Let me first make this perfectly clear before we get started: there is nothing in the coverage of professional football that I detest more than the pseudoscience of Mock Drafts.
As with the actual selecting of college prospects in the NFL Draft, there is no exact method to these exercises and those who put them together do so for little more reason than to accumulate website clicks during the doldrums of the offseason. There is a reason these things are typically released on Wednesday’s, the slowest news day in sports.
No matter how many agents, executives, coaches and scouts that you speak to, this particular stretch between the time that clubs can Franchise of Transition Tag players (Feb. 20) until the conclusion of this year’s NFL Draft (Apr. 28) is known as the League’s “Lying Season” for a reason. Simply put, there is no way to determine who a franchise might select with any kind of true accuracy.
However, for those of us who do not follow college football quite as closely as our SEC brethren, mock drafts do serve the purpose of helping us to familiarize ourselves with the names linked to the local professional football club, the Tennessee Titans. Myself and college football savant Braden Gall of Athlon Sports, ESPNU Radio on SiriusXM and ESPN 102.5 The Game’s Morning Drive will evaluate the players draftniks are linking to Tennessee in the first round at pick No. 25 and how they fit Tennessee’s needs.
This list will be updated as more and more names are attached and personnel moves are made. Here are the names to know, thus far, and the mock drafts in which each is projected:
RASHAAN EVANS: Linebacker, Alabama Crimson Tide (Albert Breer – The MMQB)
Braden Gall: Evans is the next cyborg tackling machine to roll off of the Crimson Linebacker Assembly Line in Tuscaloosa. He’s fast, explosive, rangy, talented and physical – like ever other Alabama linebacker. As a prospect, however, he may grade out behind Reuben Foster, C.J. Mosley, Rolando McClain, DeMeco Ryans, Don’ta Hightower and Courtney Upshaw (which is not even close to an insult). Evans’s upside is largely an unknown but he has very little downside.
Buck Reising: The knock on Tennessee’s linebackers has been their inability to cover. And, according to the all-knowing eye test (I say with great sarcasm) and the Titans sub-par defense against opposing tight ends, this misconception is easy to buy into. The reality is that the eye test and the numbers do not always reflect the interconnectedness of football and players’ responsibilities within their scheme. Avery Williamson was among the best at his position in both coverage and gap integrity against the run and was a three-down player, Jayon Brown flashed a great deal more ability than could be expected from an fifth-round rookie and Wesley Woodyard enjoyed one of the most productive years of his career. All of this revolves a conversation about money, with Williamson now Tennessee’s biggest free-agency decision. Based on my limited dealings with Mike Vrabel and what others who know him better report, the inclination here would be to opt for the more experienced veterans who can more easily process all the information that Vrabel will be relaying to him to communicate to the rest of the defense. Depth at inside backer is a need, but depth picks are not made at No. 25.
Avery Williamson ranked among the top LBs in coverage snaps per reception allowed! pic.twitter.com/01RJ0rD0SS
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 28, 2018
JAMES DANIELS: Center, Iowa (Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly – NFL Network)
Braden Gall: Daniels is undersized but makes up for it with great intangibles and football IQ. His versatility is also a huge plus as he has lots of experience playing both guard and center. He will need to prove his strength against the NFL’s best interior defenders but won’t need much time to be ready to compete for a starting spot on the next level.
Buck Reising: When you glance around the NFL, there is a significant trend that goes fairly unnoticed: the considerable number of prolific interior pass rushers ravaging backfields across professional football. A great many of those players reside in the AFC South. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was named this season’s Defensive Player of the Year and might be the best pass rusher in football and had he not taken home the award, the case could have easily been made for Calaias Campbell of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Considering the number of these 300-pound rage monsters in Tennessee’s division, coupled with more teams seeming to ascribe to new Titans coach Mike Vrabel’s “front multiplicity” philosophy (moving rushers around on the defensive front to bring pressure in a variety of ways), you find yourself with a need for more dynamic athletes across the offensive line. Current starting center Ben Jones graded out as Pro Football Focus’s 12th best player at his position but his on-field performance suffered at times in 2017 because of occasional low snaps that affected the rhythm of the passing game as well as somewhat diminished interior line play to both his right and his left. A center that can play guard at No. 25 overall is a long-term investment and admittedly not a sexy one but the need is such that the team cannot afford to overlook it.
ARDEN KEY: Outside Linebacker, LSU Tigers (R.J. White – CBS Sports)
Braden Gall: The LSU defensive end has elite talent and upside. In fact, he might be the best pass rusher in the entire 2018 draft class at a rangy 6-foot-6 and elastic 240 pounds. However, he struggled to even stay on the LSU roster throughout his career in Baton Rouge for a variety of reasons. Key needs to show that he cares about the game and has the personal discipline to be successful at the highest level.
Buck Reising: The company line that former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, pass rushers Brian Orakpo & Derrick Morgan and defensive lineman Jurrell Casey kept feeding us media vultures early in the 2017 season was to not worry about the low sack numbers because the pressure is there and the sacks will come; turns out that they were right. After accumulating only 13 sacks credited to individual players through the first eight weeks of the season, the Titans pass rush brought down the quarterback 30 more times during the back half of the regular-season schedule for a total of 43 (fifth-best). But, if there was one common theme that best encapsulates Tennessee’s most recent campaign, “slow starts” seemed appropriate. Offense is not the only component of Mike Vrabel’s team that could use additional speed in 2018; the defense needs an infusion of more young, immediate-impact players to mix in with their largely veteran core and, by all accounts, Key has the potential to be a player in that mold. Let the Kevin Dodd Mystery serve as a lesson on trafficking in that kind of foresight: if a highly-touted prospect at a premium position who did not quite live up to their billing (with off-the-field red flags to boot) is available to you this late in the first round, you damn sure better have done your homework and have complete and utter confidence in the support system and developmental strategies that your organization can provide.
LSU’s Arden Key says NFL teams are “blown away” by his explanation for a 2017 absence. Everybody else is still in the dark: https://t.co/NHASsnD2Dc
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) March 3, 2018
LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH: Linebacker, Boise State (Matt Miller – Bleacher Report)
Braden Gall: At 6-foot-4 and nearly 260 pounds, Vander Esch is a massive player and looks great in open space. He has top flight athletic ability and was incredibly productive during his last season at Boise State (141 tackles). However, he only started one season and will need to get much stronger at the point of attack.
Buck Reising: Again, all of this depends greatly on how Jon Robinson maneuvers Avery Williamson’s free agency but the movement skills of a linebacker Vander Esch’s size is enough to tantalize anyone. At Pick No.25, you are looking for an almost-immediate contributor. One finds it difficult to look at the way new defensive play-caller Dean Pees ran his unit in Baltimore and note that Vander Esch has the range to cover the borderline superhumans playing tight ends at the professional level while also leading this draft class with the best run-stop percentage (15.9, per PFF) and think that Vrabel and Pees could not bring the best out of an athlete of this caliber.
RONALD JONES II: Running Back, USC Trojans (Mel Kiper, Jr. – ESPN)
Braden Gall: There is no question that Ronald Jones is a versatile, dynamic play-maker that the Titans lack at the running back position. He is on par, talent-wise, with Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and Royce Freeman. However, he caught fewer passes (32) in his three-year career (40 games) than the “under-used” Alvin Kamara did (40) in his final season at Tennessee. Kamara was a third round pick; this is the 25th overall in the draft. Using that much capital on a running back is a huge risk.
Buck Reising: Two-year starter DeMarco Murray has officially been made a salary cap casualty and should have been unless he was wiling to play for an amount of money less than the $6.5M he was scheduled to make in 2018. The brutality of the running back position and the downhill, physical style that he uses, the scheme former coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie ran, diminished offensive line play and Murray’s age (30) all contributed to the accumulation of several injuries that plagued him throughout the season and caused him to miss the Titans two playoff games this past postseason. However diminished Murray was in 2017, his absence affected Tennessee drastically in two areas: ability to catch passes out of the backfield and pass protection. Given the position and the requirements for the Titans, a running back pick at No. 25 who cannot assuredly provide both is ill-advised.
RONNIE HARRISON: Safety, Alabama (Luke Easterling – USA TODAY)
Braden Gall: The Alabama safety has elite level size for a safety (6-3, 215) and could easily drop into a hybrid role to combat the modern NFL offense if needed. But his size doesn’t limit his open field ability as he is a fluid player in pass coverage and in the open field. He will need to hone his read-and-react skills and play more under control but has all the physical tools to be an every down defender.
Buck Reising: The Titans have their All-Pro safety in Kevin Byard locked in but his running mate Johnathan Cyprien struggled with injury (missed six games with a hamstring issue) in his first season with Tennessee that likely derailed the free agent acquisition’s 2017 more than he would care to admit. At 27, Cyprien should most certainly be given the opportunity to show that he is capable of more but too often did the former Jacksonville Jaguar take poor pursuit angles that allowed for costly missed tackles. If Robinson deems the position to be a great enough need worth addressing this year, a rookie taken at 25th-overall needs to play fundamentally sound and under control in the open field. We have yet to see what a fully-healthy Cyprien can do, I feel, and the remade 2017 Titans secondary exceeded expectations despite his difficulties. Tackling, ball instincts and coverage ability opposite Byard must considerably improve in the 2018 iteration.
HAROLD LANDRY: Edge-Rusher, Boston College Eagles (Mike Tanier – Bleacher Report), (Bucky Brooks, Charles Davis – NFL Network)
Braden Gall: Landry isn’t overly big or refined but has been incredibly productive and has plenty of burst. He posted 26 sacks over the last three seasons, including leading the nation in sacks as a junior (16.5). An ankle injury limited him his senior year or his numbers would be even better. Landry will need to develop his pass rush repertoire as his purely a speed rusher – albeit a very explosive one. He will also need to get stronger against the run at the point of attack. He can play standing up or with his hand in the dirt giving him some scheme versatility.
Buck Reising: The best quality of the Titans defense last season not named Kevin Byard was their ability to snuff out the run. And, based on the analysis of my college football colleagues, Landry’s skill set would be best suited for a diverse scheme designed to bring pressure from different angles (did someone say “front multiplicity?). Going with this position in the first round indicates that the Titans likely looking for a future replacement for either or Orakpo (31) or Morgan (29), who provide both stability and production but are also both unrestricted free agents after 2018. Whomever is being groomed as their successors must be able to consistently set the edge, display burst, flexibility and the ability to hold up in coverage or play standing up. With Erik Walden’s future with the team uncertain and Dodd’s potential still up in the air, the need for an impact player to relieve Orakpo and Morgan is imperative.
Information from SI.Com, ESPN Stats & Info, NFL.Com, Bleacher Report and CBS Sports contributed to this report.