The Tennessee Titans surprised a lot of people in the first round of the NFL Draft when they didn’t trade away the No. 2 pick and instead used it to take the one player a lot of people thought they didn’t want, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
In the weeks leading up to the NFL Draft, all signs said the Titans were open to trading the pick.
They were committed to Zach Mettenberger at quarterback, the reports said. In addition, coach Ken Whisenhunt has always coached traditional pocket passers, not dual-threats like Mariota. Considering the haul the St. Louis Rams got for Robert Griffin III in 2012, everyone thought they were willing to make a deal.
After they selected Mariota, there was some early speculation that they may have overplayed their hand and got stuck with Mariota when other teams called their bluff and refused to up their trade offers.
But now a simpler explanation looks more likely: the Titans planned to draft Mariota all along.
Peter King of theMMQB.com raised this scenario prior to the draft, writing that he thought the Titans would draft Mariota, noting that the team had scouted Mariota heavily.
“The Titans were all over Mariota all through the college season, and beyond,” wrote King. “One Oregon source told me the Tennessee scouts were the most fervent of all teams during and after the season investigating Mariota.”
However, there was plenty of other evidence that suggested the Titans either wanted to trade the pick or draft another player, perhaps Leonard Williams or Dante Fowler.
We continuously heard that the Titans were high on Mettenberger. According to David Climer of The Tennessean, head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Ruston Webster thought they pulled “the steal of the 2014 draft” when they nabbed Metternberger in the sixth round.
That appears to have been a smokescreen. Whisenhunt made it clear that he expects Mariota to be the starter in week one of the 2015 season.
Another assumption that became widely accepted in NFL Draft circles was that the Titans would only draft a quarterback if Jameis Winston was still available since he fit coach Ken Whisenhunt’s system and Mariota did not.
In a round table discussion for the MMQB.com prior to the draft, Andy Benoit raised this concern:
“I find it hard to believe that Whisenhunt truly likes Mariota. Mariota is the antithetical style of QB that Whisenhunt’s system demands. And we know Whisenhunt won’t change his system because he didn’t in Arizona even after Warner left. It’s in Whisenhunt’s best interest for people to think he loves Mariota. That keeps the trade value high for the No. 2 pick.”
The problem with this theory is that it ignores the possibility that Whisenhunt is willing to make basic adjustments to his system if he has a talented enough quarterback. Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL. A good coach is going to build around a good quarterback, no matter his skillset.
Certainly many of the experts were on board with the Titans trading out. In the days leading up to the draft, everybody agreed that Mariota would be the second pick but nobody knew who was going to take him, as most figured a trade was coming.
But then draft day came and the Titans reportedly turned down a monstrous trade offer from the Philadelphia Eagles for the No. 2 pick. Here is what they reportedly would have received, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport:
- Two first-round picks
- One third-round pick
- Fletcher Cox, the team’s best defensive player
- Brandon Boykin, nickel corner
- Sam Bradford, starting quarterback
- Mychal Kendricks, starting linebacker
The Eagles deny this offer was on the table. Eagles coach Chip Kelly said he never offered any players in a package for Mariota. But there are other reports that Philly included at least Bradford and another player in an attempt to move up.
It would seem that a team wouldn’t turn down an offer like that unless they were hell-bent on drafting Mariota.
Before the draft, there were also whispers that Whisenhunt’s job was in jeopardy this year and there may be pressure on him to win now. If true, some argued, a more experience quarterback like Mettenberger gave him the best chance to do that.
However, the opposite may be in play here. Drafting Mariota actually buys Whisenhunt time. Now there is less pressure to win in 2015 and maybe even 2016. Now Whisenhunt has time to develop a quarterback and see what he can do in two or three years instead of one.
So why would the Titans pretend like they weren’t going to take Mariota when the Bucs were almost certainly going to take Jameis Winston? There are two reasons, and both may have come into play.
The first is the obvious one. Maybe the Titans just wanted to keep their options open and see if somebody made a Godfather-like offer they couldn’t refuse. At some point every player has a value and everybody has a price. It might have been steep, but people do crazy things at the NFL Draft.
The second is murkier, but probably shouldn’t be ignored. Maybe the Titans were worried the Bucs would trade the first pick to a team that wanted Mariota.
There were reports the Bucs were willing to move, and the Eagles reportedly tried to make a last-minute trade with Tampa Bay when they couldn’t make a deal with Tennessee. But by making the NFL world believe they were open and even eager to deal, the Titans ensured teams who wanted Mariota were coming to them with trade offers rather than Tampa.
In other words, maybe the Titans fooled teams into believing No. 2 was where they could get Mariota and then pulled a rope-a-dope and never made the trade.
If this theory is true, it was a pretty genius move.