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.

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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.

Some Thoughts on the 2017 Tennessee Titans vs. My Expectations

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

This post is about the version of the Tennessee Titans we saw on the field in the 2017 season versus my pre-season expectations for what we might see. I’d been thinking about this post since a couple weeks to go in the regular season, planning to cover specifically pass game targets and the defensive line rotation, rather than the team more generally. The point of this post was to see just how accurate my predictions were, and where I went wrong.

Now, we’re in a little bit of a different place. My predictions were rooted, more or less explicitly, in the specific history of the coaching staff and with their past usage of the players they had going into 2017 and their past usage of players in general. The Titans have since fired Mike Mularkey and hired Mike Vrabel in his stead. Vrabel will be bringing in his own coordinators. That obviates some of the utility of the specific comparisons, so I’ll add to this post thoughts on the Titans as they were compared to some of my more general projections like those in my preview post or the Titans chapter I wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017.

The Pass Game and Target Usage

There was a general thought among the fantasy football community and at least part of the fanbase that the volume of the Titans pass game would increase significantly from 2016. This was based on Matt Ryan’s third-year breakout, better talent at wide receiver, and general optimism about Marcus Mariota. I generally did not agree with those thoughts, considering Ryan’s volume increase from his second to third season a function of run game ineffectiveness, and expected at most a modest increase in pass game volume.

As it happened, in the regular season, Mariota went from 276 completions to 281 and the Titans as a team went from 307 completions to 306. This happened in kind of a funny way; like the Falcons from 2010 to 2011, the Titans run game fell off from the year before. Unlike in 2016, though, the Titans did not convert the ensuing third-and-medium/long at a high rate, nor did they operate as efficiently in most obvious passing situations like two-minute drill and when trailing. The situation was ripe for the Titans to throw the ball more, but they could not do so as effectively, so overall their volume numbers did not increase.

Looking at specific players, injuries to both starting wide receivers played a key role in how the Titans ended up targeting their receivers in 2017. First-round pick Corey Davis missed five games and was limited in another, so he finished the regular season with just 34 catches on 65 targets. The other starting receiver, Rishard Matthews, missed only two games, but that camouflages an important split in his role. After he came back from injury, he did not play as big a role in the offense. Before getting hurt, he was targeted on 20.6% of Mariota’s passing attempts. After returning to the lineup, in the final six games (including postseason), he was targeted on just 14.6% of Mariota’s passing attempts. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that his hamstring injury had a lingering effect on his play.

The primary beneficiary of both of those injuries was Eric Decker. I was extremely pessimistic on his volume projection after the Titans signed him in June, guessing he might have as few as 20 catches. He finished with 54 total catches (on 83 targets). The more difficult question to answer is how many catches he might have had if neither Davis nor Matthews was injured. As Davis played only situationally in Week 1 against Oakland, I would say we only got three games where the Titans used their receivers like they planned to, Weeks 9-11 against the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers. In those three games, Decker had a target share of 8.8%. Using his overall catch rate to project that over Marcus’s 478 attempts in the regular season*, that comes out to about 28 catches. That’s still not 20, but it’s only an extra catch every other week. Do I really think Decker’s volume basically doubled because of the injuries to Matthews and Davis? I find the idea plausible, but that’s probably at the upper end of the scale. The late season shift to more 3WR sets and things like the persistent difficulty with lining up correctly Taywan Taylor (16 catches v. my projected 20) showed even at New England I presume would have put him in the 30-35 catch range had neither Davis nor Matthews been injured.

*-EXPLANATORY NOTE: When I track receiver usage, I do it in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, so my numbers will be different than other people’s. First, I threw out the Cassel snaps. He targeted RBs and TEs more often than Marcus did, because he can’t throw long. Second, I include all plays, including those negated by penalty. A holding call, illegal shift, or defensive offside does not mean we necessarily should not nor cannot use the information we get from what the Titans did from that play. Thus, 478 attempts for Marcus when P-F-R clearly shows he had 453. For overall numbers, I also include the playoffs, so Marcus had 548 attempts in total. /fin

One of the things that was striking about the Titans pass game at midseason was how running backs almost disappeared. Backs accounted for 16% of pass game targets in 2016, a not-uncommon share for a Mularkey offense. RB target share was down markedly early in the season, as I noted at the time. After Mariota return from injury, though, it was at 14% for the rest of the year and finished at 12.5% overall from Marcus. The tight end position picked up the slack. No, it not all Jonnu Smith. In the 14.5 regular season games with Mariota, he had 13 catches, 1 off from my very modest expectation.

The real surprise at tight end was Delanie Walker. My expectation for him was 65 catches, matching his 2016 total (and in line with his 2014 total of 63). I thought, if anything, the new receivers might actually depress his volume. Instead, it increased. He finished the regular season with 74 catches, and was listed as the intended receiver on 22.8% of Marcus’s targets, up a bit from his use in 2016 (though still not where he was in 2015).

Defensive Line

My attempt to project the 2017 defensive line rotation came in March after the Titans re-signed Karl Klug, and was based around the idea the Titans were pretty much full-up at the position and there was no reason to expect them to draft Jonathan Allen or any other defensive linemen (and they indeed did not select a DL in April). The Titans would later add a defensive lineman, David King, but overall the five players I thought in March would get the work on the DL for the Titans did in fact get the work on the DL for the Titans.

As with receiver, though, a key injury would affect the rotation. DaQuan Jones was injured in the Week 13 game against the Texans, and his absence thereafter clearly affected playing time. But, unlike the Decker-Davis-Matthews issue, that gives us a good sample size for how the Titans probably planned to use their defensive tackles. So, here are how many snaps each DL was in line to play based on their playtime rate through Week 12 versus my March expectation.

Jurrell Casey-770 projected-830 pace
Austin Johnson-250 projected-258 pace
DaQuan Jones-650 projected-600 pace
Karl Klug-400 projected-323 pace
Sylvester Williams-450 projected-293 pace
David King-not projected-86 snaps

A few things stand out here:

1. DL snaps are mostly down across the board. I projected the Titans with almost exactly the same number of defensive line snaps they did in 2016. Even adding in David King, they were on pace to play about 5% fewer. I knew I was probably overprojecting a bit because of the possibility of additions, but part of this was probably also the 3 OLB package with Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, and Erik Walden, not signed until well after my tweet.

2. Jurrell Casey’s snaps were up, not down. The Titans played Casey 71% of the time he was active in 2016. That was a bit on the low end for players who play his position, but I thought they would likely stick around the same number. Nope, they decided to play their best DL about how often many teams played their best DL. That probably accounted for some of the “extra” snaps I tried to give Karl Klug.

3. Silly me, I thought that them giving Sly Williams a big money free agent contract meant they actually liked Sly Williams and he would therefore play a pretty significant role on defense. No dice, at least until Jones’ injury.

4. The Titans didn’t need another major contributor. King was active in just four of 12 games prior to Jones’ injury, and two of those were due to injury (Klug and Williams each missed a game, which I did not account for in my snaps projection). The hypothetical Allen selection truly would have been a zero-sum move with the five defensive linemen the Titans had. Contrast that with wide receiver, where three of the four biggest contributors were added after mid-March, or outside linebacker, where Walden, not signed until July, played a major role.

General Team Thoughts

Yay me: in my preview post here, published just before the Titans kicked off the regular season, I predicted the Titans would go 9-7 and make it to the postseason for the first time since 2008. In the Titans chapter I wrote for Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, I concluded by noting the Titans could win their first playoff game and then have their season ended with a resounding defeat to one of the AFC’s really good teams. All that stuff actually happened.

Overall, though, how the Titans got there presents a significant puzzle, one I don’t have an answer for myself and haven’t seen a good answer for from anybody else. As I noted in FOA17 and endlessly on Twitter, the Titans had a sharply bifurcated passing offensive performance in 2016: Marcus Mariota was fantastic in shotgun and not so good from under center.  In the 2017 regular season, by contrast, he was very good from under center (28.7% DVOA; I write for Football Outsiders perma-disclaimer) and not very good at all from shotgun (-15.3% DVOA). Play-action went from not being much of a strength at all to something that really helped the Titans.

This was at least kind of weird. The Titans did change over their receiving corps, but overall it doesn’t make that much sense that with the same quarterback, offensive design, and most of the same other players on offense that their offensive profile shifted so much. My best explanation for this is the default one, that on a level much smaller than the one on which I normally operate but one with which NFL coaches and coordinators are rightly heavily focused the Titans were easier to play against the pass from shotgun and harder to play the pass from under center, at least when they showed the run action. If I wanted to put this in my over-arching “Mularkey offense is bad” narrative, successful play-action can provide the misdirection that is the sine qua non for plays from those condensed formations that deny the quarterback much clarity in the pre-snap read to work. The lack of success from shotgun and not having great success from under center plays without play-action is a sign that, yes, the Titans were too easy to defend and needed a change at offensive coordinator.

The preceding couple paragraphs are really important for the Titans offense in 2018 and beyond as Mike Vrabel’s search for an offensive coordinator continues. While it’s a subject worth revisiting later, it’s kind of orthogonal to the point I was trying to make here. More on point is the point I tried to make about the questions the Titans offense faced in that preview post.

Ha ha, silly me. In that post, I wrote “So, Delanie Walker’s not that guy. Jonnu Smith’s not that guy. Those are the top two tight ends, and neither of them can fill a fundamental role in how the Titans played in base offensive sets last year. The Titans have a decision to make-they can ask somebody else to do that, who doesn’t present the same threat as a receiver that Smith and Walker do, or they can go without that role.” In fact, the Titans’ answer was “play Jonnu Smith, even if he’s not good at that essential task.” The third tight end, whether Phillip Supernaw or Luke Stocker averaged 16 snaps a game, down a bit from 2016. Six offensive linemen sets were present but rare, about six-seven a game. Smith instead was asked to do largely what Anthony Fasano did, even though he was a significant downgrade as a blocker. The Titans’ run game suffered accordingly. This did not make sense. This never made any sense. This never had the potential to make sense. I’d probably better leave it at that.

Defensively, I was pretty sure Logan Ryan would be the nickel slot player, as he ended up being. My questions revolved around the two outside corners, specifically when Adoree Jackson would take the field as a starter and who would play the other outside corner spot in nickel. With LeShaun Sims out for Week 1 with an injury, Jackson made his first start then and held on to the job all year long. The other outside corner spot ended up being a mix of Sims, Brice McCain, and, late in the season, Tye Smith.

My other big defensive questions were about how the Titans would play, if they would be able to resolve the dilemma around whether they were a rush-5 team and if Kevin Byard in those situations would be the deep safety or a coverage player or rusher or if they could be effective as a rush-4 team. It’s Dick LeBeau, so we still saw plenty of 5-man rushes. Ultimately, I don’t think the Titans ever came any closer to solving this dilemma in a satisfactory way than I expected them to, to their detriment as a defense. By DVOA, they were virtually unchanged, going from 18.8% pass defense DVOA in 2016 to 19.0% in 2017. (To judge defensive quality, I pay absolutely zero attention to the NFL’s official rankings by yardage; per play efficiency, adjusted for opponent and situation, is so much more insightful.) Compared to my preseason expectations, that’s okay but not great. But if you look at it from the perspective that the Titans paid big money to Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien and spent a first-round pick on Jackson, only to not improve at all, you should be disappointed.

Now, the Titans will have a new coaching staff. Terry Robiskie and Dick LeBeau will not return. The offense will presumably look a lot more like the rest of the NFL does, with more use of three receiver sets (something the Titans did turn to late in the season) and shotgun on early downs. The defense may still look broadly similar at first glance, though many details may change. We’ll find out more about those when Mike Vrabel hires the new coordinators, and we’ll see how they choose to solve or avoid some of those issues I just detailed and ones of their own.

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

So, two posts a year about what I’ve been reading. Sounds about right. I’ll cover what I read in 2017 I didn’t note in my post at the end of the June, then list some of my favorite 2017 reads.

Fiction

Overwhelmingly genre not worth noting more broadly. Unlike every pretty much other Neal Stephenson book, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (co-written with Nicole Galland) never got to the point where I felt the compelling need to read the next page regardless of what else I had to do. I enjoyed The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead more than I expected to, given my typical distaste for the conceits of magical realism, but that didn’t mean I liked it. Most alt-history novels feature at their core too much woo for one reason or another; Gregory Benford’s The Berlin Project is definitely an exception to that. Very deeply grounded in the history of the Manhattan Project and the paths that could reasonably have been taken, it’s a look at how those paths resulting in an earlier bomb could have gone, and how World War II might have unfolded given that. The bomb-making project is the more certain, and better, part of the book.

Football

We keep writing a book, and I keep not mentioning it in a books post here on a timely basis. I wrote the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, and will freely admit I did not expect both teams to make the playoffs (more on the Titans after their season ends).

My friend Nate Dunlevy was kind enough to send me a review copy of the second edition of his book Blue Blood, on the Colts in Indianapolis. I never read the original, so I can’t tell you how the revised and expanded version (covering the Luck years pre-2017) compares, but I enjoyed it (aside from the constant “here’s how I’d write a similar book about the Titans differently” that kept going through my head).

Memoir time: I liked all of Wade Phillips’ Son of Bum, Bruce Arians’ Quarterback Whisperer, and Ralph Cindrich’s NFL Brawler, but none really stuck in my head that deeply. I’d read some of Paul Zimmerman’s Dr. Z when it was online; I wish his third book had been a new version of New Thinking Man’s Guide, or at least for him to explain just how he ended up going from Stanford to Columbia. Alas.

Non-Fiction Non-Football

A lot here, even though my reading output was down over the last six months. So, a bunch of quick hits.

I’m not sure if that I didn’t get more out of Dave Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends or Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles says more about the books or how I consume music, but the plausibility of the latter says I shouldn’t devote more of my limited reading time to reading about music without compelling reason to do so.

I pretty much liked Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion, and Riches, and would give it some more consideration in a different project.

Fox Conner by Steven Rabalais is much more of a conventional biography than the previously-noted Grey Eminence. Recommended to the interested.

One brick off the list: I finished Ron Chernow’s Washington. Probably because George was a better person than Alexander, in some ways a less interesting book than Hamilton (which I read more than a decade ago), though still excellent. George (a) having no natural-born children and (b) dying in 1799 sets up a couple potentially interesting counterfactuals.

Miracle at Dunkirk by Walter Lord was a good experience after watching the movie (which I mostly quite liked). The Brits are the Brits, in all their heartening and exasperating qualities.

My big takeaway from Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden is, at least in the U.S., there may not be any deeply integrated works on the Vietnam War. Everything I’ve read, including this, ends up feeling small and/or deeply limited in some way.

Richard Feynman was a companionable sort in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I can see why people who read this at a younger age quite liked it.

Senior year of college, for one of my classes, I ended up doing a small group presentation on Lee Kwan Yew and Singapore. At the time, I looked for and didn’t see a good fairly casual introduction to Singapore that covered the history and modern city-state. John Curtis Perry’s Singapore: An Unlikely Power would have filled that void, had it existed at the time. Recommended to the interested.

One of my takeaways from Richard McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning was that it was just more evidence we are living in Gurri World. Recommended to the interested, with a fantastic “This is Bill Clinton” anecdote.

Tim Harford’s Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy read a lot like his podcast series, which I’d already listened to, in book form. But I can’t downgrade anything that has a section based on a Randy Picker paper.

My most interesting (to me) thoughts arising from Gordon Wood’s Friends Divided on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were less about Adams and Jefferson themselves or even the relationship between them (though it was nice to see Wood acknowledge early on their later reconciliation was in some ways quite superficial), but about other things. It’s Wood, so you know it’s good and he knows the material, but I may be getting to a point of Founder fatigue barring new angles (and somewhat relatedly, the only part of Chernow’s new Grant biography that really interests me is how he treats his presidency, and as noted infra, I have plenty to read already).

A book like Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus could easily be too twee; my private joke is I don’t like my people too anthropomorphized, so you really better not do it to animals. It ended up a bit but not as unbearably as I feared. Still a good bedtime read, in that I could read 3-30+ pages at a time and never felt compelled to read the next page.

My 2017 Favorites

Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Non-fiction is a hodgepodge; a minor concentration on football, some history (broadly defined), mostly popular rather than academic, but no single driving focus.

Note this is a “favorites” list rather than a “best” list. Like past lists, whether identified as “favorites” or “best,” this is a listing of books I found particularly memorable that met some vaguely defined quality threshold. I don’t want to look back in five or ten years and think “What on earth possessed me to like this terrible book,” but I am absolutely not declaring these are the most technically excellent books I read in 2017.

My most immersive fiction reading experience in 2017 was Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, very much genre (fantasy). Notwithstanding, despite, and because of his many flaws (and the books’ flaws), I greatly enjoy particularly the FitzChivalry Farseer books, whether others do or not. Beyond those, Benford’s Berlin Project was probably my favorite novel I read this year. It wasn’t a great year for peaks in broadly recommendable novels.

Non-fiction shortlist: Dreamland by Sam Quinones, a fascinating and multi-layered look at the opioid crisis, pill mills, and heroin delivery. The Great Escape by Angus Deaton; the chart showing greater life expectancy at age 15 than at birth was maybe my favorite thing I saw in 2017. Though it doesn’t get the top spot on the hypothetical syllabus, Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry gets the nod here. Add Chernow’s Washington to the list, especially if you’re not familiar with the details of his life. A tick down, give spots to Lord and McGregor. Overall, give the top honor to Quinones.

Aside from, of course, FOA2017, my favorite football book of the year was, uh, hmm, what’s the question again? I guess give the nod to Jerry Barca’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew on the 1986 Giants, even though it doesn’t hit the top level of team-season books.

Mark Kurlansky’s Cod was the worst non-fiction book I finished in 2017, with multiple egregious violations of the first and only principle of non-fiction books, that what you write must be correct. In fiction, it was some genre novels that ended up unsatisfying to me on multiple levels but were not actually bad enough I want to single them out here. I gave up on four books and decided now was not the time to read five others, perhaps most notably including Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, a book whose soft futurism I found difficult to get through.

Things to Read

Always too long a list and now even longer. I finished every physical book I ordered from Amazon in 2016, but 2017’s unread list features seven titles. The most notables ones include the latest installment in the Oxford History of the United States, Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands, and two titles in Penguin’s History of Europe, The Pursuit of Power by Richard J. Evans and Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back, while mainstays like Napoleon by Andrew Roberts, The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (I got 250 pages into it before putting it down in September), and War and Peace are still around. Maybe by next update, with the three series books in the order I listed them getting priority. Also, The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson showed up in late December and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet comes out later this month, and those go just as high on the priority list. Now where’s that extra time I need?

As always, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (up to $9.69 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Key Questions for the Fate of the 2017 Titans

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. 

With the start of the regular season soon upon us, now is the time people who write about the NFL from time to time are asked to make predictions about the upcoming season. As of writing this, I have just submitted my info for the 2017 staff predictions article at Football Outsiders. Outcomes, though, are the result of dynamic processes. Any dope can, like me, predict the Seahawks beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, or that the Jets get the first pick in the draft and select a quarterback. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is how they get there-that the Seahawks move Sheldon Richardson to offensive tackle, where he suddenly becomes the reincarnation of Walter Jones, except that he plays both ways, so he’s also the reincarnation of Chuck Bednarik, or that the Jets clinch the #1 pick by having their punter boot the ball out of their end zone for a safety instead of taking a knee to seal a 1-point win (two things I would love to see happen but expect to never occur).

It’s easy to predict the Tennessee Titans to win the AFC South, what with the Houston Texans offense, the Indianapolis Colts being without Andrew Luck for an as-yet-indeterminable amount of time, and the Jacksonville Jaguars continuing whatever it is they’ve been doing. What interests me most, though, is which version of the 2017 Titans we end up seeing on the field on Sundays (and, for the first time in a few years, also Monday night). This is a question not just of where exactly among the range of outcomes the Titans fare, but also exactly which of the possible versions of the 2017 Titans the coaching staff will make it a priority to deploy in games. There are serious questions of fundamental identity for both the offense and the defense for which we do not have good answers. I will address each side of the ball in turn.

Offense
Adding wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor in the first and third rounds of this year’s NFL draft, plus Marcus Mariota’s experience in a spread at Oregon, has led some people to believe that the Titans will look more like a “normal” NFL offense and less like the “Exotic Smashmouth” that in 2016 ranked last in their usage of three or more receivers and last in percentage of passes called when leading in the second half (to pick two stats from the tables in my Titans chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, still available in PDF and dead tree). I am not and have never been one of those people. We may see somewhat more three receiver sets, and slightly fewer runs, but for Mariota’s passing attempts to take a big jump like former Mike Mularkey pupil Matt Ryan’s did in his third season will require at least one of (a) the Titans’ run game or (b) their defense to significantly decline, putting the Titans in more passing situations-third-and-longs and down more than a score and with fewer leads. Could happen, but I doubt it.

The big question for me is how effective the Titans will be in those multiple tight end sets they used 55% of the time on first and second downs in the first 28 minutes of games last year, and specifically how they will respond to the loss of blocking tight end Anthony Fasano. Fasano was a key player for the 2016 Titans, playing 535 snaps even though he was a non-factor in the passing game (17 targets). This preseason, the second tight end with Delanie Walker has been rookie third-round pick Jonnu Smith. Game four of the preseason normally tells us little, but one play said a lot to me, crystallizing the Titans’ dilemma. Smith was lined up as an in-line player on a run to that side. He met Kevin Pierre-Louis at the point of attack, and KPL (a weakside linebacker listed at 230 pounds who failed to find a significant role on defense his first three seasons with Seattle) met Smith and defeated him, forcing running back David Fluellen to bounce. That cannot happen regularly if the Titans are to be successful doing what they did last year, and if asked to be the in-line player, Smith would have to face many players much harder to block than KPL.

So, Delanie Walker’s not that guy. Jonnu Smith’s not that guy. Those are the top two tight ends, and neither of them can fill a fundamental role in how the Titans played in base offensive sets last year. The Titans have a decision to make-they can ask somebody else to do that, who doesn’t present the same threat as a receiver that Smith and Walker do, or they can go without that role. If they decide to play another player, then there are two obvious options. First, they could ask the third tight end, Phillip Supernaw, to do that. He played with Fasano in some 2-TE sets last year and while he wouldn’t be as good as Fasano, he likely would be better than Smith. Second, lots of six offensive linemen, particularly Dennis Kelly. The Week 1 opponent Raiders provided a model of what this could look like. Their fine blocking tight end Lee Smith was injured early last season, and Oakland responded by giving basically all of his snaps to an extra offensive linemen. That’s one thing as an in-season adjustment, though, and another thing to go into the season with that as their primary plan and without an apparent backup. Like Supernaw as the Fasano replacement, this is something I would have expected to see in the preseason if it was going to be common.

The outside answer is “play more three receiver sets.” This is a bad answer. Walker often played in-line in 11 personnel, but he normally goes out for a pass route there. He’s a fine blocker for what he is, but he’s undersized for a tight end, only 6’0″, and cannot control edge players at the point of attack the way Fasano did, and the problems with the other potential solutions I went through remain.

The other potential answer is “play without an in-line tight end.” This is also problematic for a couple reasons. First, you need an eligible receiver on both ends of the line of scrimmage. The X receiver (likely Davis for as many snaps as he can play) is one of them, but the problem is at the other end of the line. Mularkey’s offense uses plenty of presnap motion with the Z receiver, to get the defense flowing one way and to set up blocking angles in the run game. That’s out if he has to stay on the line of scrimmage and cover up the offensive tackle. Second, not having an in-line tight end takes away a gap at the line of scrimmage the defense must account for, which means more defensive players are free to flow to the ball. It’s possible to get 2 off-ball defenders flowing the wrong way and get big gains that way. It’s harder to get 3 defenders flowing the wrong way. Third, those same defenders are still out on the field. Aligning, say, Smith and Walker as wing players and H-backs, may give them better angles against bigger edge players, but they’ll still have to sometimes block bigger edge players. Better matchups for Tennessee, perhaps, but still not great ones. Fourth, part of the run game playbook from last year’s extremely successful offense will have to go. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie spent much of their time revamping the offense this offseason on just this plan, but it would have been a lot easier to get a better blocker so you could keep doing what you already do well and build off that.

Another outside answer is “play more three receiver sets, by which we mean change the offense.” Another potential path for the Titans this offseason would have been to do more on improving the wide receivers and transitioning from their base offense last year, with its condensed formations, multiple tight end looks, and run orientation, to something that looks more like what Mariota played in at Oregon (and where most of the rest of the NFL is, at least to a greater degree). There have been no indications the Titans are actually planning to do this. We saw more of those same condensed formations and multiple tight end looks in the preseason, and all the insider chatter, from May when that sort of chatter started onward, has suggested more of the same.

So what the heck do I think the Titans are going to do? I’m not confident in my answer, which is why I just wrote all the above. What makes the most sense to me, given Fasano’s limited role in the passing game, is plenty of 6OL sets, but we’ll probably see at least a little bit of all of the above.

Defense
The Titans finished last year 27th in pass defense DVOA. They remade their secondary this offseason, with free agent acquisitions Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien starting at corner and safety, Kevin Byard stepping into a bigger role at safety, and LeShaun Sims, who finished fifth among Titans corners in snaps, starting at the other corner spot (though not in Week 1 against Oakland because of injury).

The questions here revolve around how the Titans ended up playing defense much of last season. They ranked first in the NFL in percentage of 5-man rushes in all situations, and had more plays in sub package defense (at least 5 DBs) where they rushed 5 players than any other team in the NFL. Behind those frequent 5-man rushes, the Titans played a lot of cover-1 looks, with a single high safety and man coverage on the eligible receivers. Their cornerbacks, particularly outside corners Perrish Cox and Jason McCourty, could not hold up in coverage. Should we expect better from this year’s group?

Ryan’s the big added name. He’s a fine player, general manager Jon Robinson is very familiar with him, and New England played plenty of man coverage. I have two specific strong concerns about his fit in Nashville, though. First, what the Titans were to 5-man rushes, New England was to 3-man rushes. Combined with man coverage, this given Bill Belichick and company the ability to double potentially multiple players on the opposing defense. Depending on the matchup, his teammates could give Ryan much more help in Foxborough than he will receive with the Titans unless they completely change how they play defense. Second, in the highest and best version we saw of New England’s defense last year, in sub packages, Ryan played slot, not on the outside. The Titans return last year’s slot corner, Brice McCain. McCain led the position group in snaps and was, if only by default, the group’s best player. If Ryan does play slot in sub packages, the Titans will still need two outside corners, and the other options are even more questionable.

McCain is a useful slot corner. We’ve seen him play outside corner before, and the results were sub-optimal. Sims won the other starting job; he had a solid last four games after a rough first outing against Chicago, but going from a couple hundred snaps to key starter is a big jump. Eventually Adoree’ Jackson will be a starter, but it would take a particularly strong performance in Week 1 to keep permanently a job he’ll likely have earned by injury; I’m skeptical of all rookie corners, he’s undersized so NFL receivers will look to body him early (and this happened some at USC last year), and his first look against NFL starters in Preseason Week 3 against Chicago wasn’t impressive. The Titans have suggested they’re even more skeptical of other potential answers.

The other significant question about the sub package defense is who plays the single high position if the Titans continue to play as much Cover-1. The obvious answer is Kevin Byard, who did well there in college. Cyprien is equally obvious as a non-answer for that role if you watched him play in Jacksonville. But Byard was nearly as obvious an answer last year, when he was deployed largely as a cover player, likely due to his athleticism and ability to match up in man coverage, while Da’Norris Searcy played the deep safety role. Searcy is back, so the Titans could do something similar again, but we just don’t know.

One potential answer for these problems is to not rush 5 as often, so the Titans have an extra defender to devote to coverage help, whether in a shift to two-high, as a robber, to double a dangerous opponent, or some mix and matching among those and other possibilities. The problem with that last year is the Titans could not get home with just four players, ranking in the bottom five in the league in pressure rate in those situations.

It’s hard to see Dick LeBeau shifting from a pressure-oriented coordinator to Belichick’s coverage-oriented schemes, so my questions about the defense revolve more around how the defensive question marks play than the offensive questions about scheme and deployment. How well, then, do I expect this to work? The top three pass rushers are all veterans, and I don’t see much reason to expect notable internal improvement there. The best case scenario is probably something like we saw in 2015, where the top three work just well enough that the Titans come out around average in pass defense as long as none of the top three gets hurt. The downside is the Titans defense against the pass is as bad as or worse than it was last year.

Conclusion-Type Thoughts

I don’t really know how the Titans are going to play offense in base personnel. I don’t trust the Titans to play well in pass defense. Fortunately, they’re in the AFC South, where all you have to do to go 9-7 is to stop shooting yourself in the foot without then starting to bang your head into a brick wall. These questions, while I believe they’re significant, are nowhere near as problematic as the obvious potential problems in 2014 and 2015 that caused the Titans to go 5-27 and end up with the second and first overall picks. 9-7 and a playoff berth, ho!

Bonus Fantasy Appendix

Mike Mularkey has spent his entire career as a head coach and offensive coordinator (except when he was running Scott Linehan’s offense in Miami in 2006 or adapting Ken Whisenhunt’s offense as an interim coach in 2015) throwing the ball to no more than three players in the pass game. But I’m a bit more skeptical of Corey Davis because of how much time he’s missed with injury and expect him to be eased into the lineup. If he recovers reasonably quickly, then I’d expect him to end up with 45 or so catches and Eric Decker in the 25-30 catch range. Right now, I’d be staying way the heck away from each player in non-daily fantasy, and would also not touch Jonnu Smith (Mularkey offense TE2 has never hit 20 catches in a season).

DeMarco Murray’s rushing numbers last season were inflated by a very easy schedule of opposing run defenses. This is probably the best reason to expect the Titans to have to throw the ball more, though I expect this to be only a modest effect (remember, they were already a bottom six pass defense last year, and my likely scenario for them is around that mark, not 2015 Saints). Derrick Henry’s fantasy upside remains entirely focused on injury; a more sensible workload management for Murray gives him 8-10 carries a game instead of the 1-4 he got some games last year. But I’m thinking 10-15 more (team) pass attempts, not 50 or more, and improvement at wide receiver should by better efficiency offset any increase created by fewer favorable down-and-distance situations.