is what the situation looked like when I wrote about it before free agency began, and Jon Robinson and company didn’t do anything to change the situation. Since then, we’ve figured out that Taywan Taylor is the guy LaFleur sees as the vertical stretch option and an outside player, Matthews missed the preseason, and well, we’re still waiting to see how it goes after the Titans joined the leaguewide trend in making preseason as boring as possible when it comes to watching starters. Depending on the growth in Davis’ and Taylor’s games, it seems like the Titans will be depending a lot on the scheme to put players in positions to be successful as they’re depending a lot on players who won’t win on physical talent. It could work, well enough. But installing an offense normally takes time. I keep going back to Matt Ryan’s comment to Kyle Shanahan in their first year together in Atlanta that they knew things would come together a lot more the next season; it did, resulting in a trip to the Super Bowl, but it did take that time. And Dan Orlovsky, who played for LaFleur in Los Angeles and spent plenty of time in the system, has stressed that it will take time for Marcus to feel perfectly comfortable in the offense.

For that reason, and others, my expectations for the Titans offense are relatively muted. They’ll stop doing some of the stupid things they were doing last year, like running so much on second downs (where they topped the league in normal situations by a considerable margin) and condensing the field with their routes, instead of spreading the field from condensed formations. But the Titans were just a frustrating offense last year because of their extreme in-game inconsistency rather than a bad one overall. The friction and the questions at wide receiver, where there’s no Eric Decker-like veteran backstop if there’s an injury or struggles, make me think another season of offense around average wouldn’t be unexpected for the Titans (and 15th is where they are in the final DVOA projections; I write for Football Outsiders perma-disclaimer).

I haven’t mentioned the run game yet. The Titans had a top ten run game by DVOA last year, and you didn’t notice most of the game because running doesn’t matter that much. My biggest question about the run game is more schematically, whether the Titans will be as much of an outside zone-focused team with everything working off of that as, say, the Gary Kubiak Texans, or whether they’ll be zone-focused but look more to inside zone. My feel from preseason is they won’t be completely outside zone-focused. The risk for that is outside zone at its best is awesome, as the 2016 Falcons showed, and not finding the right blend in a mix can be a bit of a mess, as Steve Sarkisian tries to show (that’s what he’s doing, right?). If they go outside zone heavy, then I have some concerns about Derrick Henry’s vision and decision-making consistency; it can give him the space he craves on the edge, where he can make great use of his powerful stiff-arm, but then we get into the tight end blocking edge-setting questions that were the focus of the offensive half of my season preview last year (though they do at least have Luke Stocker as an option from the start of this season). I trust Dion Lewis a bit more, and he’ll be a nice matchup piece. But it’s about the scheme and pass offense, not how effectively the Titans are able to run the ball. Probably.

Defense
The last year the Titans ranked 21st in defensive DVOA. That was their best ranking since 2011. It’s been since midseason 2010 since the Titans were a top ten defense by DVOA. Brian Orakpo, I believe it was, commented if you just look after the Texans game (the first one, against Deshaun Watson, where they gave up 57 points), the Titans were a good defense. DVOA disagrees, putting them still around average even if you remove the first four games. The Titans should have a good defense. There’s no position that stands out like wide receiver where they’re straddling a thin line between adequate and potentially a disaster. Sure, defensive line depth isn’t great, but they have four players, all acquired by at least semi-significant investments, and that’s the only position that stands out like that. It’s up to Dean Pees and Mike Vrabel to assemble the collection of investments into a really good unit. Fan grumblings about failings in some key situations aside, Pees has coordinated some pretty good defenses. Vrabel’s been around good defenses, even if his Texans unit last year wasn’t one of them.

There are a ton of micro-questions all over the roster. Who’s going to play with Casey in sub package situations, and will they provide enough pass rush now that the Titans don’t have a Karl Klug-like player? Will at least two of Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, and Harold Landry be healthy for every game? When will Rashaan Evans take the field, and can Will Compton or whoever takes his snaps in base personnel (I expect Jayon Brown to play sub) do enough? How will the Titans match up to the top receivers they face? Which two corners play in base, and will it be the same two every week? What kind of jump can Adoree Jackson make in year two from a player who didn’t allow many yards per play in coverage but didn’t do nearly as well by success rate? How will Pees and Vrabel address the “coverage vs. pressure” problem Dick LeBeau never managed to come close to solving last year? Should we just assume the Titans will give up 28+ points when they face a really good offense? Will there be any dime defense, like Pees and Vrabel have both been associated with in the past, or will the Titans continue to play nickel after keeping so many linebackers (both inside and outside)? Will Kamalei Correa play inside, where he did for Pees in Baltimore last year, outside, or both?

I don’t feel like I have great answers to any of those questions, or that answering them individually will give me the answer to the big question about the year’s Titans defense. Instead, it’ll be the answers to all those and other questions that answer the big question. Maybe if I’d watched enough of Pees to have as good a handle on his defense as I do on Kubiak-Shanahan (still not great, mind you, but enough to feel like I understand a little bit), I’d have a better feel for which questions are more important and which are more minor, but I haven’t and thus my uncertainty.

Overall
Maybe it’s because I just watched the NFL Network specials on last year’s Eagles, but Mike Vrabel in his first year as head coach will probably make some mistakes he won’t make in his second season. I’d feel better about his ability to make fewer mistakes if he’d spent more time in positions of increasing authority instead of four years in college, three years as an NFL position coach, and one year as an NFL coordinator. One thing I thought about him before training camp was “he’ll need 60-hour days to accomplish everything he wants to get done,” and John McClain noted in an article for Paul Kuharsky’s site that how to manage your time is often the hardest thing for first-year head coaches to learn by experience.

Whatever else Mike Mularkey did, he kept the Titans healthy. They were one of the ten healthiest teams in the league on both offense and defense in both 2016 and 2017, with three of those four units ranking in the top four. Especially at thinner positions, health is a huge benefit that isn’t evenly distributed.  It’s hard to evaluate from the outside, but anecdotally, coaches seem to matter a lot. The volume of training camp injuries is an area of at least slight concern with a new head coach, and it’s definitely something I’ll be keeping an eye on during the season. We saw with the offensive line at the end of 2012 what a rash of injuries can mean to a particular unit, with potentially dire consequences for a team. Grumbling about hamstrings aside, that hasn’t been an issue with the Titans the past two seasons.

Another thought: the Titans were a better team in 2016 then they were in 2017. Both years, they went 9-7 in the regular season. 2017’s unit made the playoffs and won a playoff game. The link between team quality, record, and postseason appearance and performance once they get there is not even and absolute. If the Titans are as good as they were last year, they probably won’t win as many games as they did last year. But they could be better. Slightly better on offense, anywhere from slightly worse to much better on defense. But on the other hand, Andrew Luck will play this year and Deshaun Watson probably won’t tear his ACL, so the AFC South should be much more competitive. Luck, good or bad, could be the difference between first place and last place. The Titans could be better than I think they’ll be, or worse than I think they’ll be, and have a better record than I think they will, or a worse record than I think they will. Give me 8-8, plus or minus two games, as the Titans’ likeliest 2018 record.

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Thoughts on the Titans’ 53-Man Roster

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

I’ll have some sort of season preview up tomorrow, but wanted to get this post out of the way first.

Last Saturday, the Titans made their required cuts to take the roster from 90 to 53 players. That roster has not been subsequently adjusted, so it seems reasonably safe to assume that’s the 53 players they’ll choose 46 from for tomorrow’s game against the Miami Dolphins. I gave my thoughts on which 53 players those might be at the start of training camp, some of which were on point and others of which were not. I’ll go position by position and think about what kinds of answers the Titans gave us with their roster selections versus the answers I thought they might give us.

QB
On the roster: Blaine Gabbert, Marcus Mariota
Vs. my prediction: Same
Analysis: The question here was simple, whether Luke Falk could show enough that the Titans should carry a third quarterback on the 53. Surprising me not at all, he did not.

RB
On the roster: David Fluellen, Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis
Vs. my prediction: Akrum Wadley OUT
Analysis: With Fluellen more of a match for Henry, I thought the Titans would look to keep a fourth back that’s a better match for Lewis. But neither Wadley nor Dalyn Dawkins showed enough in the preseason (or practices, which matter more not least because there are many more of them) that they had to be on a 53, so the Titans unsurprisingly chose to add Dawkins to the practice squad and go with just the three on the 53.

WR
On the roster: Cameron Batson, Corey Davis, Darius Jennings, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor
Vs. my prediction: Batson IN, Michael Campanaro OUT, Jennings IN, Nick Williams OUT
Analysis: The same top four as I predicted, and the other two jobs went to players based on their versatility and, particularly, special teams value, as I expected but not to the players I expected. Injuries were a factor for both Campanaro (who went to IR) and Williams. Batson was one of the real surprises on the 53, because I thought the Titans would just make do at returner, especially with kick returns likely to be de-emphasized, but you do need one.

TE
On the roster: Anthony Firkser, Jonnu Smith, Luke Stocker, Delanie Walker
Vs. my prediction: Firkser IN, Phillip Supernaw OUT
Analysis: Firkser to me is one some ways the biggest surprise on the 53, or maybe more accurately the biggest puzzle. With Delanie’s new deal locking him up through 2020 and Jonnu also under contract through 2020, the Titans don’t have a need for a flex tight end you’d prefer not to play in-line until 2020 or 2021. Maybe they like his ability to develop into the kind of blocker and all-around tight end Jonnu hasn’t shown the ability to be. Maybe. I’m still figuring this one out.

OL
On the roster: Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Josh Kline, Corey Levin, Taylor Lewan, Kevin Pamphile, Quinton Spain, Aaron Stinnie
Vs. my prediction: Stinnie IN, Cody Wichmann OUT
Analysis: There were only a couple questions here. One was whether Conklin would be close enough to returning to be on the 53 instead of staying on PUP for at least six weeks; as I expected, that was answered in the affirmative. The second was what the Titans would be looking for in a ninth offensive lineman. I had them keeping Wichmann, a more experienced player with the ability to play center, while the team surprisingly opted for UDFA Stinnie. Like Batson, Stinnie was a name that didn’t appear on 53-man roster predictions. But ninth offensive lineman is kind of a luxury spot, and if the Titans like Stinnie as a potential future starter for Quinton Spain, entering the final year of his deal, keeping him makes perfect sense.

DL
On the roster: Jurrell Casey, Matt Dickerson, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, Bennie Logan
Vs. my prediction: Dickerson IN, David King OUT
Analysis: Dickerson flashed some in the preseason, and it was a surprise but not a gargantuan one to see him on the 53. But what was a surprise to me was to see him as the fifth and last defensive lineman. Only keeping five wasn’t a surprise, with a solid top four, but going with a UDFA as the fifth who will be counted on for an important role if there’s any injury at all raised my eyebrows. That goes double after Julius Warmsley had what to all appearances was a strong preseason. I still have my eye on this group for a roster move if the Titans make it through Week 1 healthy at OLB.

OLB/ILB
On the roster: Daren Bates, Jayon Brown, Will Compton, Kamalei Correa, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Sharif Finch, Aaron Wallace, Wesley Woodyard
Vs. my prediction: Compton IN, Correa IN, Nate Palmer OUT, Sharif Finch IN
Analysis: In my prediction, I noted linebacker “feels like a position they could easily go overboard at again this year” like they did in keeping 11 last year. And, contrary to Pees’ and Vrabel’s history, they did go overboard there. Finch likely would have been my tenth name had I kept 10 instead of 9, while my guess is Evans’ prolonged absence after an injury early in camp is what let Compton last. Palmer was IR’d with an injury and Correa acquired via trade after the start of camp.

DB
On the roster: Malcolm Butler, Kevin Byard, Dane Cruikshank, Kenneth Durden, Adoree Jackson, Kendrick Lewis, Logan Ryan, LeShaun Sims, Brynden Trawick, Kenny Vaccaro
Vs. my prediction: Johnathan Cyprien OUT, Durden IN, Kalan Reed OUT, Tye Smith OUT, Vaccaro IN
Analysis: I wasn’t sure which of the top six CBs the Titans wouldn’t keep and left them all on my roster prediction, so of course Reed and Smith got injured to open up a spot that Durden was able to grab. I kept Lewis because I wasn’t sure that Cruikshank or Trawick would be even a short-term replacement if Cyprien or Byard went down. Sure enough, once they lost Cyp, they were fortunate enough to be able to go out and sign Vaccaro. Once the injuries happened and Durden showed out in preseason, I thought this position group clarified itself.

ST
On the roster: Beau Brinkley, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Vs. my prediction: Same
Analysis: As expected, chalk.

Where was I wrong?
1. Injuries. Campanaro, Cyprien, Palmer, Reed, and Tye Smith were all placed on injured reserve, while Nick Williams’ injury issues also likely contributed to his release.
2. Positional mix. I kept an extra running back and defensive back and did not have enough linebackers
3. Roster moves. No chance I was going to predict Correa or Vaccaro, because they weren’t on the roster when I made my (pre-camp) prediction.
4. UDFAs that play on the line of scrimmage. Because I’m not blogging regularly, I didn’t spend a couple hours watching the UDFAs, so players like Firkser, Dickerson, and Stinnie were off or completely under my radar

Tennessee Titans 2018 Roster Prediction as Training Camp Opens

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

For the past decade-plus, around the start of training camp, I have predicted which players the Tennessee Titans would keep when they cut down the roster to 53. I may only be writing a couple posts a year about the Titans, but this is an interesting enough exercise, and one that allows me to comment on enough parts of the team, to keep it up.

The intro, cribbed from past attempts at the task:

Each season, the day the Tennessee Titans players report to training camp, I attempt to predict which players they will keep after the cutdown all the way to 53. Some years this goes kind of okay,  while in other years I end up on quixotic quests and stick on them long after it becomes obvious they are indeed quixotic quests. Most years, I’m happy to get 48 of the 53 right at this stage of the game, as the inevitable injuries, surprises, and attempts to be clever that don’t work out happen.

Last year, I got 46 of the 53 players who would be on the roster Week 1. Subsequent personnel moves explained some of the misses, as two of my misses were players who ended up on injured reserve and not replaced at their position, while two others were replaced by players not on the roster when I made my prediction. But my guessing at positional mix elsewhere was off (11 was a lot of LB/OLB to keep) and I also flubbed my DB analysis. So, here’s a chance to do better.

This task is complicated by a new coaching staff, including new schemes, and new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The head coach has a background on the defensive side of the ball, but was only a coordinator for one year. The defensive coordinator has a slightly different history (and a lot of recent positional mix changes). The offensive coordinator has never run his own offense before. Mike Mularkey and Dick LeBeau had a long history to look back on that aided in making all sorts of predictions about the future. This is more guesswork. Here’s what the offenses that have employed Matt LaFleur the last three seasons have looked like as of Week 1:

QB: 2 (2x), 3
RB: 3
FB: 0, 1 (2x)
WR: 6 (2x), 7
TE: 2, 3, 4
OL: 9 (2x), 10

And here’s the past three years of Dean Pees as defensive coordinator in Baltimore, plus Mike Vrabel’s Houston defense last year:

DL: 5, 7 (2x), 8
LB: 8 (2x), 9 (2x)
DB: 8, 10 (2x), 11

Looking at the Titans’ roster, we can say some things with confidence, like that they’re not going to roster an actual fullback because they don’t have one on the team right now. But beyond that, that’s an awful lot of room for keeping an extra body or two at one spot or another.

QB (2): Blaine Gabbert, Marcus Mariota
Analysis: This one is pretty simple: will the Titans feel the need to find a roster spot for Luke Falk? Jon Robinson’s two previous sixth-round picks have both made the team, but he’s cut his seventh-rounders, so I don’t think cutting Falk is out of the question. My view of Falk in 2015 was that he might be more interesting than the bog-standard no serious NFL prospects Mike Leach quarterback, but 2016 convinced me he was not and I hope 2017 was mostly injured-related, because that was awful. I’m betting on my evaluation of the player, something I try to mostly avoid here, but I’m comfortable doing so.

RB (4): David Fluellen, Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis, Akrum Wadley
Analysis: Two starters and two backups, one for each starter. I can’t only keep three backs given how frequently Lewis has missed time over the course of his career, but Wadley is likely a healthy inactive.

WR (6): Michael Campanaro, Corey Davis, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor, Nick Williams
Analysis: I feel good about Davis, Matthews, and Taylor, as long as Rishard is healthy. Tajae is WR4 almost by default. Campanaro’s ability on special teams, both as a returner and otherwise, makes it easy to keep him up regularly. Given the ridiculous inexperience of the whole receiving corps (Matthews is the only player at the position with multiple seasons of 10+ catches in the NFL), Williams’ scheme experience playing in Atlanta makes him the favorite for the reserve spot. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Titans add a veteran at the position, and if I had a good name for it, I’d suggest one.

TE (4): Jonnu Smith, Luke Stocker, Phillip Supernaw, Delanie Walker
Analysis: Three or four, and is the fourth Supernaw or somebody else, like a Tim Semisch or somebody from another team? Especially given the depth of the receiver group, I still expect to see plenty of 2-TE sets in normal down-and-distance with Stocker as the in-line blocker and Smith/Walker as H-backs.

OL (9): Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Josh Kline, Corey Levin, Taylor Lewan, Kevin Pamphile, Quinton Spain, Cody Wichmann
Analysis: We’ll see what happens to Conklin, and if he’ll start the season on PUP or the 53. I’m taking the optimistic view here, that he’s close enough to being ready they won’t want to put him on PUP and rule him out for 6 weeks at a minimum. But that means they’re keeping at least 8 other OL. In Conklin’s absence, it goes Lewan-[Spain]-Jones-Kline-Kelly, Pamphile at OT3, and I have Wichmann penciled in as interior swing backup over Levin. My guess is that Xavier Su’a-Filo is starting LG or off the team, and I spent enough time watching him in Houston to leave Spain at LG if only for better continuity. I thought about giving them another tackle, either Tyler Marz or John Theus, but decided against it.

DL (5): Jurrell Casey, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, David King, Bennie Logan
Analysis: Five names I feel pretty good about, so it comes down to whether they need more than that and if there’s a player they like enough to make a spot for him. I’d be dart-throwing if I put anybody else on there right now, but it’s something to keep an eye on for training camp reports and preseason games.

OLB/ILB (9): Daren Bates, Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Nate Palmer, Aaron Wallace, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: Grouping inside linebackers and outside linebackers is probably bad practice, especially given they now have separate position coaches, but I’m doing it anyway.

Last year I predicted the Titans would keep 10 OLB/ILB, and they ended up keeping 11. It feels like a position they could easily go overboard at again this year.

The top of the depth chart at both positions seems pretty easy: Morgan and Orakpo at OLB, with Landry backing them up, and Evans and Woodyard at ILB, with Brown also seeing time.

I’m not sure what they’re going to do at ILB. Drafting Evans in the first round seemed like a move to Evans on the field regularly, with Woodyard sitting in sub (like he did in 2016) for Brown, but Evans’ measured transition to the NFL, practicing with backups in OTAs, gives me pause. But Evans was a first-round pick, and they play unless they’re awful and/or behind somebody really good. Given that, Will Compton is in a roster spot competition with Bates and Palmer for primarily a special teams job. Maybe he does win that.

I tried to find room for a fifth OLB, whether Josh Carraway, Sharif Finch, or Gimel President (Vrabel link), but went heavier elsewhere instead.

DB (11): Malcolm Butler, Kevin Byard, Dane Cruikshank, Johnathan Cyprien, Adoree Jackson, Kendrick Lewis, Kalan Reed, Logan Ryan, LeShaun Sims, Tye Smith, Brynden Trawick
Analysis: What a mess. I screwed up this position group last year, and I’m probably going to screw it up again this year.

At cornerback, we have a clear top three of Butler, Jackson, and Ryan. After that, it’s which of Reed, Sims, or Smith they don’t like. I have no idea which, so left all of them on there.

Safety, I feel good about Byard, Cruikshank, Cyprien, and Trawick. Both Pees and Vrabel have been associated with dime defenses in the past, and we saw in multiple episodes of “Igniting the Fire” Trawick lined up in the box or working with the inside linebackers rather than the defensive backs. Cruikshank, who played both safety and corner at Arizona, might also be a good fit as a dime player. Lewis played for Pees in Baltimore, and I don’t trust Cruikshank or Trawick to be ready to step in should Byard or Cyprien get hurt, so I made a roster spot for him.

ST (3): Beau Brinkley, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis: Chalk, chalk, chalk. Like last year, the open questions are at returner, and those affect other positions.

Where will I be wrong?
1. Positional mix, as discussed above.
2. New coaching staff means new schemes and new evaluations of existing players. This is an issue all over the roster.
3. Special teams. I may not have the right number of R2/R3 vs. R4/R5.
4. They’ll inevitably make a roster move or four, like the ones they made last year, and throw off the mix, and I’m not going to predict players not on the 90-man roster when I make my prediction to make the team, no matter how much credit I might have gotten had I put David Bass (then of the Bears) on my 2015 roster prediction.
5. I haven’t seen any of these players play since January, and many of the candidates I’ve seen play rarely or not at all since last preseason, so I may have missed significant improvement on the practice field.
6. Injuries. One year I had eight players on my pre-camp prediction not make the team. Seven of them were placed on injured reserve between the start of training camp and Week 1.
7. There are a number of position groups, particularly wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive back, where I have relatively indistinct views of the difference between and among players at the edge of the roster. I may have misevaluated a player or the Titans may be looking for something slightly different that makes them favor a player I don’t have on the roster over one I predict to make the team.
8. I’m a guy who sits on his couch in Illinois and makes stuff up. People who talk to people who work inside St. Thomas Sports Park may know important things I do not. I also do not think like Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel but they’re the ones in charge of this project, so I try to think like I think they might think, and without that “talking to people” check, so I end up going on quixotic crusades no matter how much I try not to. Thus, getting 48 of 53 right is a performance I would be very happy with given all the other stuff.

On my roster prediction, not on the Tennesseean‘s (only recent one I found quickly): S Kendrick Lewis, LB Nate Palmer, CB Kalan Reed, RB Akrum Wadley, WR Nick Williams, OL Cody Wichmann
On the Tennesseean‘s, not on mine: LB Will Compton, QB Luke Falk, WR Darius Jennings, OLB Gimel President, OL Xavier Su’a-Filo, DL Julius Warmsley

Tennessee Titans 2018 Draft Preview by Position

Another of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. Book notes post coming when my reading merits one.

One of the staples of my pre-draft coverage for years has been a draft preview by position, including a breakdown of what the Titans have at each position, what they might be looking for, and a probability the Titans draft a player at that position. Because I’m only doing one pre-draft post per year, I will also note the players the Titans have reportedly have had either a private workout or a visit with (via Titans Report compilation).

Every player the Titans drafted in 2017 they either worked out privately or had in to St. Thomas Sports Park on a pre-draft visit, and the same was true of almost every player they selected in 2016 as well. It’s clear that general manager Jon Robinson places a lot of value on that pre-draft contact, and it is worth taking seriously. Of course, we haven’t known about all the visits or workouts of players the Titans would draft before they actually selected that player, so the listing of linked players in this post does not include the entire universe of players the Titans could draft. Still, it has been a useful guide in the past to players and positions the Titans might target.

Mandatory mention for this post: the Titans currently hold 6 picks in the 2018 NFL draft (their own picks in the first six rounds). To make my probabilities as realistic as possible, I want the sum of the draft probabilities to add up to a number reasonably close to the number of picks the Titans have when I write the post. Last year, that was 7.0 for 8 actual picks. This year, I chose 5.5. I know, 5.5 is still short of 6, but it puts me in the ballpark. If my probabilities for a position look off to you, it may be a function of trying to work within that limited cap. If you think I am underrating the likelihood the Titans draft, say, an inside linebacker, then I must by definition be overrating the likelihood the Titans draft some other position(s). Mentally adjust as you see fit, but your adjustment should be net zero.

If things go like they have in the past, the Titans will hit all but one of the positions I think they have them rated as pretty likely to draft while hitting one of the position I think it less likely they will draft.

I should note that, as much as I can, this post attempts to describe what the Titans might think based on how I think the Titans might think. Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel will be setting the direction and making the decisions for the team, so I try to think how they would think. What I would do if I ran the Titans is (a) in some cases quite different and (b) completely irrelevant in terms of predicting what the Titans will do. This task is made more complicated this year given that Vrabel is a new hire, and key questions about both the offense and defense I noted in early March remain unanswered. I will hit on some of particular note in my brief position breakdowns. So, yeah, more guessing this year than I really feel comfortable with, but them’s the breaks. On with the show.

Quarterback
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Marcus Mariota is the starter. Blaine Gabbert is the backup. Simple question: do the Titans want to carry a third quarterback? With Mariota’s price tag increasing significantly next year, even a modest cap hit for a backup quarterback like Gabbert’s $2M figure may be more than they want to spend. Better to add that player this year and develop him so he can be ready in his second season to play acceptably should he be called upon to do so. But it certainly shouldn’t be a priority.
Draft probability: 20%
Linked players: Kyle Allen, Mason Rudolph, Nick Stevens (both), Mike White

Running Back
Need at position: Moderate
Analysis: Pretty much the same as last year, more or less. The Titans have two backs they might like who, if healthy, seem likely to eat up all or almost all of the work. Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry even complement each other better than Henry and DeMarco Murray did. But add a dollop of uncertainty, because we don’t know how much new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur likes Henry, and a level of risk, because Henry and Murray were pretty good substitutes in a way Henry and Lewis are not. For this reason, I think the Titans could easily look to add a pass game back who is a competent runner, most likely in the fourth round or later.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Nyheim Hines, Ito Smith (both), Akrum Wadley

Wide Receiver
Need at position: Moderate-high to high
Analysis: We as yet have no real clarity about what the Titans actually think about receivers, let alone their receivers. I’m still not sure what roles they might want to fill, or which roles existing players fit into. But we do know they only have five receivers with any sort of pedigree, both the Falcons and Rams when LaFleur was there carried at least six receivers, they lost Eric Decker from last year’s group and only veteran addition Michael Campanaro is more an Eric Weems replacement/upgrade than a player who would seem to have a shot at playing close to Decker’s 846 snaps, and they’ve worked out a few receivers. I just don’t know what kind of receiver they want, and specifically how important speed is to them; do they want their Taylor Gabriel or not? I can’t see it happening in the first round, but a possibility at any point thereafter.
Draft probability: 90%
Linked players: Braxton Berrios, Keke Coutee, Steven Dunbar, Michael Gallup, Richie James, Andre Levrone, D.J. Moore, Dante Pettis

Tight End
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Base 2TE or base 3WR? Either way, the Titans have two receiving types in Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith and two blocky types in Luke Stocker and Phillip Supernaw. There’s no reason to carry more than 4, and 4 isn’t a lock. Maybe they look to upgrade on Supernaw or add a young player with Walker’s contract up after 2018 and Stocker also a veteran. Maybe, and even then only if the right player is there at the right spot in the draft.
Draft probability: 20%
Linked players: Ian Thomas, Deon Yelder

Offensive Tackle
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Set at starter with two young players in Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. Set at backup with Dennis Kelly. With Conklin’s ACL recovery likely lasting into the season, they needed another lineman, so they signed Kevin Pamphile, who has tackle experience. If they need anything else, it’s another player who could play Week 1, if that’s not Pamphile or last year’s practice squadder Tyler Marz. As I noted last year, I like drafting developmental tackles, but with only one pick in the sixth and seventh rounds right now, it’s not likely.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Tyrell Crosby

Offensive Guard/Center
Need at position: Low to moderate-low?
Analysis: The need here may be as low as the need at tackle, as the Titans have as yet shown no signs of being ready to move on from Ben Jones, Jones has both zone and power scheme experience, they re-signed Josh Kline to a legitimate deal this offseason, Corey Levin may be ready to step into Brian Schwenke’s vacated role as the gameday swing backup, and Xavier Su’a-Filo (and Pamphile) give them an option at left guard other than Quinton Spain. But we don’t know if they think Levin is ready for the swing backup role, they may be ready to move on from Ben Jones soon, and those may be names rather than an answer at left guard, so in a solid draft for the position adding an interior lineman makes a lot of sense. The more I think about it, though, the more I think the Titans are likely to think they’re in pretty good shape at the position and the more I keep moving down the draft probability.
Draft probability: 30%
Linked players: Austin Corbett, Sean Welsh

Defensive Line
Need at position: Low to moderate
Analysis: The same question remains from my post before free agency about questions facing the Titans: do they want to upgrade their pass rush? Since then, they’ve re-signed DaQuan Jones, swapped Sylvester Williams for Bennie Logan, and released Karl Klug, their other primarily pass rush contributor in 2017 beyond Jurrell Casey. Was the pursuit of Ndamukong Suh a sign they really wanted more from the line, or more about adding a game-changer to a defense that doesn’t have enough of them? Defensive coordinator Dean Pees had more of a specialist pass rusher in Baltimore; Houston’s defense when Vrabel was position coach or coordinator did not. But the release of Karl Klug might be them saying they don’t need that player, that they have a solid top four of Jones, Logan, Casey, and Austin Johnson, and David King and Antwaun Woods, say, could be fine fifth players in the rotation who play a combined 400 snaps a year. Most likely, the probability I gave is either too high or too low, but I don’t know which. If they’re interested, most likely day three unless there’s a player of exceptional value.
Draft probability: 41%
Linked players: Abdullah Anderson (both), Andrew Brown, John Franklin-Myers, Julian Taylor (both)

Outside Linebacker
Need at position: High
Analysis: I don’t want to overcomplicate this one. It’s not as bad as wide receiver last year or offensive tackle in 2016, but the Titans need an outside linebacker who can play a significant role in 2018 and likely step into a larger one in 2019. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are both free agents after 2018 and are on the wrong side of the age curve. Erik Walden played 580 snaps in the regular season and was not re-signed, nor have they added any players at the position. Aaron Wallace is coming off a missed season and Kevin Dodd has done almost nothing in two seasons, so the Titans cannot trust either or both of them to fill Walden’s shoes. Given this edge rusher class, this pretty much has to be done in the first round.
Draft probability: 99%
Linked players: Dorrance Armstrong, Ade Aruna, Sam Hubbard, Arden Key, Uchenna Nwosu, Josh Sweat (both)

Inside Linebacker
Need at position: Moderate?
Analysis: I’ve been a bit all over the board in terms of what the Titans are likely to think they need here. One perspective would be that Wesley Woodyard is coming off a strong season, Jayon Brown should be better in his second season as a nickel linebacker, and Will Compton fills the void on base downs created by Avery Williamson’s (expected) departure in free agency. Daren Bates and Nate Palmer are around for special teams, and that’s that. The other part of me watches the New England game, remembers the Titans were the worst team in the league covering RBs per Football Outsiders (I write for FO perma-disclaimer), Woodyard is on the wrong side of the age curve and didn’t play in sub packages in 2016, and the Titans’ need for a legitimate three-down linebacker is still just as urgent as I thought it would be last year. Like offensive guard/center, the more I think about it, the more I want to keep lowering the draft probability. Like defensive line, though, this probability is either too high or too low.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Matt Adams, Oren Burks, Malik Jefferson, Dorian O’Daniel, Chris Worley

Cornerback
Need at position:  Low?
Analysis: The Titans have three significant investments at cornerback between the first-round pick they spent on Adoree Jackson last year, the big free-agent contract they gave to Logan Ryan last year, and the big free-agency contract they gave to Malcolm Butler this year. They’ve also said complimentary things about depth corners Kalan Reed, LeShaun Sims, and Tye Smith. Why, then, have the Titans had Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, players they would almost certainly have to draft in the first round, in for top 30 visits? I cannot answer this to my satisfaction, and I haven’t seen a satisfactory answer to the question from someone else, either. I still don’t think it happens, but I can’t rule it out, apparently at any point in the draft.
Draft probability: 30%
Linked players: Jaire Alexander, Rashard Fant, Rashaan Gaulden (alt: SAF), Josh Jackson (alt: SAF????), D.J. Reed (both)

Safety
Need at position: High
Analysis: This isn’t quite as simple as outside linebacker, but the base situation is pretty similar: the Titans lost (in this case, released) the third player at the position, who was called upon for a significant role in 2017, and have not yet replaced him. The Titans are in somewhat better shape here long-term than they are at OLB, plus a third player doesn’t have nearly the same guaranteed role, so this isn’t as much of a priority as outside linebacker. Also, don’t let your (also my) opinion of Johnathan Cyprien affect your judgment of need here too much. Still, my favorite for the Titans’ pick in the second round after an OLB in the first.
Draft probability: 90%
Linked players: Jessie Bates, Sean Chandler, Dane Cruikshank, Ronnie Harrison, Justin Reid, Armani Watts

Some Macro-Level Thoughts

The best summary I gave of the Titans’ 2016 draft before the draft was inadvertent, in a single tweet listing their top needs for 2016 as I saw them. The Titans then drafted in pretty much that order. Last year’s version of this post suggested a 2017 needs-based analysis said (1) the Titans were taking a receiver in the first round as their top priority, (2) the other first-round pick would be a corner, and (3) tight end was a big need but not as high a priority, so they would not take a TE in the first round. The Titans then drafted that way. Here’s what thinking about 2018 needs tells me about what the Titans are likely to do this year:

1. The Titans’ top need for 2018 is an outside linebacker. The limited depth of the class at the position means their first pick pretty much has to go here, because like WR at #5 last year, they can’t trust that a player they like will be there with their next pick.
2. Safety and wide receiver, likely but not absolutely in that order, stand out as the other two positions where the Titans need more to be able to line up and play Week 1. That makes them heavy favorites for the second and third round selections.
3. Picks at other positions, especially premium ones, are likely to be direct comments on other players on the roster. I don’t know which players those are right now, but I bet they exist, and we’ll probably be able to identify them after any such pick is made.

Questions about the Titans I Can’t Answer to My Satisfaction

I’m getting the itch to write about the Titans, but (a) I’m not going to go back to writing regularly about the team, so there’s only so much I can say in the kind of thing I want to write, and (b) I’m finding it hard to write something I find satisfying. I’d love to write something like the wide receivers/tight ends analysis I wrote last February, but I can’t. To write that post, I relied on Mike Mularkey’s past record of over a decade running an NFL offense to identify roles and specifically running the Titans the year before to think about roles and which players might fit in those roles in the next season.

This offseason, though, things are different. Mike Vrabel is in his first year as a head coach, not just with the Titans but overall. He was only a defensive coordinator for one season, and that team still employed their previous, pretty successful coordinator. Dean Pees has a history as a defensive coordinator, but we cannot be sure just how much the defense will be a Dean Pees defense and a just how much a Mike Vrabel defense, so Pees’ history is not nearly as good a guide to what the Titans are likely to look like the next season as Mularkey’s history was. Matt LaFleur is in his second year as an offensive coordinator, and 2018 will be the first season he is in charge of designing and installing his own offense. We can look at his background for hints, but some of those will be contradictory.

With that in mind, here are some of the questions about the Titans offense I can’t answer to my satisfaction:

1. On offense, on base downs, will they look to line up more in 3-WR sets like the 2017 Rams or more 2-TE sets like Kyle Shanahan, likely LaFleur’s primary mentor, prefers? Mularkey was very heavily toward the 2-TE end of the scale, so my assumption is the Titans will play more 3-WR sets than they did last year, but just how much more?

2. What do they think of Derrick Henry, and specifically his pass game work? My assumption is the Titans will cut DeMarco Murray and add a back, but just how big a role will that back be expected to play? Will he play just on pass downs, or will they look to use him more in the base offense? General manager Jon Robinson has praised Henry’s pass game work from right after they drafted him to his recent combine press conference, but what I’ve seen on the field hasn’t made me comfortable. We should get an answer by the investment they make this offseason; if they win a bidding war for Jerick McKinnon, that could be one answer, while spending their fourth-round pick on a back like Mark Walton, Phillip Lindsay, or Akrum Wadley (to name three guys who might be there, or not) would be another.

3. Related to #1, what do they want from their tight ends, and do the guys on the roster provide that? If they look to be more of a 2-TE base offense, then Luke Stocker is playing a lot of snaps, they’re adding a blocking tight end (like perhaps Levine Toilolo, recently released by the Falcons), or both. If they’re planning to play mostly 3-WR sets, tight end becomes less of a need.

4. Also related to #1, what does a slot receiver look like? Sean McVay in Washington had Jamison Crowder, roughly speaking a short of shifty slot type. The 2016 Falcons, where LaFleur made the Super Bowl, had Taylor Gabriel, also short and undersized. McVay’s 2017 Rams had Cooper Kupp, a bigger player. Which will the Titans prefer? My guess is if they plan to be more of a 3-WR team, they’ll look for a bigger slot player.

5. Related to #1 and #4, what are the roles the Titans expect from their receivers? This was easy to pinpoint with Mularkey, which made it easy to identify potential inflection points. But the macro-level questions about the offense leave this completely wide open. I can try to roughly trait-map the Titans receivers to 2017 Rams receivers (Davis-Watkins, Matthews-Woods, Decker-Kupp, Taywan-Austin, etc), but I don’t even know if that’s at all a useful exercise. I expect Corey Davis to play a lot of snaps and get targeted a reasonable amount, and every other WR is up on the air to one degree or another.

6. Will the Titans worship at the Church of the Outside Zone? The base play for the Shanahan offense (also run by Gary Kubiak) is the outside zone run. Offensive linemen will rep it repeatedly, and everything in the offense builds off that play. When you can run it well, and complement it with things that work around it, things can be great as the 2016 Falcons showed. But Steve Sarkisian showed in Atlanta it’s not a play you dabble with. You either commit to it, work it as hard as possible, and build everything off it, or it should be a change-up to another thing.

7. Related to #6, just how interested are the Titans in remaking the interior of the offensive line? If they go heavy outside zone, Ben Jones’ Houston experience should guarantee his spot, Josh Kline probably becomes likelier to stay, and Quinton Spain probably isn’t ideal, but as an RFA, he’s cheap. If they look to run more inside zone or more of a diverse run game, Spain is probably a better fit, they’re probably looking to go away from Kline, and Jones is vulnerable if the right guy is out there.

Defensively, I don’t think the questions I have are as broad or as deeply interesting. Pees’ and Vrabel’s backgrounds, plus Vrabel’s comments, suggest the Titans will be going from one variety of 3-4 to a different variety of 3-4. There will be coverage questions, and specific personnel evaluations that matter, but this list isn’t as strong.

1. How much of a priority is adding more pass rushers to the defensive line? Per charting data at Football Outsiders (I write for FO perma-disclaimer), no Titans defensive lineman other than Jurrell Casey had more than 9.0 hurries. That includes Karl Klug, who didn’t have many hurries in 2016 either and who is around for passing downs. If they want more pass rush from DL, they should look to add a pass-rushing DL. If not, fine. If they want a pass rusher, they could look to make an investment, potentially even a major one. If they’re content with what they have, then a small move to fill out the rotation is likelier.

2. Like right guard and whether or not to re-sign Kline, the Titans are assuredly going to something to add to their depth at outside linebacker. Re-signing Erik Walden seems like a reasonable fallback plan. But the Titans are probably expecting something from Aaron Wallace and/or Kevin Dodd, and that could impact how much of another investment they look to make in the position. My assumption is they should look to draft an OLB at #25 and keep a fallback plan like Walden in mind if there’s nobody they like there. But that’s what I think the Titans should do, which has little to no bearing on what the Titans actually do.

3. Sub package: nickel or dime? The Titans have some decisions to make at inside linebacker, with Wesley Woodyard maybe better off as a 2-down player like he was in 2016, Jayon Brown largely a sub player last year, and free agency Avery Williamson largely a 2-down player in 2017. There’s not likely a good 3-down answer in free agency, so the Titans will likely be looking at either spending a high draft pick on a player or making do with more snaps from limited players. Or they could package their linebackers a lot and look to play dime.

4. Related to #3, how much more do they want or need at defensive back? The four starters seem fairly set between Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson at corner, plus Kevin Byard and Johnathan Cyprien at safety. But we don’t know how they’ll match the defenders to the new scheme, and the Titans need at least five defensive backs to play regularly, six if they play dime, plus quality depth. Da’Norris Searcy is quality depth, but do they need more at safety? What about corners? Are these positions where they need to make a major investment, or are they largely content with what they have?

Overall, there’s one other question that impinges upon a couple of those questions specifically about Jon Robinson: how quickly is he willing to move on from his own players? When he arrived, he quickly cleared out many players Ruston Webster had acquired who had yet to meet expectations. It’s one thing to clean out somebody else’s garbage, though, and quite another to admit mistakes. To pick one disappointing player, will Kevin Dodd get another year if he’s not going to be a gameday active, simply because he was a second-round pick and you have to give high draft picks three years, as Webster said (and did), or would his roster spot be in jeopardy? J-Rob hasn’t had to confront this issue yet, partly because of that deadwood he inherited, but it could be one this offseason.

Thoughts on Thoughts About Drafting Quarterbacks

Over a decade ago, well before I was on staff there, Football Outsiders published David Lewin’s fascinating research, that the eventual fate of NFL quarterbacks could be predicted with reasonable accuracy knowing simply that (a) they were selected in the first two rounds of the draft, (b) how many games they started in college, and (b) their collegiate completion percentage.

To the extent this relationship existed, it completely broke down probably before Dave’s work was even published. I don’t want to rehash his work or the ideas, but simply note one of the maybe not so obvious implications of his work: fewer quarterbacks should be drafted in the first two rounds. The ones that started many games and completed a high percentage of their passes, go on and keep drafting those. But the Akili Smiths and Jim Druckenmillers of the world who didn’t start many games or complete many passes, don’t take those.

The potential further implication of that research would be that players with many starts and a good completion percentage were good bets. Assuming teams would draft quarterbacks at roughly similar rates, fill the void created by not taking the Smiths and Druckenmillers with those guys. Even at the time Lewin’s work existed, though, those same qualifiers didn’t predict the success of quarterbacks drafted after the first two rounds, thus my addition of point (a) to research results that were largely described as consisting of (b) and (c). This research, then, depended further on NFL teams not realizing the relationship and responding accordingly.

This may seem like a rather abstruse, potentially recondite way of starting off an explanation, but as I think back on over a decade of thinking about the NFL draft, there are essentially two types of heuristics for finding good players, or at least not taking bad ones:
(1) Ones that, like Lewin’s research, inevitably break down over time, whether naturally in response to other changes, by NFL teams becoming aware of it, or both; and
(2) Ones that do not necessarily produce solutions, essentially telling even teams picking high in the draft they don’t have good options.

From that perspective, that “analytics” is considered a dirty word in NFL circles doesn’t seem too surprising. NFL teams have to draft players with the picks they have now, and waiting until process type (2) tells you there’s a player you should pick there isn’t always an option (see, e.g., Sashi Brown’s fate in Cleveland). The answer, then, may be to use flavor du jour (1) to help identify which prospects are higher risk in general and which risk factors you have to use.

Putting this in context of an actual player discussion, any evaluation of Carson Wentz coming out of North Dakota State would have said that there are few enough potential high draft pick QBs coming out of I-AA/FCS there will be an element of irreducible risk to the basic analysis. A team that stuck to type (2) because making a mistake at QB gets you fired would not have drafted Wentz. As a decision-maker, you just had to get past that to select Wentz. Philadelphia did and reaped the rewards, but plenty of other teams have ignored other risk factors, whether analytical or more irreducible, and gotten burned by it.

But the draft is just one of the various methods of building a football team. It has particular characteristics.  Since I’m talking quarterbacks here, the most important one is that all contracts are extremely cost-controlled relative to the free agent price. We haven’t seen any “true” quarterback contracts in an extremely long time; barring something shocking, Kirk Cousins will be the first quarterback this millennium hitting free agency after a couple good seasons as a starter at a reasonable age not coming off a major injury. How much he makes will not be a product of limited cap room, his rookie deal (still important for Matt Stafford, the last QB still directly benefiting from being a high pick under the old CBA), or negotiating in the shadow of the franchise tag, which normally dominate discussion.

But even with those limitations, we know what quarterbacks get paid, and it’s a lot. Just to enter into the game, you’re looking at a minimum of $15 million for a Mike Glennon, while Carson Wentz’s cap hit in 2017, as the #2 overall pick, was just over $6 million. That difference is basically equal to a starting pass rusher, and it becomes a top 10-type pass rusher if you look at the split between even a high pick rookie like Wentz and the good part of the starting quarterback market. If the quarterback you take ends up as even an average starter, you’re much better off picking him in the draft even before you account for the fact that Cousins aside, good starting QBs without red flags don’t hit the market.

It therefore makes sense, especially in the current environment, to draft a quarterback even if the expected hit rate is much higher for a different position. Which, I know, is basically the opposite conclusion any sort of type (2) process like Lewin’s suggests. If you’re thinking this sounds like a great recipe for muddled thinking, you’re not alone; conceptually, “don’t draft bad quarterback prospects early” and “draft a quarterback prospect early if you think there’s a chance he’s good” are both extremely justifiable maxims.

And let’s look at the quarterbacks drafted in first round in the past 10 drafts a holdover head coach:

Year QB Head Coach Fate
2010 Bradford fired after Year 2
2010 Tebow fired in Year 1
2011 Gabbert fired in Year 1
2012 RG3 fired after Year 2
2012 Weeden fired after Year 1
2014 Bortles fired after Year 3
2015 Winston fired after Year 1
2015 Mariota fired in Year 1
2016 Goff fired in Year 1
2016 Lynch left after Year 1
2017 Trubisky fired after Year 1
2017 Mahomes TBD
2017 Watson TBD

We’ll see what happens with Bill O’Brien, who seems to have just won a power struggle, and Andy Reid, but those are pretty dismal results. More coaches were fired in the first season after drafting a quarterback than got to coach him in a second season, and the only one to make it to a third season was Gus Bradley.

There are a few obvious responses to this, like these teams were bad, so it’s no surprise the teams were fired. This suggestion only goes so far; a number of the quarterbacks went to teams that weren’t that bad. The Broncos (Tebow), the Jaguars (Gabbert), and the Rams (Goff), to name three, had natural picks in the middle of the first round and chose their new signal-caller only after making a trade. The dynamic highlighted by an old Bill Walsh quote probably played a bigger role; the owner sees the pick, the GM sees he chose good players, and the team isn’t winning games so it must be the coach’s fault. A new coach (I didn’t track these the same way, but many of them survived much longer than holdover head coaches) doesn’t carry the same baggage in terms of judging team performance before v. after picking the shiny new QB who is supposed to solve all these problems.

That may feel like, and have been, a bit of a digression from what felt like the main point, but I think it goes to stress what I see as the underlying dynamic, that quarterback success requires (1) that there be a team around him, because one position can only do so much in a team game, and (2) organizational clarity is a must. Somebody, including Doug Pederson, had to push for Carson Wentz, to get past the irreducible risk, and then Pederson had to be the one to put him in the best position to succeed. The path of development is rarely absolutely straight and up, even for ultimately successful players (see, e.g., Wentz’s 2016 season, with a passing DVOA of 26.6% through three weeks and -19.3% thereafter), and a united organization may be some of the difference between bumps that are straightened out (Wentz’s 2017) and players plateauing and ultimately failing. In a world of deeply conflicting maxims, without the size needed to create impersonal processes, that’s the way it has to be.

But, please, for us stat guys, stop drafting guys early thinking you can convert erratic general accuracy into specific accuracy without a specific, easy to fix flaw. Know what the risks are, and have a plan to fix or mitigate them. Or, as I like to put it, tell me what a player can’t do and then tell me why I should draft him anyway.

This post was inspired by the post Thoughts About Drafting Quarterbacks by Chris B. Brown at Smart Football. I wrote a brief draft of this post before the 2017 NFL season began, got stuck, and abandoned it for a while. As I wrote the bulk of this post it mostly became an excuse for me to write what I wanted to write about rather than a post serving as commentary or meta-commentary on Chris’s post, which has thoughts on base rates and the value of the Mitchell Trubisky trade that are largely orthogonal to what I wrote above, which may speak more to his point #5 at the end.

A Not-So-Brief Summary of the Goodell Article I’ll (Likely) Never Write

For the past 18+ months, I’ve contemplated writing a really long, in-depth, detailed, comprehensive article about Roger Goodell’s time as NFL commissioner. I have currently written zero actual words for that article and done absolutely none of the research I would do before starting to put fingers to keyboard to figure out just how the article would work. But I still hold on to this idea in my head and keep thinking about it. So, in an attempt to solve that problem, here are the main themes to that article.

The problem with most writing about Roger Goodell is a problem shared by much journalism these days, that it is too focused on the deeply immediate with very little attention to how the deeply immediate came to be. There’s actually an at least semi-sophisticated defense to this sort of hyperfocus, that people in positions of authority are by necessity hyperfocused on the deeply immediate, and do very little to no deep thinking on how the deeply immediate came to be and what might happen next. There is almost never a master plan. What there are, however, are beliefs, heuristics, and traits that cause people to react the ways they do. Short version: this exegesis of Roger Goodell is based on how Goodell has acted, and imputes beliefs based on those actions.

If this were a real article, I’d support a lot of the assertions I’m going to make here. Some of the things I think I think I could convince a skeptical interlocutor are correct, are conceivably correct, are the most logical reading of the evidence, are well supported by the evidence, and/or are at least plausible readings of the evidence. Some of it will be things I think even though I couldn’t necessarily convince anybody else to agree with me. In a long version of this piece, I’d go into these in detail and discuss things like which are which, and why you might reasonably disagree with me. I don’t want this braindump summary to be 8,000 words, though, so I won’t do that here.

A Sort of History of Roger Goodell’s NFL

Roger Goodell became NFL commissioner in 2006, after Paul Tagliabue negotiated the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the NFL Players’ Association. If I had to summarize Goodell’s commissionership in corporate mission speak parlance, it would be to “use the NFL’s intangible value to make the NFL more money.”

One of Goodell’s selling points, beyond his past work for the league, was to quadruple the NFL’s revenue from $6 billion to $25 billion. This is kind of a tricky proposition, because the popularity of the NFL comes from the 21 Sundays it beams games into living rooms across the US (and elsewhere) yet Goodell can only do so much to expand that inventory. Pushing the NFL season from 16 games to 18 games is one way to increase that, by taking the regular season from 17 weeks to 19 or 20. The creation of Thursday Night Football as an institution is another piece of that pie. Expanding the playoffs beyond 12 teams would be another way to do that. Yet, as I wrote about the 18-game season back in 2010, that only gets you so far, and not anywhere close to where Goodell wanted to go.

Another way to increase the size of the revenue would be by making the NFL more of an international league. The London Series, Goodell’s interest in a franchise in the United Kingdom, and the like are all quite reasonable steps in this direction, and I expect them to continue. Again, useful, but this only gets you so far.

Goodell’s solution to this problem was, simply, to make the NFL bigger and more ubiquitous in the US. The NFL draft, once regarded as basically just a huge conference call that nobody might want to televise, has been transmogrified into a gigantic fan-focused event taking over vast public spaces instead of a hotel ballroom or local theater. The growth of the Super Bowl, not just the game itself but the attendant parties and entertainment, has accelerated. There is an NFL awards show. NFL Network was around before Goodell, but has continued to grow as an operation and has shifted from a repository of NFL Films archives to a legitimate network found in many places.

With declining NFL ratings in the news lately, it’s become popular to talk about a backlash against the NFL. This is, in a way, precisely the point. Goodell’s whole goal is to leverage the NFL brand to increase revenue from stuff other than the standard sources of revenue that were around in 2006 and weren’t going to grow in a way that met his expectations. The tricky part of his task is to find the right way to maximize that revenue. His logic is to expand to the inflection point, where the next expansion turns from useful to the NFL’s bottom line to over-leveraging, in a way that hurts his revenue goals. [This is a fascinating subject I don’t know much about and is easy to argue over, so I was going to go into it in detail.]

Goodell’s vision of leveraging the NFL’s brand identity to make more money is extremely important, because it actually explains a lot of what Goodell does. When I was first thinking about writing this particular piece, I wanted to publish in October 2016, on the tenth anniversary of when we got our first real recognition event that Goodell’s NFL was different than Tagliabue’s NFL. That was when Goodell suspended Koren Robinson, a former first-round pick at wide receiver, for multiple DUIs. Tagliabue, an attorney, typically followed the law on player discipline for off-field conduct. When the legal process didn’t punish harshly, he didn’t. Goodell, with a background in public relations and marketing, did not see the same limitations on his power. The easy contrast with the Robinson case is with Leonard Little, who was suspended 8 games after killing a woman while driving drunk (while 0.19, well above the legal limit) and was not further suspended after a DWI conviction several years after that. Goodell’s discipline continued early in his time in office, coming down harshly on Michael Vick and Pacman Jones.

The story, for Goodell, was easy. Robinson, Vick, and Pacman were malefactors, hard to defend, and of a sort that would have drawn much less punishment under Tagliabue. And it fit with his protection of the NFL Shield. Goodell’s vision of leveraging the NFL’s intangible value depended on keeping the public with a positive view of the NFL. That includes the sometimes tricky task of selling a playerbase to a public with different demographics. Like any political figure or head of a large brand whose profitability depends on general attitudes toward the company, Goodell needs to be aware of shifts in public opinion toward his business; a Mark Maske story at the Washington Post several years ago confirmed what I expected, that the NFL makes use of the same sort of polling shops as politicians.

The issue that came up later with Goodell’s punishment strategy is that he really had no punishment process, so that decisions did not have much rhyme or reason. This was made quite apparent in his handling of Bountygate and Deflategate and his cavalier attitude toward factual finding. By nature and training Tagliabue relied on the legal process to find those things. By nature and training, Goodell depends much more on social truths. Not so much what is, but what can be credibly alleged.*

*There’s a natural connection here to a certain public figure famous for his denunciations of things he doesn’t like as fake. Both he and Goodell are creatures and products of the current milieu, which predates and is much larger than either of them. To the extent a partisan political figure is important to Goodell, it is his Senator father and his subsequent vindication for being on the right side of history, such as it was, with his opposition to the Vietnam War against the wishes of his political party. [An issue I could have expanded upon in a long version of this piece.]

The 2010 CBA and All That Jazz

Deflategate is actually a useful jumping off point to the biggest story of definitely Goodell’s first five years as commissioner, the build-up to and ultimate fight over the 2011 CBA. One thing that became clear early in Goodell’s time in office is that the players made a lot more money under the 2006 CBA than they did under the old CBA, and there was a consensus among ownership that that was too much money.

The actual genesis for this piece was an article on what new NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith did in that run-up and how he handled the 2011 CBA negotiations. Ultimately, I wrote a 1500 word introduction before starting to write about De Smith, realized I needed to put the NFL’s side of things into a huge context involving Goodell’s regime more broadly, and then realized the De Smith piece I planned wasn’t that interesting in light of the Goodell piece, of which this is a sort of high level summary.

One of the key goals of the years of 2007 to 2010 for Goodell, then, was to solidify his relationship with the most important owners, and to prepare all owners emotionally and financially for the possibility of a labor stoppage (most likely a lockout) that might cost some of the 2011 season. The most important owners to Goodell were the ones that most closely matched his vision of what the NFL could be and had leveraged their ownership of their teams to make more money. Two in particular were Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots. Then Spygate happened.

Spygate was a huge problem for Roger Goodell, maybe the biggest until the lockout happened in 2011 or even bigger. On the one hand, he knew the CBA negotiations were coming and he could not alienate Robert Kraft. On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore it. Baseball got their first commissioner after and because of the Black Sox scandal. Any sort of threat to the competitive integrity of games is potentially an existential threat to the league as a whole. As a new commissioner, he needed to come down and come down hard, like Pete Rozelle did early in his tenure as commissioner against George Halas when he questioned Rozelle’s fitness and against Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for their links to gamblers (Goodell’s ambition seems to have been to become NFL commissioner; he would know offhand about what Rozelle did). Ultimately, though, any sort of harsh sanction, like suspending Bill Belichick, would have alienated Kraft. Goodell chose to take the hit by underplaying Spygate knowing the 2011 CBA was the bigger goal and he needed Kraft’s complete support for that.

The details of the actual 2011 CBA negotiation and that process were interesting at the time, and would be worth going into in a different forum. For purposes of this piece, we can summarize them fairly briefly. NFL owners remained committed to the lockout. The first inevitable, player compensation, was cut (the adjusted cap figure for 2009 was ~$127.8 million; it wouldn’t reach that total again until 2014). Disciplinary power, necessary to Goodell’s ability to control the brand of the NFL, remained in Goodell’s hands instead of being shifted to an arbitrator who might care more about things like non-social truths and process. Faced with a choice of accept the deal on hand or hurt the compensation of current players in potential exchange for future gains, the NFLPA unsurprisingly caved. Save the Hall of Fame Game, nothing but an offseason of OTAs was lost. The NFL got to keep more of every dollar it earned, useful for the owners as Goodell’s plans to increase revenue went forward.

With the 2011 CBA settled, Goodell could do more to show he was more than just a pawn of the big money owners. Jones and Daniel Snyder, an owner apparently held in much more esteem in league business circles than he is for his operation of the on-field aspects of his franchise, saw their teams capriciously punished for spending too much money in the nominally uncapped 2010 season. Kraft’s day of reckoning was coming, and it finally arrived with Deflategate.^ After minimally punishing one violation of competitive integrity, Goodell had to come down hard for this one. Fortunately, this one was against a player, reinforcing that part of his disciplinary authority. Goodell has to show he’s more than just a tool and compadre of the big money owners; he’s further come down on Jones’ team over the Ezekiel Elliott suspension. So far the only Goodell favorite to have been spared his wrath is the New York Giants; I was surprised the Josh Brown suspension was as light as it was, as it would have been the perfect opportunity to address that issue. Jones and the Giants aside, Goodell’s relationships with owners seem fairly stable, at least from the outside.

^-That Deflategate is all about Spygate is one of those things I always thought was obvious, well before we got the Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham article confirming that that was indeed the case. Van Natta and Wickersham’s reporting on Goodell’s tenure has been an invaluable source, and a full version of this piece would be replete with links to their articles.

Concussions

Head trauma is an extremely serious issue for the future of the NFL. Much of the idea animating this piece for me has been how the NFL under Roger Goodell has been different than the NFL under anybody else might have looked. I have no strong opinions on how Goodell’s NFL has responded to head trauma in a way that has been specific to some aspect of Goodell. Obviously he’s done more than Tagliabue did, but so would anybody else, for multiple reasons. An inability to write about this important subject in any satisfactory way is part of why I didn’t end up writing the whole piece.

Going Forward

Jones and the Giants aside, Goodell’s relationship with owners (his constituents and employers) seems fairly stable, at least from the outside. There are two major issues for the next stage of Goodell’s commissionership, and they’re somewhat intertwined.

First, the next CBA. The current CBA expires after the 2020 season. Goodell reportedly wants to stay in office to see that completed. I don’t have a strong feeling on what the NFL wants to see or doesn’t want to see in the next CBA; if you offered them a 10-year extension of the current CBA, would they take it? My inclination would be to say their answer is ‘Yes,’ but I don’t have much to support that. Players probably want more money, which they might have a chance of getting some of, and maybe some sort of actual discipline process, which I doubt they get as long as the NFL sticks to a Goodell-style conception of what the NFL wants to be.

Second, how long and how big can the revenue streams get until they stop? This is a huge issue, with multiple players. One is the broadcast rights to various games, whether the NFL will face a hit if the current ratings declines continue, and whether it should continue to retain value as the only remaining non-niche cultural product in the United States. This is tied in with the future of media payment plans in general and the extent to which bundled programming becomes “just” a way to watch sports and if we see even more of a bifurcation between “people who watch sports” and “people who don’t get cable.” This is made trickier by the fact that it’s a huge discussion that goes well beyond the NFL and it is, to a large extent, vulnerable to shifting currents beyond its direct control and that it can only indirectly influence. Second, that challenge for Goodell I mentioned earlier, navigating the line between expanding the NFL from outside Sunday afternoons to other projects. The worry is that crossing a fine line could have a cascade effect. The NFL under Goodell could go from $6 to 12 to 18 to 14 billion in revenue, whereas a more conservative commissioner could have taken it from $6 to 8 to 11 to 14 billion in revenue; same destination, but different processes and potentially very different futures for the NFL. A tricky place to navigate from, but that’s life as an entertainment and media company in 2018.

TL;DR

1. Roger Goodell has operated pretty consistently as NFL commissioner.

2. His main idea is to use the NFL’s popularity to make NFL owners more money.

3. His player discipline strategy is all about protecting the NFL’s popularity.

4. Goodell will leverage the NFL’s popularity to expand the NFL until further expansion hurts the brand, so expect him to push boundaries.

5. The players were always getting screwed in the 2011 CBA.

6. Deflategate was all about Spygate.

7. I don’t know where Goodell goes from here, with either the 2021 CBA or how the NFL navigates the changing media landscape.