Certain losses can crush the soul. The Titans have experienced two kinds in the last two weeks:
1. The OT loss against the Colts, in which the Titans let a late lead slip.
2. The Bears thrashing, in which the Titans were never in it.
These losses have exposed the Titans as a team that is simply not good enough to make the playoffs this year, and seemingly several steps from making a Super Bowl run. So how did they get here? What are the elements of a winning roster? How far are the Titans from having one?
To illustrate this, lets look at how the Titans have built their roster, and compare them to successful Titans teams of the past.
First, let’s define the sources of talent on an NFL Roster:
A) Drafted players on their 1st NFL contract (young, generally inexpensive talent).
B) Homegrown players teams re-invest in with a 2nd contract (generally a bigger investment).
C) Veteran Free Agent signees or Trade Acquisitions.
D) Lower end bargains (cheap free agents, waiver wire pickups, etc.).
With the challenges of the Salary Cap in the NFL’s parity driven system, there is a constant challenge to maintain enough talent to build and sustain a winner. A team must obviously draft well, but then identify the difference makers worthy of a second contract. They must leave enough money to address leftover needs, then import them from the outside via trade or free agency, where the price is high and the available talent is thin.
The Titans had their most successful run from 1999-2003, with 4 playoff appearances, two AFC Championship games, and a Super Bowl loss. Let’s compare the anatomy of this year’s Titans roster to the one 10 seasons ago (The ’02 team that lost in the AFC Championship game to the Raiders). To simplify we will identify the major contributors for each team (starters and key role players, excluding the kicker and punter) and where they came from:
2012 Titans 2002 Titans
A) First Contract Draftees Kendall Wright (1) Javon Kearse (1)
(round drafted) Jake Locker (1) Albert Haynesworth (1)
Derrick Morgan (1) Kevin Dyson (1)
Kenny Britt (1) Keith Bulluck (1)
Akeem Ayers (2) Andre Dyson (2)
Zach Brown (2) Tank Williams (2)
Sen’Derrick Marks (2) John Thornton (2)
Jared Cook (3) Erron Kinney (3)
Damian Williams (3) Zack Pillar (3)
Jurrell Casey (3) Peter Sirmon (4)
Colin McCarthy (4) Donald Mitchell (4)
Ryan Mouton (3) Justin Hartwig (7)
Mike Martin (3) Justin McCareins (4)
Alterraun Verner (4) Robaire Smith (6)
OBSERVATION- This group almost always makes up the hightest percentage of any team’s roster. The current Titans are relying heavily on the development of 4 1st round picks but have yet to see any difference making results. The ’02 Titans not only got better mileage out of their 1st round picks (particularly Kearse and Bulluck), but got a bigger overall contribution from the rest of their draftees such as Sirmon, Pillar, Williams, and Andre Dyson. In fairness, the ‘O2 Titans didn’t have to lean on this group as much as today’s Titans do on theirs. Why? Read on.
B) Second Contract Draftees 2012 Titans 2002 Titans
Chris Johnson (1) Steve McNair (1)
Michael Griffin (1) Eddie George (1)
Michael Roos (2) Brad Hopkins (1)
Craig Stevens (3) Samari Rolle (2)
David Stewart (4) Derrick Mason (4)
LeRoy Harris (4) Benji Olson (5)
Lavelle Hawkins (4) Henry Ford (1)
Jason McCourty (6)
OBSERVATION - The ’02 Titans clearly got a ton of mileage from the nucleus on the right, not only that season but for the entire 5 year run. McNair, George, BHop, Rolle,and Mason in particular ranged from Pro Bowl level players to outright franchise players who made everyone better around them. While CJ is a difference maker, it remains to be seen what type of return the Titans will get from their sizable investment. While the rest of the current group isn’t bad, they are not in the same category as ’02.
C) Free Agent/Trade Acq. 2012 Titans 2002 Titans
Matt Hasselbeck (FA) Kevin Carter (Trade)
Steve Hutchinson (FA) Fred Miller (FA)
Nate Washington (FA) Lance Schulters (FA)
Kamerion Wimbley (FA) Neil O’Donnell
OBSERVATION - Over time it has been proven that while Free Agency and trades can plug a few holes, it is unwise to think you can survive by going to this well too often. The players available in Free Agency are mostly players who are around 30+ who are on their 3rd contract (Hasselbeck), players who weren’t quite valuable enough on deeper teams to warrant a 2nd contract from their original team (Washington), or players with major baggage (injury history or off field problems).
Mostly you get solid but unspectacular production, plus some experience—but not difference makers. The exception on this list is Carter, who the Titans made a bold move to acquire by trading their 1st round pick to the Rams in ’01. While he never hit the 17 sack level for the Titans as he did in St. Louis, he was a talent that had to be dealt with and created better matchups for the players around him.
D) Scrap Heap Finds 2012 Titans 2002 Titans
Darius Reynaud (FA) Frank Wycheck (waiver)
Fernando Velasco (undr) Drew Bennett (undr)
Jordan Babineaux (FA) Gennaro DiNapoli (FA)
OBSERVATION - These are mostly role players to round out a roster, but every good team finds an occasional gem (James Harrison of the Steelers was a practice squad player). The Titans pick up of Wycheck off the waiver wire from the Redskins in ’95 added a key piece for nearly a decade, and in ’02 he was still a force. The current group has no equivalent.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
The Titans of 10 years ago obviously have a clear advantage on all four lists, and they achieved the results to prove it (11-5 record and a division championship). The regime of longtime GM Floyd Reese should be given extremely high marks for molding that bunch. Teams need talent to win. The best way to accumulate talent by far in the NFL is through the draft. No one draft will make you or break you, but over time you must :
A) Accumulate a nucleus of 7-10 “Studs” who make others better
B) Build a high volume of solid role players behind them
C) Make smart decisions on who to re-invest in, presuming you draft enough players worthy of that investment.
The current Titans assembled by Mike Reinefeldt, Jeff Fisher, and (to a lesser degree) Ruston Webster are lacking in all areas. The drafts going back to 2007 are on their watch. The hope is that from the group of Locker, Wright, Britt, McCarthy, CJ, Morgan, Ayers, Cook, and perhaps Brown a group of difference makers will emerge. Some of them may blossom, but it looks like a reach to think that enough of them will, particularly on defense.
A breakout by a healthy Locker would make the future look much brighter. The careers of Britt, Cook, and Wright could go in any number of directions, but they have at least flashed brilliance at times. Other than CJ, important decisions will have to be made on which players to sign long term, and how much to invest in them. The immediate heat is on Mike Munchak and his staff, but the bottom line is that they don’t have a great deck of cards to play right now. Far more important is the growth of this nucleus, and the decisions that are made around them. In the meantime, Floyd Reese’s legacy continues to improve by the week.