NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mike Munchak knows a thing or two about playing guard in the NFL.
The Penn State All-American and former first-round draft pick did it well enough for a dozen years with the then-Houston Oilers, later to become the Tennessee Titans, to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Making it rather ironic that the first-round draft pick of the team for which Munchak once starred and now coaches might well take a player at the same position heading into a season where team success might be needed for job security.
“We need some help inside,” Munchak said Thursday in Indianapolis, site of the NFL Scouting Combine which runs Saturday through Tuesday at Lucas Oil Field. “I always think it’s a good year for offensive linemen. I think there’s more name guys that people know from top to bottom.”
Some 300 athletes will be prodded, probed and graded for NFL worthiness by the time the NFL Draft comes April 25-27.
For the Titans, offensive guard is an apparent point of emphasis for their No. 10 overall pick, especially when there are two players — Alabama’s Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper — who appear ready to step into a starting role.
“I haven’t met either of them yet,” Munchak said. “Hopefully, (I) will spend some time with them in the next couple of days.”
Munchak, his coaching staff and general manager Ruston Webster will lead the Titans’ interrogation and eventual evaluation of potential draft picks. The Titans learned on Thursday other draft picks outside of the first round include ninth in the second round (No. 40 overall) and eighth in the third round (No. 70). Other picks include 10th in the fourth round, ninth in the fifth round, and 10th in the seventh round.
Although it doesn’t usually carry the early first-round value of other positions, largely because quality interior linemen can be drafted later and developed or found through free agency, Webster isn’t adverse to taking a guard with the No. 10 overall pick.
“I think it can be a value,” Webster said of drafting a guard early. “It needs to be a player that you see coming into your team and making a difference, upgrading you, and possibly being an outstanding player at the position.”
But a guard?
“I’ve never been one to say you don’t take a guard in the first round, or whatever,” Webster said. “Some people say don’t take a receiver in the first round. I’ve never looked at it that way. If there’s somebody there that’s a special player, then we’ll take a look at him.”
Other positions of need include defensive line, especially a quality rush end, overall defense, especially a strong safety, and backup running back.
“Those are the needs for us,” Webster said of the current draft having quality depth at the team’s needs. “And that’s important. That’s how free agency and the draft work together.
“You know where if you’re heavy in free agency, that may be the draft you might go out and spend some money (in free agency). Otherwise, you might wait until the draft.”
The Titans could consider taking the best player available regardless of specific need again. That’s what they did last year in the first round when they took Baylor receiver Kendall Wright at No. 20, although there was decent depth at the position and other positional needs. Wright vindicated the pick by leading NFL rookie receivers with 64 catches.
“We obviously need to improve,” said Munchak, who is feeling the heat from team owner Bud Adams to produce a winner in his third season at the helm. “When you’re 6-10 (in 2012), we have to tweak the roster like you do every year. There’s always going to be changes.
“But our changes this year are a little more toward improving different spots, creating competition as you always want to do. We’ve got some work ahead of us. We’ve got to get some of our own free agents signed that we need to get signed, and the process begins.”
At the top of that list is tight end Jared Cook, a restricted free agent who appears headed to the team’s franchise tag for roster protection. He would then receive the average salary of the top five-paid tight ends in the league. After that, there doesn’t appear to be many Titans free agents whose return is considered pressing, other than standout kicker Rob Bironas.
Either way, the Titans are in a three-pronged roster challenge — keep the players they want before becoming free agents, target and sign current and impending free agents come March 12, and figure out what to do with their six draft picks … that is if they don’t make any trades.
The Titans could consider trading out of the No. 10 overall pick, possibly picking up an extra first-round pick and still filling their needs if another quality guard, like Kentucky’s Larry Warford, is still available.
So, let the meat market known as the NFL Scouting Combine begin. Like every other NFL team, the Titans will try to assess every aspect of every prospect, even if they don’t participate in all of the evaluation sessions, both physically and mentally.
“You have to have players that you’re honing in on and concentrating on those guys and then you know what’s important to sift through,” Webster said of assessing individual player interviews and workouts. “A lot of times when I’m talking to a player, maybe there’s some buzzwords or things we’re looking to find out about that guy. (It’s) the same thing with watching them work out.
“I’m looking for something specific. That way, we don’t get overloaded.”
Coming from a former player’s perspective, Munchak also knows what to look for during the one-on-one interviews with a possible draft pick.
“Fifteen or 20 minutes is not a lot of time to spend with these players,” Munchak said, “but you do pick up some things, body language, personality, their passion for their game when they talk, see what he really does know.”