It is sort of a chicken-and-egg scenario.
NFL teams spend countless hours during the fall scouting college football players all across the country. In February they bring the best prospects to Indianapolis so they can poke and prod both mind and body in an all-inclusive evaluation process. Along the way scouts and personnel people compile and organize a list from one to whatever the number, which sets the order in which they value those players.
The regular season ends in late December or early January and immediately teams know where they fall in the draft that takes place in late April. At that point, therefore, they can begin to contemplate seriously which players they think will be available to them and are worthy of selection in the spots available.
Nearly two months before any team makes a pick, though, they all try to pick through veteran talent from the free agent market, players who — for any number of reasons — were waived by their previous teams or whose contracts expired and thus become available to everyone. Veteran free agents often are proven commodities but don’t always provide the appeal of potential that comes with each draft choice.
So the question is: Do NFL teams set their free agency agenda based on what they expect to do in the draft or do they base their draft strategy off what they were — or were not — able to accomplish in free agency.
“It does affect things to the point where if you fill a need in free agency it’s not something you’re tied to in the draft,” Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster said. “I think it is important for them both to work together. Really, I think the biggest thing is when you go into free agency is finding out where the strength of free agency is, how it matches up with your needs and how it matches up with the strength of the players in the draft.”
The Titans, in recent years, have approached free agency and the draft as almost a single entity. One does not necessarily offset the other. Instead, they provide two avenues with which to approach the same problem.
The most obvious example was 2011, when after five years during which Vince Young and Kerry Collins traded the role of starting quarterback numerous times, the franchise decided to start fresh. Collins’ contract was up and Young was waived following a series of off-the-field missteps, so there was no doubt what was the team’s biggest hole that year.
Rather than gamble on one available option to fill that need at the sport’s most important position they used both, albeit in reverse order because an offseason lockout that year delayed the start of free agency until August. They used their first-round pick (eighth overall) to select Jake Locker and moved quickly in free agency to sign veteran Matt Hasselbeck.
That was the fourth time in five years the Titans’ first-round pick played a position that already had been addressed in free agency. In 2010, defensive end Jason Babin was signed in free agency and Derrick Morgan, also a defensive end, was selected in the first round. Similarly, wide receivers Nate Washington and Kenny Britt were signed and drafted, respectively, in 2009. In 2007, team officials went after safeties early in the draft (Michael Griffin) and in free agency (Bryan Scott).
Typically, that approach has provided sustained but not concurrent results. Hasselbeck started for one year before Locker took over the job. Babin was a Pro Bowler in one season with Tennessee, a season during which Morgan spent most of his time on injured reserve. Scott never made it to the regular season, and Griffin was a starter before the halfway point of his rookie year.
“We feel like we’ll be able to pick some good players in this draft and just continue to improve the team,” Webster said. “Really more than anything else we want to continue to improve the level of competition on the team and the depth.”
Few, if any, teams have been as active in free agency this offseason as the Titans, who went 6-10 in 2012 and missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year. They closed a couple of deals within the first hour of the signing period and eventually brought in 12 players.
Every position group except cornerback and specialists (kicker/punter) was addressed either with the addition of players from the outside or a new deal with someone who was on the team last season.
The offensive line (three), safety (two) and defensive line (two) got the most attention. To many, that would suggest the Titans would look elsewhere when they make their first pick (10th overall) and subsequent ones in the 2013 draft, which begins next Thursday and runs through Saturday. Or the fact that they addressed so many different areas could mean they have the freedom to ignore need and select players solely on where they fall on the team’s rankings.
“We still have needs to fill but it gives us a little more flexibility and doesn’t tie us to taking a certain position,” Webster said. “You hear the thing, ‘Take the best available player,’ and it gives us a chance to do that and be flexible with what we pick.”
Yet based on what they have done in recent years, it seems likely that their free agency focus also reveals the direction they intend to go early in the draft.
For example, the largest free agent deal the Titans signed this year was with guard Andy Levitre, a starter for all four of his NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills.
That fits with the notion of many mock drafts, which predict Tennessee will select a guard, either Alabama’s Chance Warmack or North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper, in the first round. Both are athletic and rated unusually high for players at that position.
Similarly, the signing of Sammie Hill from Detroit, satisfies the Titans’ need for a big defensive tackle who can occupy double teams at the point of attack. With as many as five defensive tackles seemingly worthy of a first-round selection, though, franchise officials might go with someone such as Utah’s Star Lotuleilei or Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson in the first round.
“It just gives you options,” Webster said. “If you’re able to sign some guys in free agency it increases your options in the draft and maybe you’re not tied to one position or another. I think that’s the biggest thing is our group of players we can look at is bigger.”
The fact that the Titans signed plenty of free agents is not likely to make them look away from any position, though.
It is not a matter of which provides help first. It is a singular quest to create a lasting impact.
A look at where the Tennessee Titans are scheduled to pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, which takes place April 25 (first round), April 26 (second and third rounds) and April 27 (fourth through seventh rounds):
ROUND SELECTION OVERALL
First 10 10
Second 8 40
Third 8 70
Third 35 97
Fourth 10 107
Fifth 9 142
Sixth 34 202
Seventh 10 216
Seventh 42 248
(Note: Picks 97, 202 and 248 are compensatory selections)