What's the Titans' biggest remaining need? I had to judge that issue recently in writing this column on that question, and quickly identified the two obvious holes as defensive end and cornerback. Not much of a surprise for any Titans fan, really, as DE, OLB, and CB were the three positions where the Titans are down a starter, and Will Witherspoon filled a hole at outside linebacker. The question, then, was which of the two to pick. And, while I have quite limited confidence in any of Rod Hood, Ryan Mouton, and/or Jason McCourty to play at a reasonably high level opposite Cortland Finnegan this season, I went with defensive end.
For an explanation as to why, I'll go back to my cornerbacks preview post from before the 2008 season, in which I noted the surprising point that in terms of measuring players by how often and how successfully they were thrown at, Cortland Finnegan and Nick Harper came out with virtually identical metrics. And, that wasn't just a fluke: in 2008, Harper had better numbers than did Finnegan. I don't second the comment in that article that Harper was as good or better than Finnegan in 2008, but they still put up roughly similar levels of performance.
Obviously, Harper's play slipped badly in 2009, and I'm sure those numbers will confirm what every Titans fan knows, that Cortland Finnegan was vastly superior to every other Titans cornerback. The reason Harper performed so much worse is not solely that he aged and got worse, but that he was a limited player who was put in situations where he couldn't excel. Michael Griffin's play slipped badly, so he had less help. The outside linebackers were worse. Most importantly, though, the pass rush got much worse. In 2007 and 2008, when the defense led them to the playoffs, the Titans had 40 sacks and ranked 9th in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, which takes into account down and distance and opponent. Last year, they had 32 sacks and ranked fell to 25th in Sack Rate.
That sort of link between playoffs and pass rush isn't just a trend of the past three years. Back in 1998, the Titans had 28 sacks and ranked 28th in Sack Rate. One #16 overall choice later, the Titans nearly doubled their sack total to 55 and ranked 8th in Sack Rate. In fact, for the past dozen seasons, the Titans have ranked in the top 10 in Sack Rate 5 times, and made the playoffs every single time. In the seven years they ranked outside the top 10 in Sack Rate, they made the playoffs once, in 2002.
It's pretty simple: when the Titans get pressure, they win. That's been true with very good cornerbacks in the secondary, and it's been true some not so great cornerbacks. But, with a pass rush, not so great cornerbacks manage to look a lot better. Yes, I'd like an upgrade at corner as well, but if the Titans really want to make it back to the playoffs, they need a pass rush threat of the kind you have a very hard time getting outside the first round. That's why the Titans should draft a defensive end, not a cornerback, with their first round pick next month.
In terms of who the DE should be, for the article I just listed some of the names, but I thought John Thornton had some very astute comments, that DL coach Jim Washburn prefers raw but toolsy players he can mold into the type of player he thinks he should be, which is a mold Jason Pierre-Paul and Carlos Dunlap fit but Brandon Graham and Derrick Morgan do not. Popular perception is that Dunlap's stock may have fallen, but don't be too surprised if he is the pick if Pierre-Paul is off the board.