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What would an ideal draft look like, defense edition

I did the offense yesterday, so now it’s time to see what an ideal draft would be for the Titans’ defense.

The defensive side of the ball is where the Titans have spent most of their attention this offseason, resigning Rod Hood and adding Jason Babin, Tye Hill, and Will Witherspoon.  It’s also where they’re expected to spend their first round pick; per the odds, it’s 12/5 the 16th pick in the first round is used on an offensive player and 1/3 for the defensive side of the ball.

Despite the additions, a defense-oriented draft also offers significantly more options.  Witherspoon removes linebacker from the list of immediate needs, but aside from maybe OLB there’s not a single position on defense where this year’s 1st round pick shouldn’t be expected to start in 2011, if not this season.  And, much like on offense, it’s a sort of interlocking puzzle, with the first round pick affecting the 3rd round picks, which in turn affect the later picks, and so on.  So, what to do?

I know I’ve been beating the defensive end drumbeat, but there’s no sure-fire guy at #16.  To me, Derrick Morgan has a relatively low ceiling.  Jason Pierre-Paul started half a season at the 4-year college level.  Brandon Graham is undersized and underweight.  Carlos Dunlap took almost all of 2009 off aside from getting busted for DUI.  Everson Griffen has size and measurables, but mediocre results and questionable desire.  Jerry Hughes’ production came against right tackles for non-BCS teams.  I’ve been a JPP supporter, and if Floyd Reese were still calling the shots, I think he would be the pick if available at #16, but Floyd’s gone, for better and worse, and there’s been a philosophy change since then.

One thing I’ve noticed in doing the draft retrospectives and looking at draft values by position, the place to find good defensive backs is round 1 and round 2, and that’s it.  The Titans have had some luck lately finding some defensive backs after the first 2 rounds, with Fuller and Finnegan both being valuable players, and Reynaldo Hill one of the best non-Finnegan 7th round DBs of the decade (yes, really).  But there’s a much longer list of busts-Rich Gardner and Michael Waddell from the latest retrospective, and there are plenty others.  For that reason, give me Earl Thomas with the first round pick.

If you look at the transcript of today’s pre-draft press conference, GM Mike Reinfeldt makes an interesting correction.  Scout Phil Neri refers to “free” and “strong” safeties, leading to Reinfeldt chiming in with the reminder that the Titans don’t believe in free v. strong, but simply draft safeties.  This means a stronger coverage orientation than most teams, who look to the safeties more in run support and less as man cover guys.  Finding that sort of safety, who can cover man, cover zone, and play run support is a challenge, and worth spending a high pick on.  Griffin was a surprise selection (to me, at least), as the Titans had shied away from investing draft points on the position, but, as with defensive tackles, there seems to have been a change in philosophy.  As I mentioned in the safeties offseason preview, it’s also a position of need-Griffin and Hope both saw their play slip in 2009 and there’s no guarantee either will play better in 2010, plus Hope’s scheduled to make a lot of money the next two seasons, making him potentially expendable.  At corner, by contrast, there are five players on the roster and two youngsters who might reasonably start this year and in 2010, plus of course Finnegan.

That the Titans don’t address defensive end in the first round merely means they address it later, and that’s in the 3rd round with Murray State Racer Austen Lane.  His Combine performance wasn’t quite what was expected, but he has Carlos Dunlap’s size and great production at the OVC level.  He almost certainly wouldn’t be an immediate impact player as a rookie, but would give DL coach Jim Washburn some excellent clay to try to mold into a future starter.

While the Titans did add Witherspoon, if they decide McRath is ready to start and David Thornton is expendable with his creaky shoulder and large salary, they’ll be wafer-thin again at linebacker.  More depth at that position is an immediate need, and Donald Butler was a tackling machine for the Washington Huskies.  He has good size and the speed and agility to place in space.  I think he could play OLB or MLB in the Titans scheme, and could possibly step in as a starter as early as next season if Tulloch’s price proves too rich.

Since we’re going with a defensive-oriented draft, we need to add a returner.  Unfortunately, a returner is almost certainly going to be a corner, and the Titans have a little bit of a logjam with potentially 5 CBs on the roster.  I’ll have to suck it up and pick somebody, so I’ll slot Javier Arenas into the 4th round pick.  This is probably lower than most people, especially Alabama fans, expect to see him go, but like I thought of Mouton last year, Arenas is neither large nor physically gifted enough that it’s unlikely he’ll ever be a competent starter at CB at the NFL.  Instead, he’ll develop into a nickel corner and derive much of his value from special teams.  And, he is a gifted returner who averaged 15.4 yards per punt return and 29 yards per kick return his final year for the Crimson Tide.  After last year’s return struggles, those numbers sound very good.

With the first four picks, we’ve hit the biggest needs on defense.  With the 5 NFL caliber DTs on the roster already, I highly doubt they draft another one, and I also doubt they draft 2 DEs with 5 on the team already.  We’re at 6 CBs and 5 Ss, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them draft another linebacker.  They certainly seem to like Colin Allred more than I do (obviously), but there’s a reason I only listed 3 true LBs (plus LS Ken Amato) as roster locks.  Butler certainly would be added to that list, but another LB for special teams and depth is in my mind a strong possibility.  In that case, Iowa OLB A.J. Edds may be a possibility, with excellent college production and enough athleticism to be a decent depth guy.

I could try to come up with more names for the 6th and 7th round picks, but with the 5 players already taken, I don’t see how any has a decent shot of making the team, so that seems like a pointless effort to me.  I will, however, note that despite the predictions I’ve seen of a defense heavy draft, doing this exercise for both sides of the ball makes me think that, while the first couple picks may be weighted towards the defense, the final tally of pick quantity will be fairly evenly split between offense and defense.