Teams speaking frankly and honestly about their draft intentions is quite rare. For the most part, any inkling of foreshadowing from an NFL club regarding who they’re planning to select is a smokescreen. There’s really no reason to tip their hand until the moment they have to deliver the pick to the commissioner.
That’s what makes Ken Whisenhunt’s comments during the NFL owners meetings so interesting and unusual. The coach of the Tennessee Titans, who own the second overall pick at next month’s NFL Draft, stated that if Marcus Mariota were to be the team’s selection at that spot “he’s definitely going to be the day one starter,” according to USA Today’s Jim Corbett.
To me, that’s a pretty strong indication. It’s one thing to declare to the rest of the league that you’re thinking of taking a certain player with a high pick. That can bring in the trade offers from other teams who may be eyeing Mariota – such as the New York Jets, who select sixth. If he was trying to draw interest, Whisenhunt could have put out a more generic remark regarding Mariota’s talent, his leadership and that he’s a quarterback the team would like to have on its roster.
But to say definitively that Mariota would come in and get the first-team reps at his very first practice could mean more than just “we’d need a great offer to trade this pick.” If you’re quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who Tennessee selected in last year’s draft and would be the starter if no new signal callers appear on the Titans’ roster, how would you respond to that comment from your head coach? I’m sure he’s prepared for a quarterback competition if and when Tennessee brings in another young arm, but to hear your coach come out and publicly state that you’d be backing up Mariota before either has thrown a minicamp pass would be a tough comment to digest.
Any question posed to Tennessee between now and draft day that includes Mariota or Jameis Winston is going to be answered in a positive manner. They won’t gain any edge by slighting either prospect. But teams usually temper their remarks in such a way that none of their options are negatively effected. Well if the Titans pass on a quarterback with their first pick, Mettenberger and the rest of the offense will enter camp knowing that Whisenhunt felt Mariota was, is and will be the better player. He would be cutting his young quarterback’s legs from under him after only seven starts in the league – during which he actually played pretty well, though the team lost all seven contests.
Whisenhunt doesn’t have a track record of spouting off at the mouth. He seems to be a pretty straight shooter. If he thinks that Mariota would be the Titans’ best quarterback option from day one, I take him at his word. I also agree with him.
But I was still pretty stunned to hear those comments. It seemed that Tennessee may have been ready to pass on a quarterback with the second overall pick, but now I’d say that now appears far less likely. Again, it’s not just the compliment to Mariota, it’s his word choice and phrasing.
Anything can still happen before April 30, but all the talk of the Saint Louis product sliding down draft boards after the National Championship Game has been completely silenced. Mariota’s going to be a very high pick and the chances of Winston and Mariota going one-two appears more likely than ever.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.