Why Would the Tennessee Titans Stick With Zach Mettenberger?
The Tennessee Titans have the second overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Because you’re reading an article on numberFire, you can probably do enough math to deduce at least one of the top two quarterbacks would still be available when the Titans are on the clock. During media availability at the NFL Scouting Combine, neither general manager Ruston Webster nor head coach Ken Whisenhunt came out fully committed to Zach Mettenberger.
Quotes such as “we like Zach as a player” (positive) were couple with others such as “we’re not ready to commit to anything” (typical coach and executive speak following the 2014 season) and “until you get that quarterback situation settled, you’re swimming upstream” (not exactly a vote of confidence).
Still, early speculation suggests Tennessee is content passing on Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, or both and sticking with last year’s sixth-round pick under center for at least the next year.
Consistency at a position can be a good thing as long as there’s a valid reason to stay consistent. One thing the Titans have not been over the past three years is consistent. Mettenberger was the third quarterback to throw a pass for Tennessee in 2014 alone and the sixth to throw a pass since 2012. Jordan Palmer attempted three passes for the Titans in Week 17 of this year, bringing the grand total to seven different quarterbacks seeing the field for Tennessee in three seasons.
There’s a small sample of NFL plays to evaluate fully what Mettenberger brings to the table as a pro quarterback. What he showed during that sample, though, was not on the promising side of expectations. Mettenberger wasn’t great by many metrics this past season, our Net Expected Points (NEP) being one of them.
He dropped back 196 times in 2014 and accumulated a Passing NEP of -8.99, which ranked 37th of 43 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs in 2014.
Mettenberger, of course, was not drafted to be the starter in Tennessee immediately. He was coming off a torn ACL, which occurred late in his senior season at LSU and was considered the type of prospect who would need development before contributing at the pro level. So, what then, changed between then and now? Has 196 dropped backs really given the Titans what they need to move forward with Mettenberger at the helm?
By Net Expected Points, Mettenberger wasn’t even the top quarterback on the roster last season. That distinction goes to Charlie Whitehurst, who had a positive Passing NEP (2.15) in his 203 drop backs, though that could say more about Tennessee’s situation at quarterback than Whitehurst’s ability.
The concern with Mettenberger is that he falls into the big-armed pocket passer Ken Whisenhunt tends to favor. Whisenhunt has struggled picking and grooming his own quarterback. John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, and Ryan Lindley are the types of quarterbacks Whisenhunt attempted to use and groom at quarterback after Kurt Warner retired.
During the three seasons post-Warner, Arizona did not rank higher than 22nd in Adjusted Passing NEP, which factors in schedule strength. That’s not great. In two of those seasons, the Cardinals ranked 32nd. That’s worse.
Any hope for Mettenberger’s improvement in his second year and beyond comes from hoping he can limit interceptions and hoping the Titans can secure a better supporting cast to make his job easier.
Mettenberger was sacked on 9.1 percent of his drop backs last season, 20 percent higher the league average. But that wasn’t just a Mettenberger problem. Getting sacked often was the status quo for Titans quarterbacks. Jake Locker was sacked on 8.8 percent of his drop backs, while Charlie Whitehurst was sacked on 8.9 percent of his. An improved offensive line would help this issue, in theory. Over the past few seasons, Tennessee has tried to shore up its offensive line to little avail. The Titans have spent money in free agency on players such as Andy Levitre and Michael Oher and significant draft capital on Chance Warmack and Taylor Lewan.
There’s little doubt Mettenberger is the biggest unknown on the roster, and at this point for Tennessee that could be a good thing. The Titans know what they have with Locker, and they know what to expect with Whitehurst. Even though Whitehurst was statistically the best quarterback of the group, he’ll be 33 years old in August, and that doesn’t scream long-term solution. If the Titans are going to pass on the quarterback in the draft, it makes the most sense to give Mettenberger the reigns.
Taking this route should be as much of an indication of how Tennessee views Winston and Mariota as it does about Mettenberger. If the Titans believe either Winston or Mariota can be a long-term solution at the position, then they should pull the trigger. If they’re not convinced, taking another high-impact player and waiting another year could be the best thing for building a full roster. While the financial hit of missing on an early pick quarterback is not as high as in the past, the time spent on forcing an already sunk cost could be just as harmful for a franchise.
Teams are always going to be looking for an answer at quarterback, and maybe the Titans really like what they see in Mettenberger.
Maybe, rather, the Titans just aren’t as convinced in what they might have in the top two quarterback prospects. Maybe they feel better trying their luck this year and reassessing the position when players such as Cardale Jones, Connor Cook, and Christian Hackenberg will likely be entering the draft next season.
Ruston Webster is right. You’re swimming upstream until you can settle on a quarterback. Tennessee will have to figure out if they’re swimming that way because of the stream -- or by choice.