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Reviewing past Tennessee Titans drafts: 2008

Each April, Football Outsiders reviews the draft that was six years ago, and I follow suit over here with a look at what the Titans did that same draft. The backstory to that is slightly more complicated (the first draft of the first draft review I did was before (a) Football Outsiders existed and (b) before most people had heard of blogging), but that is the way things work now. For an example of how this works, see last year’s review of the 2007 draft. See also the 2008 NFL Draft: Six Years Later column I wrote, which went up Tuesday at Football Outsiders.

The Titans were coming off their first playoff trip in four seasons, albeit one that came with an uninspiring 10-6 record and ended in a desultory playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers. Coming off that kind of moribund offensive performance, and with a team that struggled to score points and won most of their games thanks to outstanding defensive performances, an offensive “skill position” player was a very popular pick for most Titans mock drafts. Quarterback was not likely to happen, considering Vince Young had been drafted a mere two years earlier. But, some people wanted a wide receiver. Others thought a running back was the best way to go. If the Titans did not go offense, they could go best player available. Personally, I was interested in buttressing a defensive line that struggled in the games Albert Haynesworth was not in the lineup, while Andrew thought a defensive end was more important.

The Titans entered the 2008 draft with their six of their seven original selections, having sent their sixth round pick to the Seahawks for Bryce Fisher (who played an eminently forgettable nine games in 2007), plus two extra fourth round picks, one from the Cowboys from the Pacman Jones trade and the other a compensatory selection. During the draft, they made one trade, sending their natural fourth round pick (124th overall) and their fifth round pick (157th) to the Redskins for the 103rd overall pick.

Here are the picks and my analysis.

#1-24 RB Chris Johnson, East Carolina
Previous pick: RB Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois (Steelers)
Next pick: RB Felix Jones, Arkansas (Cowboys)
Previous RB: Mendenhall
Next RB: Jones

For the third consecutive draft, the Tennessee Titans selected a running back in the first or second rounds. After using those second round picks on LenDale White, whom I believed was no better than replacement level in his second season after being sub-replacement level as a rookie in 2006, and Chris Henry, whom nobody other than maybe Floyd Reese ever thought was better than replacement value, I had absolutely no faith in the Titans’ ability to evaluate running backs. I scoffed when Frank Wycheck suggested before the draft CJ would be the pick for the Titans at 24. I was exasperated by this pick at the time. In my snarky post-draft review, I called it “an absolutely moronic pick” and “the football equivalent of doubling down on a hard 14.” And for two years, the man who would be known as CJ2k made me look like an absolute idiot. He was a much more effective between the tackles runner than he was in college and gave the team a much-needed dose of offensive excitement and explosiveness before spending most of the last four seasons looking like the player I expected, albeit with much better durability (and after 2011, a much, much, much higher salary, but that’s a whole separate discussion).

One of the questions I had to confront in writing the Football Outsiders piece was just who was the best running back drafted in 2008. Of the five first-round running backs (Darren McFadden and Jonathan Stewart both went before the Mendenhall-CJ-Felix run), CJ was the best in those key 2008 and 2009 seasons and outperformed what the others did for the Titans. On the other hand, the first three rounds saw a number of productive backs drafted. Both Matt Forte and Ray Rice went in the second round, while Jamaal Charles went in the third round. One thing I wrote at the time that did end up sort of true was CJ was a third down back who couldn’t draft. As it worked out, he wasn’t even much of a third down back even if you take away the blocking. By Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric, he has been the least valuable receiver of any of the ten backs drafted in the first three rounds. Yes, including even Kevin Smith and Steve Slaton.

With this pick, I wanted defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer, who has was out of the league last year and had 39 career tackles. Oops. Andrew wanted DE Philip Merling, who played in 2013 but has only 3.5 sacks for his career. Double oops. Drexel wanted Limas Sweed, who had 7 career receptions. Triple oops. As to what else the Titans could have done, the player who may fit their need best ended up being Jordy Nelson, who went 12 picks later. That would have been a shocking pick, I think, plus I’m not sure Nelson becomes the same player in Tennessee he did in Green Bay. No, CJ ended up being the best pick for the Titans, though their 2011 mistake offset some of that vaule.

#2-54 DL Jason Jones, Eastern Michigan
Previous pick: WR Limas Sweed, Texas (Steelers)
Next pick: RB Ray Rice, Rutgers (Ravens)
Previous DL: #2-52, DE Quentin Groves, Auburn (Jaguars)
Next DL: #3-66, DE Kendall Langford, Hampton (Dolphins)

A pick I approved of, and a player Drexel and I chose in mocks leading up to the draft. Alas, we thought he helped fill the Titans’ defensive end need rather than being the interior penetrator he ended up being. The question I had was whether the Titans took Jones a bit before his time, as I thought they had CJ. He ended up being a solid rotational player and good at what the Titans asked him to do, though he was banged up a bit more than you’d prefer, which seemed to affect his production, plus Jerry Gray tried to turn him into a defensive end in 2011. Without getting into too much commentary on Gray, let’s just say that as an edge rusher, Jones was a good interior penetrator, and thus a player who needed to be used in the right way rather than a more complete player. For a draft as desultory as most of 2008’s was, that’s not a bad second round pick. On the other hand, had they not drafted CJ, there’s Ray Rice sitting right there with the next pick. With 20-20 hindsight, that would’ve been an awful nice pick.

#3-85 TE Craig Stevens, Cal
Previous pick: WR Harry Douglas, Louisville (Falcons)
Next pick: S Tom Zbikowski, Notre Dame (Ravens)
Previous TE: #3-76, Brad Cottam, Tennessee (Chiefs)
Next TE: #3-91, Jermichael Finley, Texas (Packers)

A weird pick, considering the Titans already had Alge Crumpler and Bo Scaife, both of whom were starter types. Stevens was regarded as about the best blocking tight end in the draft, up there with Cottam. As I noted in the FO column, both of them had timed much better than their collegiate receiving production would indicate. In the NFL, both performed as receivers a lot closer to their (lack of) collegiate production than their physical workout numbers. Finley, meanwhile, was the opposite, a player who ran a slow 40 time but a productive college player but who turned into perhaps the draft’s best tight end. Even if they wanted a tight end, Finley would have been a much better pick. Cliff Avril went the pick after Finley, while safeties Thomas Decoud and Tyvon Branch also went in the next fifteen picks.

#4-103 DE William Hayes, Winston-Salem State
Previous pick: DE Jeremy Thompson, Wake Forest (Packers)
Next pick: LB Beau Bell, UNLV (Browns)
Previous DE: Thompson
Next DE: #4-116, Kenny Iwebema, Iowa (Cardinals)

I was not a big fan of this trade or the selection, noting Hayes was the first player selected in the draft not invited to the Combine and questioning the value of this selection, especially considering the trade-up to get him. Once again, the Titans were right and I was wrong. Hayes was, and still is, a solid rotational end and actually ranks fourth in sacks among all players from this draft. Yes, really. As far as fourth round picks go, this is about average. As far as fourth round picks in this draft, it was one of the better ones.

#4-126 WR Lavelle Hawkins, Cal
Previous pick: WR Arman Shields, Richmond (Raiders)
Next pick: TE Jacob Tamme, Kentucky (Colts)
Previous WR: Shields
Next WR: #4-128, Keenan Burton, Kentucky (Rams)

Whee, a replacement-level slot receiver with some return ability. What a great fourth-round pick. On the other hand, Shields and Burton did absolutely squad and hardly anything more (38 catches) in the NFL either. Hawkins was not the most productive receiver later in the draft, but the next receiver with more catches was Josh Morgan 48 picks later. I wanted CB Jack Ikegwuonu, who never did anything of note.

#4-134 LB Stanford Keglar, Purdue
Previous pick: OT David Hale, Weber State (Ravens)
Next pick: OT Josh Sitton, Central Florida (Packers)
Previous LB: #4-123, Bryan Kehl, BYU (Giants)
Next LB: #5-138, Robert James, Arizona St. (Falcons)

Kehl and James were both on NFL rosters in 2013. Each was so notable I had no idea of that fun fact until I started poking around with my column preparation. Keglar made it two years as a special teams player until they cut him. Sitton, who developed into one of the league’s better guards, was the sort of player the Titans drafted once upon a time. Maybe if they don’t take him, they don’t pay Eugene Amano over $5 million a season out of perceived necessity. A man can dream, can’t he? The Chiefs also found eventual $50 million dollar corner Brandon Carr six picks later. He would have been awful useful in 2009 the way things turned out.

#7-229 CB Cary Williams, Washuburn
Previous pick: LB Chris Chamberlain, Tulsa (Rams)
Next pick: OT King Dunlap, Auburn (Eagles)
Previous DB: #7-220, Josh Barrett, Arizona St. (Lions)
Next DB: #7-249, Chris Horton, UCLA (Redskins)

Williams eventually became a useful player. Sadly, it wasn’t for the Titans, who decided they didn’t have room for him and lost him to the Ravens off their practice squad the next season. Then again, failing to make a playoff team out of training camp is about the baseline expectation for seventh round picks. Given that I don’t know if anybody picked later would have made the team (Dunlap and Geoff Schwartz are also starters), I can’t get exercised over this pick.

Conclusion-Type Thoughts

Judged as a whole, the top of this draft paid immediate impacts. CJ and Jones were very useful players in 2008, 2009, and the first half of 2010. Following midseason 2010, though, this draft started looking an awful lot less impressive. This ended up being a better draft than I thought it was at the time. Two players, CJ and Stevens, got extensions. CJ was overhyped and overused, Stevens never became the player I thought he would be. Jones rightly had no interest in coming back once he was a free agent. Hayes followed Fisher to St. Louis. Hawkins was blah. Keglar was worse. Williams they lost almost as soon as he was becoming useful. Still, it’s hard for me to think of it as actually a good draft.

If you want to look at all the players drafted in 2008, look here. This is the tenth season for which I’ve done a Titans draft retrospective piece; see also 19992000,200120022003200420052006, and 2007.