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VOL. 132 | NO. 70 | Friday, April 7, 2017

Tennessee Titans Have Rarely Found Success With Drafted SEC Players

BY DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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The NFL Draft is fast approaching, which raises an interesting question: Is this the year the Titans finally shop locally and target Southeastern Conference talent?

Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham might be a good fit in the Titans’ 3-4 defense, but there are other SEC players in this year’s draft with great potential.

(Photograph courtesy of Vanderbilt University Sports Department)

If history is any indicator, the answer: No.

Even though the franchise’s base of operations is solidly in the SEC footprint, the Titans tend to look elsewhere for their draft picks. They are just as likely to pick players from the Big Ten or Pac 12 as they are to turn to the SEC.

Of the Titans’ 86 selections in the last 10 drafts, 16 were from SEC schools. Only one of them – Chance Warmack of Alabama in 2013 – was a first-rounder. 

Contrast this with the Atlanta Falcons, who have drafted 19 SEC players during the same period, including five first-rounders. The prize of that group is wide receiver Julio Jones of Alabama, the No. 6 overall pick in 2011.

Maybe there’s a reason for the Titans’ lukewarm approach to SEC talent. Historically, SEC products have not lit it up for the Titans. They may have apprenticed in what is generally considered the nation’s best college football conference, but SEC players have been more bust than boon for the Titans.

There are exceptions. Jevon Kearse, a Florida product, made a splash as a pass-rusher for the Titans in 1999. Although he peaked for only a couple of seasons, there was no better defensive player in the NFL than Albert Haynesworth in 2007 and ’08. Haynesworth was the Titans’ first-round draft pick out of Tennessee in 2002.

But then there was 2013. 

That year, the Titans used their first two picks on SEC products – Warmack and wide receiver Justin Hunter of Tennessee. Warmack quickly became a starter but never played up to the expectations of the No. 10 overall pick. Hunter proved too timid against press coverage and never made a significant impact. 

Both have moved on, Warmack went to the Eagles, where he played two games last season. Hunter played for the Dolphins and Bills last year and had 10 catches. He is now on the Steelers roster.

Of course, current general manager Jon Robinson has directed only one draft for the Titans, so his approach toward SEC talent is unclear. 

Last year, he used the third of his three second-round picks on Alabama running back Derrick Henry and spent a sixth-round pick on guard Sebastian Tretola of Arkansas. Henry will split carries with DeMarco Murray, and Tretola will compete for a starting spot this season.

While his predecessors may have been lukewarm toward the SEC, Robinson may be tempted to turn to the conference for immediate help in the upcoming draft. The SEC is sending a bevy of talented players to the NFL.

In Chris Burke’s recent mock draft for Sports Illustrated, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett and LSU safety Jamal Adams went 1-2. In fact, seven of the top 11 were SEC players. Burke projected Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen as the Titans’ pick at No. 5.

There are a number of SEC players that would fill needs for the Titans. Reuben Foster of Alabama is an every-down linebacker who can play the pass as well as the run. Cornerbacks Quincy Wilson of Florida, Tre’Davious White of LSU and Marlon Humphrey of Alabama would be welcome. Tight end is a featured position in the Titans’ offense, so O.J. Howard of Alabama could be in play.

And keep your eye on linebacker Zach Cunningham of Vanderbilt. He would be a good fit in Dick LeBeau’s defense.

After back-to-back years without a draft pick, the University of Tennessee has several intriguing prospects this time around. The best of the bunch is Derek Barnett, but he appears better suited as a defensive end in a 4-3 system than as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme like the Titans run. Cam Sutton could wind up at cornerback or safety.

And then there is Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a wildcard in this draft. He is undersized for an NFL linebacker but is an instinctive, relentless player who is always around the ball. Coming off an injury-plagued senior season at UT, Reeves-Maybin could be a steal for a team that can find the right spot for him.

The list of SEC talent goes on and on, particularly on defense. It remains to be seen if Robinson will shop close to home. During the franchise’s two decades on Tennessee turf, a few SEC players have made an impact on the Oilers/Titans, including those listed below.

(For purposes of this list, we’re including only SEC players that were drafted by the Titans. That’s why center Kevin Mawae, an LSU product who signed with the Titans as a free agent in 2006, and defensive end Kevin Carter, a Florida grad and 2001 free-agent signee, are not listed.)

Jevon Kearse, Florida, 1999:

Nicknamed ‘The Freak’, Kearse was exactly that in terms of athletic ability. There was no better pass-rusher in the league before injuries took a toll.

Albert Haynesworth, Tennessee, 2002: 

It took him awhile to adjust to the NFL, but Haynesworth was such a disruptive force in 2007 and ’08 that he got a huge free-agent contract from Washington.

David Stewart, Mississippi State, 2005:

A fourth-round pick, Stewart was a steal. He locked down the right tackle spot for eight years.

Sen’Derrick Marks, Auburn, 2009:

The Titans made a mistake by letting him get to free agency in 2013.

Antwan Odom, Alabama, 2004:

He had eight sacks in 2008, his final season with the Titans.

Zach Piller, Florida, 1999:

Although he struggled with injuries, Piller started all 16 games at guard in 2003 and ’05.

Gary Walker, Auburn, 1995:

Walker made the Houston-to-Tennessee transition and was a strong, consistent interior defensive lineman who had an 11-year NFL career.

Erron Kinney, Florida, 2000:

He was a dependable tight end who was effective as both a blocker and receiver.

Avery Williamson, Kentucky, 2014:

A fifth-round pick, Williamson has started 43 games at inside linebacker in his three-year career.

Jared Cook, South Carolina, 2009:

As a pass-catching tight end, Cook averaged 15.5 yards on 49 receptions in 2011. 

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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