Titans ready to evaluate next wave of prospects at NFL combine
FEB 23, 2014 1:44a ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster counts the NFL Scouting Combine as just one slice of the personnel pie.
"Really, it's another piece of the puzzle to me," Webster said of the event (running through Tuesday in Indianapolis) which attracts the most scouts, team personnel and player prospects during the NFL's pre-draft calendar.
More than 300 NFL draft hopefuls will be poked, prodded pushed to show their physical and mental prowess. Draft stocks will either rise, fall or maintain status quo, as coaches and personnel staffers from all 32 teams make the cattle call.
"Those interviews are looking for the guys that really stand out," Webster said, "and the ones that struggle in the interviews and raise red flags. There will be a whole bunch in the middle.
"It's similar to the way we look at the workouts. It's just looking for the standouts and any issues that arise that we need to research further."
At the workouts, seven positions -- quarterback, running back, wide receiver/tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker and defensive back -- will be herded through six drills, including 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and shuttle run.
Webster says some drills leave much to be desired for talent assessment. That makes all-star games, like the Senior Bowl (mid-January) and Pro Day and/or individual workouts on campus, more of an important emphasis than the combine itself.
"Some of those offensive line drills, I don't get a great feel for offensive linemen in those drills, other than a little bit of their athletic ability," Webster said. "That's just a different game that needs to be played in pads. It's best for the skill players."
He also thinks the 40-yard dash, while the most glamorous, is also the most overrated.
"It's that 10-yard burst and their vision and their ability to run after contact," Webster said of assessing running backs. "We all want fast guys -- and I don't hold it against them if they run fast -- but there have been many a good running back, even a great running back, that has not been a 40-yard dash guy.
"But they have outstanding vision, balance, feet, and they are able to break tackles and make extra yards. Really, most all these guys can make the 40-yard run, the 50-yard run, they just not make the 80-yard run."
One of those who can, Webster acknowledged, is running back Chris Johnson, the Titans' leading rusher the past six seasons. But with the former 2,000-yard rusher reportedly unwilling to renegotiate the final three years remaining on his contract -- with $8 million on the books for 2014 -- that position could become one of need, if he is released.
Depending upon free agency acquisitions and/departures, positions of need include offensive tackle, cornerback, rush end and players who fit in a probable move to more 3-4 defensive sets under new coach Ken Whisenhunt than Tennessee's traditional 4-3 alignment.
The Titans are long in the tooth at both tackle positions, although standout left tackle Michael Roos still has more tread heading into his 10th season. Opposite him is David Stewart, another 10-year veteran, who has missed multiple games the last two seasons with various injuries. A prospective right tackle could also be drafted and molded to replace Roos on the left side.
Pro Bowl corner Alterraun Verner enters free agency (March 11) after enjoying a career year, headlined by an AFC-leading five interceptions. He will command top dollar from other teams, which may prompt the Titans to use the franchise tag here -- with an approximate value of $11 million for cornerbacks.
Strong safety Bernard Pollard, a strong vocal leader, will be a free agent after topping the team in tackles (99). He might be the most desirable to re-sign among 17 Titans free agents -- if he fits the new system. Others who might return include defensive end Ropati Pitoitua, tackle Mike Otto, returner Leon Washington and offensive lineman Rob Turner.
Quarterback might be a consideration, too. Starter Jake Locker has played well, at times, over the last three seasons; but he has also been plagued by injuries during that span. The Titans could draft a middle-round passer for future development.
While Webster and the personnel staff remain intact, they have had to deal with a new coaching staff put together by Whisenhunt, the former Cardinals head coach and Chargers and Steelers offensive coordinator. The new Titans staff recently spent a couple weeks digesting Tennessee's 16 games from last season.
"We have had to get together rather quickly and try to get on the same page," Webster said of his personnel staff integrating with Whisenhunt's coaching staff. "Initially, the big thing is that those guys have to watch our team on film and get a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of our team and our players.
"I can fill them in, our scouts can fill them in, but really, they need to make their own assessment, and then we talk it through from there."
From there, it was off to the Senior Bowl, where prospects practice against each other for a week in front of every NFL team. The game itself has become less important, and the dwindling attendance of players during the week bothers Webster.
"Raise a red flag? I guess in a way it does," Webster said of players who skip the Senior Bowl. "Really, that's the one that probably disappoints me the most. I think that's a place (Mobile, Ala.) a player can really solidify himself and raise his stock even more than the combine."
But since the combine has grown into such a huge league event, more players are skipping the Senior Bowl to concentrate on the Indy confab and/or individual workouts.
"Interestingly enough, since the combine has been televised, almost everybody works out, if they are healthy," Webster said. "Maybe that's because of TV, maybe not. But the combine participation has improved, but the Senior Bowl has really changed, and thatâs disappointing to me."
Webster doesn't put too much into a player's draft stock rising and falling over the next few days at the combine.
"(A player hypothetically) hurts his draft stock for a couple weeks," said Webster. "And then what happens is, everybody goes back and watches the film and realizes if he is a good player that, man, this guy is a really good player. And the other can happen, too, where a guy goes out and blows it out that maybe didn't play as well.
" ... So, it works both ways. I think in the end, everybody comes back down to earth and they try to take the best football players."
Webster's favorite step in player evaluation is the Pro Day and/or individual workouts by the players on their campus. It provides the most access to the player, both on and off the field.
"Those are good because you get to have hands-on interaction with the player," Webster said. "You come in a day early, spend some time with them and their coach, put them on the board and see what they know about football, do a little more time than you can do in the 15-minute interview you have at the combine with them."