Less than a month away, the NFL draft is forcing free agency to a back seat around Baptist Sports Park as the Tennessee Titans front office — Torry Holt’s visit notwithstanding — shifts its primary focus on the weekend of April 25-26.
The Titans already are busy hosting and planning visits for their 30 draft prospects, plus local players who don’t count against that total.
The team has the 30th pick in the first round by virtue of posting a league-best 13-3 record, but it means Tennessee picks ahead of only Super Bowl participants Arizona and Pittsburgh. And that means plenty of evaluation of players through visits to pro days, film study, communication with scouts and coaches, and hosting players on visits for a further examination and get-to-know session.
“I think we’re in the mode of really hitting the draft stuff hard and getting ready for the meetings in a couple of weeks,” Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. “Everyone is doing the film work and the stuff that goes with that.”
A number of visits have been lined up this week, from the local faces of Patrick Turner of Southern Cal (who played high school football at Goodpasture) and Vanderbilt’s D.J. Moore, to prominent national names, such as USC’s Clay Matthews and Auburn’s Sen’Derrick Marks.
A visit doesn’t necessarily mean that a player is high on the Titans’ radar. However, some are, and the Titans want to get a closer look. Some of the players might have questions that the Titans want to see answered before deciding whether or not to spend a draft pick on them.
For instance, a player like Connor Barwin of Cincinnati is scheduled to visit Baptist Sports Park. He spent most of his college career as a tight end before switching to defensive end, and some teams now project him as an outside linebacker.
The Titans surely want to get an up close evaluation to see where or if Barwin might fit in their scheme.
“He can do so many different things and is so versatile that lots of teams would get him in there and determine how best to use him,” agent Scott Smith said. “He can play d-end, tight end and linebacker and is comfortable with all of those.”
The Titans had only six draft picks until last week, having had to include their fifth-round choice in the deal with Dallas where the Cowboys took troubled cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones off the Titans’ hands.
But last week, the NFL ruled on its compensatory picks for the teams that lost free agents after the 2007 season, and the Titans were one of just two teams to receive four selections. The other was the Cincinnati Bengals.
With those picks, the Titans — a team that relies as heavily on the draft — will get at least one pick in each of the seven rounds. The team now has two picks in rounds 4, 6 and 7.
“I think we’re sitting with 65 signed players, and with our 10 draft picks, those will be important people for us,” Reinfeldt said. “That’s a good thing to get those extra picks. It does help to fill the depth on your team when you get those four extra picks.”
Despite the highly publicized loss of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to the Washington Redskins in a $100 million deal, Reinfeldt is confident and happy with where the Titans are at this juncture of the off-season.
The Titans signed former Vanderbilt defensive lineman Jovan Haye to help fill in for Haynesworth at defensive tackle and believe they have upgraded the wide receiver position by signing Nate Washington after losing Brandon Jones to San Francisco.
“If you look where the team was last year, where we finished up and the players we have returning, I think in free agency, you’re always going to lose some players,” Reinfeldt said. “But I think we’ve identified some players that can help us, and back to the draft, I think there’s a lot of optimism here.”
The Titans still have a few holes to fill at several positions. Depth at cornerback and wide receiver are two key areas of concern, given the inexperience behind starters Cortland Finnegan and Nick Harper at cornerback and the severe lack of a track record behind Washington and Justin Gage at wide receiver.
A number of cornerbacks, such as Moore and Lardarius Webb of Nicholls State are on the Titans’ list of players to evaluate in the coming weeks.
And even if the Titans wind up signing Holt to a deal, it is possible that the team could spend at least one pick on a wide receiver.
With the draft coming up, the Titans now have two avenues in which to fill those holes. Reinfeldt indicated that he would like to add a difference-maker or two in the early rounds and replenish depth later on, if possible.
“I think you feel pretty good and I think it depends on where you’re talking about in the draft,” he said. “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.”
In addition to Holt, there is also the possibility of picking up a player or two in free agency down the line, says Reinfeldt.
“There’s still two or three positions on the team that we’re looking at adding some depth to,” Reinfeldt said. “[And] there are still some free agents that would be of interest to us that from a depth standpoint could help us.”