NFL Draft: The Tennessee Titans' First Round Quandary: CB or DE?

Gerald BallCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2010

GAINESVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 7: Defensive end Carlos Dunlap #8  of the Florida Gators sets on defense against the Vanderbilt Commodores  on November 7, 2009 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Of course, this article is based on the Titans' having viable and similar prospects at CB and DE available at No. 16.

If Joe Haden's disappointing combine showing causes him to drop to Tennessee , the Titans should go with the best player available. With Haden, they can build their defense around having a pair of perennial Pro Bowl caliber shutdown cover CBs for the next 7-8 years. Haden's so-called lack of speed would not be an issue in Nashville, because the other CB, Cortland Finnegan, would be able to cover the fastest WRs.

Haden's cover skills, tackling ability, and physical style would shut down the other threats. If the Titans have a chance to build a defense two highly talented CBs, then their draft selection should be a no-brainer.

Similarly, if there are no DEs available at No. 16 that the Titans are targeting, then the they should take a supplementary CB. Kyle Wilson, Patrick Robinson, or Devin McCourty have all emerged as suitable candidates.

However, let's say that there is one or more players at both positions available at No.16 that the Titans like. We can speculate that the DEs may include Carlos Dunlap (pictured above) of Florida, Brandon Graham of Michigan, Everson Griffen of USC, and Jerry Hughes of TCU.

While the draftniks don't think any of those guys are mid first-rounders, the Titans may be higher on one or more of them. Unlike most teams, the Titans actually prefer raw athletic DEs that they can mold to fit their defense rather than a guy who mastered a college defense that won't translate into an NFL system.

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For example, former Titans Pro Bowl DE Jevon Kearse was a raw talent who underachieved at Florida and dropped in the draft because teams were unsure whether he was a 4-3 DE or a 3-4 OLB (and far fewer teams were running the 3-4 back then).

But there are other guys as well. Brandon Graham of Michigan is considered to be a "skilled, smart high motor" guy like the Titans' most recent Pro Bowl LDE, Kyle Vanden Bosch. A guy like Graham could probably be plugged in and get 8 sacks as a rookie, even though other DEs might have more upside. And Everson Griffen is a USC alum, just like Titans' coach Jeff Fisher. He's another one of the very talented USC products who seems to have been harmed by Pete Carroll's wandering attention span. Fisher can whip him into shape.

What keeps the Titans from jumping on one of the big time DEs that falls into the second round (one of those listed above, or perhaps South Carolina DE/OLB Eric Norwood) if they like the raw prospects so much?

They don't have a second round pick. Also, their last attempt to get DEs in the second round, Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy, failed horribly.

What about CB? Yes, it is true that they have a gaping hole at that position, and that the Titans were #31 in pass defense last year. But consider WHY they were #31 in pass defense.

After suffering from both the departure of Albert Haynesworth and the injury problems of since departed DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, they went from #9 to #25 in a statistic called "pass rushing effectiveness ." Because the Titans gave QBs so much time to throw, the CBs struggled, and the safeties had it even worse. A shutdown CB would give up fewer passing plays—especially the big plays downfield that the Titans gave up last year—but teams with good passing offenses will still be effective because of the lack of a pass rush. Even if you have two good CBs covering the top two WRs, without a pass rush the QB will still have time to find the third WR or the TE open, especially if the team has to compensate for their lack of a pass rush by blitzing more.

Another issue—you want Pro Bowl players at all levels of your defense.

Right now, the Titans have a Pro Bowl CB in Cortland Finnegan and a Pro Bowl FS in Michael Griffin. With the departure of Pro Bowl DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and LB Keith Bulluck, the rest of the defense is bereft of Pro Bowl talent.

What sense would it make to add a third Pro Bowl DB when you have average players or worse at DL and LB? Now, it is easy to suggest that taking an LB like Thaddeus Gibson or Sean Weatherspoon is better value than reaching for a DE. But the fact is, the LB isn't overly important in the Titans' 4-6 defense—the Titans almost never draft LBs higher than the 3rd round—and aren't regular pass rushers in their scheme.

Since their DTs are simply average players (Tony Brown and Jovan Haye,Sen'Derrick Marks and Jason Jones) a DE at No. 16 in this draft represents their most likely shot at getting a Pro Bowl player for their front seven and a pass rusher.

Another issue still: the Titans need a starter at the no. 1 DE and no. 2 CB positions. As stated earlier, the Titans do not have a 2nd round pick, so those starters will have to come with either their 1st round and the first of their 3rd round picks. It goes without question to say that it is far easier to find a rookie starter for the #2 CB spot (again, Cortland Finnegan is the #1 Pro Bowl cover CB) than it is to find a rookie starter at the pass rushing DE spot in the middle of the 3rd round.

Because the no. 2 CB isn't required to cover the top WR in man-to-man coverage, he doesn't have to be a well-rounded player. He can either be a very gifted but raw player, a very skilled player who lacks ideal speed or size, or a big physical CB who will never excel in tight man-to-man coverage. IF YOU HAVE A PASS RUSH, you can do very well with a very good cover CB on one side and a CB with a different skill set on the other side.

That was the case when the Titans went to the Super Bowl in 1999. They had Pro Bowl cover CB Samari Rolle on one side, and former 3rd round pick Denard Walker on the other. Walker was not a cover CB (13 INTs over an 9 year career) but was a big, physical bump and run guy who often matched up with bigger WRs, and was an excellent tackler. New rules changes no longer allow Walker's physical, bump and run game, but there are still some prospects like Oklahoma State's Perrish Cox, USF's Jerome Murphy, and Vanderbilt's Myron Lewis that have attributes that allow them to be effective across from Cortland Finnegan as rookies.

At LDE, rookie starters outside the top 20 are rather rare, but this year it will be even less likely to find one because the crop is thin. T he top 10 prospects at the position include one of the undersized "is he a DE, is he an OLB?" types that Virginia Tech sends in the middle rounds of the draft every year that seldom pans out in Jason Worilds, USF's George Selvie (who is small AND slow), Northwestern's Corey Wootton (who is a better 3-4 DE prospect, and in a 4-6 would definitely have to play RDE) and Greg Hardy, a very talented Ole Miss DE who didn't even start IN COLLEGE.

Were the Titans to get Greg Hardy as a situational pass rusher and developmental DE with the 2nd of their 3rd round draft picks, it would be outstanding. He is exactly the sort of prospect that Jim Washburn would love to whip into shape. It would even be worth overlooking the Titans' needs at LB, WR, safety and return specialist.

But if the Titans were to take a CB in the first round, a guy who was a pass rushing situational player in college such as Greg Hardy would be the best possible scenario if the Titans would like a starting LDE in the 3rd round. Joe Haden being available at No. 16 would be worth giving it a try, and taking a DE in the first round in 2011 if it doesn't work.

Guys thrown out there as third round options for the Titans like Brandon Lang, Austen Lane, Willie Young or Dan Te'o-Nesheim by the "draft Kyle Wilson!" crowd won't cut it as rookie starters, and William Hayes and the other DEs on the team are RDEs and situational players, not the Pro Bowl LDE type who can consistently apply pressure on GOOD quarterbacks protected with GOOD offensive lines.

There is the idea that if you have two great CBs, you can generate a pass rush by blitzing. Some of the better 4-6 defenses of the past, such as the Buddy Ryan defenses and also the Greg Williams defenses with the Titans, did use this strategy rather effectively. 

However, the Titans' current group of safeties and LBs aren't good at blitzing. Those players weren't acquired for the Titans' new 4-6 defense under Chuck Cecil, but the previous more conservative 4-3 scheme under Jim Schwartz. The safeties Griffin and Hope aren't going to regularly get to the passer on blitzes because they've never had to play that game before, in college or the NFL, and the same is true for the Titans' LBs, especially now that Keith Bulluck is gone.

Another thing. Even if you have good blitz personnel, it isn't going to work just because you do it, because good OLs, TEs and RBs can pick up blitzes, and good QBs can throw the ball to guys who are wide open or in single coverage, especially if it is a TE or a 3rd WR. Instead, to be effective at blitzing you need guys on the DL good enough to occupy multiple blockers. If the DTs and DEs are drawing double teams, its these double teams that creates the gaps in protection for the blitzers to get through.

That explains why 3-4 defenses are so effective at blitzing—the DLs and/or the OLBs take up so many blockers that it creates seams for the ILBs and DBs to fly right through.

Even with a potential All-Pro talent at CB like Joe Haden playing across from Cortland Finnegan, the Titans still wouldn't be able to rush the passer and run their defense. It is just that the long term benefits of having two great players like that at CB outweigh the short term drawbacks. Getting Joe Haden now makes it worth waiting to get a DE in the 2011 draft. However, with no Joe Haden on the board, the Titans need to fill their need for a Pro Bowl DE now and let the CB wait until 2011. The Titans have Ryan Mouton (who admittedly was horrible in his rookie season) and Rod Hood returning, and have also signed Tye Hill in free agency.

The Titans can be good enough at CB to give the Titans an effective defense if Carlos Dunlap, Sergio Kindle or Everson Griffen gives them 11 sacks next season, or even if Brandon Graham gives them 8 sacks with a lot of pressures and tackles for loss.

But even a Pro Bowl rookie season at CB from Joe Haden (or Kyle Wilson for that matter) wouldn't appreciably improve the Titans' defense, especially in a division where the Titans will have 6 games against capable QBs (Peyton Manning, David Garrard, and Matt Schaub), especially if those 3 teams address their OL and running game problems from last season. 

That is why the Titans should get a DE, even if they have to reach a little and especially if they can trade down and still get a Hughes, Graham or Dunlap.