NASHVILLE, Tenn. — I would start this post with “I hate to say ‘I told you so,'” but I would be lying to all of you if I said I was above that sort of thing.
The Tennessee Titans have needed an influx of youth in their pass rush and, for the most part, the prevailing thought was that edge defender was the most pressing need in Thursday’s Day 1 of the NFL Draft. I’ll admit that this was also my line of thinking for much of the offseason. But, as free agency passed and new coach Mike Vrabel’s staff was assembled, my position shifted.
Clearly, inside linebacker made the most sense for Tennessee to address with its first pick in 2018.
General manager Jon Robinson felt the same way. Tennessee, scheduled to pick 25th overall in this year’s order, traded with the Baltimore Ravens to jump up three spots and select linebacker Rashaan Evans from Alabama. The trade sent picks Nos. 25 and 125 to Baltimore in exchange for Nos. 22 and 215.
“We had gotten some info that there (were) some teams trying to get ahead of us, maybe that were behind us,” said Robinson of the decision to climb up to No. 22. “We tried to get ourselves into position, and got ourselves into position for that not to happen.”
Evans was the correct choice for the Titans, but it is as much about the fit as it about the player.
Vrabel and new defensive coordinator Dean Pees are not unique in how much they value the inside linebacker. More often than not, the defensive calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage originate from that position; having one who can handle that responsibility is crucial. Where Tennessee does hold a competitive advantage, though, is that they now have a consensus first-round talent in Evans at a position with no immediate pressure to play and a wealth of surrounding knowledge and experience for him to benefit from.
For Evans, the situation in Nashville is ideal
A man who was not usually the better athlete than his opponent on the field, Vrabel’s focus on playing fundamentally sound, in-control football allowed him to sustain excellence. His passion for teaching the technicalities of the position (and for teaching, in general) allowed him to rise up the coaching ranks and land his first NFL head coaching job. Not to mention the benefit that comes from having Pees on the staff, who has both a championship pedigree and served as Vrabel’s position coach and defensive coordinator during their time together in New England.
Though Evans was not one of prospects the Titans chose to host with one of 30 allotted pre-draft visits, Vrabel drilled Evans on the field at the Crimson Tide’s pro day. From all accounts, it was their time together in Tuscaloosa that sold Robinson and Vrabel on the young man.
“Just to be able to, for him to get a feel for me,” Evans said of drilling with Vrabel. “And not only that, get a feel for the coaches and be in the film room and for them to see the type of guy I am. I think that was the most important. I think that’s what sold them on me.”
Tennessee still needs players that can provide a more consistent pass rush, but a stacked secondary featuring three No. 1 corners and an All-Pro safety makes that necessity less urgent. In Evans, Vrabel and Pees receive a hard-working, versatile linebacker talent from country’s best college program that places a premium on the position. They have the tools at St. Thomas Sports Park to mold Evans into a fixture of Titan defenses for years to come.
While he is intended to replace Avery Williamson, who departed Nashville this offseaon in free agency, Evans benefits further from the presence of veteran starter Wesley Woodyard. He will essentially be grooming his replacement, but Woodyard comports himself with the utmost professionalism at every turn. He understands the NFL career cycle as well as anyone and will help foster Evans’s growth as a player while still competing at a high level.
With Vrabel, Pees and Woodyard as resources, Evans and the Titans could not be in a more promising situation.
“I wanted them to understand that I’m a guy that they can count on,” Evans said of his message to the Tennessee brass. “Regardless of whatever anybody else says about me as far as what I lack, I let them know that whatever it is that they need me to do I can do it, and at a high level.”
I hate to say “I told you so.”