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The Titans, value, and roster construction, revisited

This time last year (almost to the day), I wrote a post that ending up being about what I called the concept of value, namely that I was not sure if the Titans believed in it or whether they were even looking for it. Last week, in a podcast with Mel Kiper, Todd McShay compared the Titans’ roster to Seattle’s before the arrival of Russell Wilson. While I share McShay’s continuing doubts about Jake Locker’s long-term potential, my intent is not to turn this into Yet Another Amorphous Jake Locker Post; as I already said, I expect Locker to be the Titans’ quarterback in 2014 and for them to look for a new quarterback in 2015 if Locker does not show new head coach Ken Whisenhunt enough. Rather, what I want to do is link McShay’s comments to that value post, update that for 2013, and touch on another post I did last offseason.

That post I wrote on the concept of value was originally supposed to be about positional spending. While calculating up positional spending, though, I noticed that the players the Titans played in 2012 fell into three categories: (a) veterans with a contract of at least $3 million average per year (or paid like a starter at the position, in the case of Jordan Babineaux), (b) players on their original draft contract chosen in the first 115 picks in the NFL draft, or (c) injury replacements. Unsurprisingly given the normal amount of continuity with an NFL roster and many changes being the result of last year’s free agency spending spree, the first two categories (not so much the third, as the Titans were pretty healthy in 2013) provided most of the Titans’ contributors last year. But not all of them. Using the same criteria in last year’s post, the Titans found some contributors outside of those heavy investment areas; Antonio Johnson (380 snaps), Ropati Pitoitua (576), and Rob Turner (394) each contributed as a modestly paid veteran, while the Titans found more work for Karl Klug (317 snaps), showing the second half of the draft isn’t entirely worthless.

Going back to McShay’s Seahawks comparison, my brain started yelling at him while listening for a couple reasons. The first, namely that the reason the Seahawks are THE SEAHAWKS is because they did (and have done) a particularly outstanding job of player development. I do not want to get into that in any detail in this post, but as we saw in 2013 with what looked like a very promising young linebacker corps, let’s just say it is far from obvious to me the old Titans staff would get any fallout if you set off a nuclear bomb where the Seahawks’ staff was in that regard, while the new staff obviously is unproven in Nashville in terms of player development. Secondly, though, and more relevant to my value problem on the Titans, the Seahawks (and their NFC West rival the 49ers are very similar in this regard) are particularly assiduous in their use of all sources of talent to provide players.

That ties into another exercise I did last offseason, namely my work at roster construction, first at Football Outsiders on the Ravens and 49ers and then here on the Titans. Unfortunately, I did not use the same methodology in those posts as I did in the subsequent concept of value post, taking snapshots of rosters at a particular point in time rather than valuing the players who actually participated. Had I done that, as I should have, something would have stood out: those two Super Bowl teams, particularly the 49ers, plus the Seahawks, have done a tremendous job of finding talented, useful players in the second half of the draft and as available young players.

Though I never ended up publishing it anywhere, I did that same roster construction work for the Seahawks (and the Broncos)* at the time of the Super Bowl. A couple things stood out First, they’re the one team that actually traded players and had success with it, with four players they acquired via trade, including some very notable ones (Chris Clemons, Percy Harvin, Marshawn Lynch). Second, they had a dozen players on the team that were young players acquired other than through the draft. The 2012 Titans were around that amount, but as the playing time indicates, that’s not their usual source of talent. In fact, that they had so many in 2012 looks like a product of all their injuries. In a much-healthier 2013, they finished the season with only six such players. And it’s not like Seattle’s were all bit players-two of them, receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, fit the significant playing time threshold, playing 749 and 469 snaps respectively (offense only, I’m excluding special teams snaps in all my analyses in this post). Third, remember Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith? He was a seventh-round draft pick and a player the Seahawks found a use for. In total, they had six players who met my playing time threshold who were rookies drafted outside the top 115, when teams that are actually good at drafting and developing players can find talent.

*-What about the Broncos, you wonder? They were built with a different philosophy and signed a number of moderately-priced veteran free agents. The way the Seahawks were built is one way to build a team, not the only way.

This ties into a post a wrote two years ago, namely one on the Titans not churning the roster. They have not remained quite so static with their roster and practice squad the past couple seasons, but it seems to me they’re still stuck at the basic problem. Building a long-term successful team, one that is one of the ten or so Bill Belichick identifies in the preseason as a team that could be a contender for the Super Bowl, requires a great QB or a great team, ideally both. We’ll see if the Titans have the QB, but if you don’t have the QB (and there aren’t many of them) and even if you do, you need the talent around him. That means using as many ways of getting talent as you can and doing the best you can to use those ways as best as possible to find the right players. With a new coaching staff in place, and without a directive from a dying owner, maybe the Titans can now actually try to build one of those Super Bowl teams instead of trying to go 9-7 and sneaking in the playoffs as a wild card the way they did the past two seasons and make McShay’s Seattle comparison a reasonable one rather than one that on reflection seems almost ludicrous.