When the off-season began, Coach Jeff Fisher said one of the team’s main priorities was to fix a defense that tumbled to 28th overall in the NFL rankings, allowing more than 365 yards per game in 2009. Exactly how the Titans plan to fix that through the first handful of days in free agency remains a mystery.
On the first day of free agency, Fisher was out of the state and general manager Mike Reinfeldt was at a speaking engagement at a local high school. So, it’s safe to say the Titans were taking the slow and deliberate approach to free agency once again, something that has become a trend most years with the franchise.
The last time the Titans were busy during the early part of the free agency game was in 2006 when a young roster that had too many holes had to be supplemented by veterans from the outside. It netted them players like David Thornton, Kevin Mawae, Chris Hope and David Givens. The Titans hit on three of those four players — a career-ending injury to Givens preventing him from making much of a contribution.
But this time around, Tennessee looks skittish about using the free agent market as a tool to replenish the roster, especially a defense that has at least three holes to fill.
If the Titans believed that Kyle Vanden Bosch’s and Keith Bulluck’s best days were behind them and they weren’t worth investing another two or three seasons in, so be it. I won’t fault them there, if that’s their assessment. But the puzzling part is the Tennessee’s curious approach to replacing them, which thus far has been to wait and watch the biggest names on the market land elsewhere.
Now the first visitors to Baptist Sports Park as potential replacements are defensive end Jason Babin, who visited on Monday, and linebacker Will Witherspoon, who arrives Tuesday. Both are 29-year-old journeymen, who, judging strictly by statistics alone, would not appear to be an upgrade over the status quo of Vanden Bosch and Bulluck.
No one is saying Reinfeldt should suddenly become Daniel Snyder and turn the Titans into an expensive free agent train wreck, but this is a team that needs to take a more serious look at free agency as a means of upgrading the roster.
The Titans don’t have to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue, but sometimes it would be nice to see them go someplace besides K-mart.
Sometimes, bargain shopping works. It netted them Vanden Bosch in ’05, who blossomed into a star. And Jake Scott adequately replaced Jacob Bell for less money. But other times, it’s much more difficult, as happened last year when Jovan Haye had the misfortune of coming in just after Albert Haynesworth’s departure.
Adding just one impact player of the caliber of defensive ends Julius Peppers or Aaron Kampman or linebacker Karlos Dansby would have filled a major hole with a capable veteran and meant one less area the Titans would have to address in the draft. And as much as the draft is the main tool for franchise stability, you can be sure the Titans won’t find all the answers there — at least not immediately. For one, Tennessee will be picking in the middle of each round, and currently has no second-round pick, thanks to last year’s trade to draft tight end Jared Cook.
Given that scenario and barring some sort of trade, the Titans realistically can expect to find only one player in the draft that has the potential to come in, start and make an immediate positive impact — the player they choose with the 16th pick. That’s it. Any draft pick contributing immediately beyond that would be a combination of excellent scouting, solid coaching and sheer good fortune.
Yes, players like Cortland Finnegan and Bo Scaife have made an early impact from the late rounds. But for every Finnegan, how many middle and late-rounders like Tony Beckham, Shad Meier and Rob Reynolds contributed little outside of special teams?
Just last year, the Titans were burned badly when Ryan Mouton and Jason McCourty had to play before they were ready. That doesn’t mean it was a mistake to draft them, just a mistake not to have a better option available until they were ready.
And there is another more critical issue at play in relying solely on the draft to try and solve their needs. Drafting for need over the best player available is a risky and often unrewarding proposition.
In 2004, the Titans had lost Jevon Kearse in free agency, and knew they would have to take defensive line help in the draft to replace him. So, they spent second-round picks on Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom and a fourth-rounder on Bo Schobel. All three were forced into the lineup immediately, and the results were predictable: Schobel washed out, and Odom and LaBoy were beset by injuries and inconsistency, only finding their stride in the last year of their respective deals before heading out the free agency door themselves.
Contrast that with what the Titans did two years ago when they drafted not for need, but the best player on their board. In 2008, the draft prognosticators were stunned when Tennessee bypassed receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas to select a little-known running back named Chris Johnson out of East Carolina.
To date, Kelly and Thomas have made no impact in their pro careers. Johnson, he’s merely the most dynamic player in the NFL, having rushed for 2,006 yards and earning Offensive Player of the Year honors.
With their tepid approach in using free agency to address needs thus far, would the Titans even have the luxury of taking a Johnson-type difference-maker at No. 16 over a lesser player just to fill a hole in a need position?