Analysis: Early signs show Reinfeldt’s developing a solid draft trend

Monday, April 20, 2009 at 1:28am

Maybe it is still a bit early to evaluate, but with two drafts under his belt, Tennessee Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt is at least developing a trend with his draft classes.

So far, Reinfeldt’s plan appears to be to add an impact player or two early in the draft and use the remainder of the picks as a means to plug depth needs.

Conversely, under his predecessor Floyd Reese, the Titans relied much more heavily throughout on their respective draft classes to make immediate contributions beyond just special teams.

“As you go high up in the draft, I think you’re looking for guys who can be difference makers, and as you go down in the draft, I think you’re looking for depth and guys to fill in your roster,” Reinfeldt said recently.

The strategy has produced at least two homeruns for the Titans the past two seasons.
Both 2007 first-round choice Michael Griffin and 2008 top pick Chris Johnson quickly made their way into the starting lineup and not only started, but have become impact players, as both have made the Pro Bowl.

Griffin, who replaced a struggling Calvin Lowry early in his rookie season at free safety, has quickly shown an ability as a ball hawk with a team-high seven interceptions a year ago, giving him 10 in a two-year career.

Johnson’s 4.24 speed electrified the Tennessee offense with his 1,228 yards rushing and nine touchdowns as a rookie. Look for the Titans to build even more of the offense around him this season and beyond.

Thus far, the 2008 draft class looks to have a more promising future overall than the ’07 group overall. Second-round pick Jason Jones had five sacks and three forced fumbles as a rookie, playing behind Albert Haynesworth and Tony Brown. With Haynesworth departing as a free agent, Jones will have to play a bigger role this season for the Titans.

TFY Draft Preview’s Tony Pauline in hindsight lauded the picks of Johnson and Jones a year ago, even as experts, himself included, believed at the time the Titans reached on each of their first two choices.

“They’ve been top heavy in the draft,” Pauline said. “But it’s tough for middle and late rounders to make teams that are losing two and three games a year. Look at the Patriots. They’re still getting good players, like Jones. A lot of people thought it was a reach at the time, but it turned out well. [Reinfeldt] trusted his own instincts that the guy’s best football was ahead of him.
“The Johnson pick was gutsy as well. A lot of people, including myself, went on first impression that he might only be a situational back, but it was a great choice.”

The other five picks in last year’s draft class all played limited roles as rookies except on special teams. Tennessee still has hope that middle-round picks like Craig Stevens, William Hayes and Lavelle Hawkins can step forward soon with more production.

As for the ’07 draft class, beyond Griffin, only sixth-round defensive end Jacob Ford has made any significant contributions over the long haul with seven sacks last year as part of the defensive line rotation. Several of that group — Chris Henry, Paul Williams and Chris Davis — will be on the spot to improve or risk their roster spots in training camp this year.

With a higher salary cap now more forgiving, the Titans have seemingly become less dependent on low-round picks having to make good quickly.

One of the Titans’ specialties under Reese was hitting on the late-round finds like Cortland Finnegan (seventh round ’06), Eugene Amano (seventh round ’04), Justin Hartwig (sixth round, ’02), Robaire Smith (sixth round ’00) and Derrick Mason (fourth round ’97). But with that came lots of trial and error in giving draft picks plenty of opportunities to make good.

A part of that was out of necessity, as the salary cap was much lower then, and the Titans often needed younger players to play immediately and fill holes. For instance, in Reese’s final three drafts, the Titans had 13, 11 and 10 picks, respectively. Of those 34 draft picks, only one player was released without seeing at least some time on the 53-man roster, and 20 of those choices spent at least three seasons with the Titans, with 10 still on the Tennessee roster.

Reinfeldt enters this year with 10 draft picks, thanks to four compensatory selections. In his previous two years, the Titans had 10 choices in ’07 and seven picks last year. Three of the ’07 picks are already off the roster, including two who didn’t stick through their first training camp.