Why the Tennessee Titans Should Select an Offensive Lineman First Overall
The week leading up to the Super Bowl never disappoints. It's filled with optimism and unicorns and happiness as we all geek out over the two best teams in the league that year.
Once that's wrapped up, though, things take a dramatic shift for the worse. In preparation for the top of the NFL Draft, we go from looking at the league's shining examples to the ones that failed to meet expectations. Specifically this year, we're looking at the Tennessee Titans.
Ain't no fairy-tale creatures in this house, bruh.
The Titans limped their way to a 3-13 record, prompting the dismissal of head coach Ken Whisenhunt after seven games. They've got some decent pieces, but this is a far cry from the optimism of the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers.
This isn't to say, however, that the Titans come without hope.
If the Titans were to address one particular need early in this year's NFL Draft, we could see a dramatic shift in their offensive effectiveness. That need comes in their offensive line, and it's a need they should be addressing with the first overall pick.
Perhaps the optimal outcome -- as outlined by numberFire's Kevin Cole while discussing the Cleveland Browns -- would be to trade down and acquire more picks. If they can't spin that, though, targeting offensive line help could turn things around in a hurry.
To quantify this, we'll be using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of teams and players with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.
Here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, there is an expected number of points the offense will score on its current drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard completion on 3rd-and-2) will increase that, resulting in positive NEP. A negative play (such as a sack or an incompletion) will decrease that, resulting in negative NEP.
Let's look at why this is a serious need for the Titans before investigating the impact first-round offensive linemen have on their teams. If the Titans can clean things up here, they may not be at the bottom looking up for long.
When we're looking at a statistic such as NEP, zeroing in on sacks is going to make any team appear as if it needs to address the offensive line. None of those teams struggled as much as the Titans, though.
For each quarterback who dropped back at least 100 times with a particular team this year, I looked at the expected points they lost on sacks. This number was then divided by the total number of drop backs, giving us the expected points lost on sacks per drop back.
There were 43 different quarterbacks in this study; none of them had a worse mark than Marcus Mariota. The league average was -0.11 Sack NEP per drop back, but Mariota found himself at -0.18. That's a bit of a concern.
Now, clearly, not all of the blame in a category like this should be placed on the offensive line. The quarterback also holds a bit of the responsibility as he likely needs to get rid of the ball more quickly to compensate.
There's one issue with this point, though: Mariota's teammate Zach Mettenberger also qualified, and he was second worst in the category at -0.17. Welp.
Not only were these two the worst in the league here, but their lead wasn't a small one. Mariota and Mettenberger had marks of -0.18 and -0.17, respectively, and there was only one other quarterback that was below -0.15. They were outliers, and not in the positive sense.
You could brush this off as being rookie struggles for Mariota if he were the only one on the list. But once you throw in that Mettenberger posted nearly identical marks, it's abundantly obvious that they can't function with their current offensive line.
This only supports one aspect of our point, though. Even if the Titans are able to shore up their offensive line, that doesn't mean that the passing offense would suddenly take off and be magically efficient.
Or would it?
To investigate, I zeroed out the Sack NEP numbers for each of the 43 qualified quarterbacks. In taking away the points lost on sacks, we could see how many expected points the player added (or subtracted) when he was able to get the ball away. Here, things start to look a lot sweeter for Mariota.
When the Sack NEP numbers were included, Mariota was the 27th most efficient passer in the league this year, based on Passing NEP per drop back. However, when we take out the Sack NEP for all quarterbacks, Mariota vaults all the way up to 11th.
This change of 16 positions was the most for any quarterback in the entire league. Ryan Tannehill moved up 12 spots, and Aaron Rodgers moved up 10, but nobody came close to the difference this made for Mariota.
If the Titans were able to keep their quarterback upright at a league-average rate this year, their overall efficiency numbers would have looked much better. However, that didn't happen, and they were 31st in both Adjusted Passing NEP per play and overall on offense.
The good news for the Titans is that it doesn't have to stay that way. Teams that select offensive linemen in the first round have a track record of success, and that intensifies the higher in the draft you get.
First-Round Offensive Line Numbers
Last year, we took an in-depth look at how teams perform the first two years after drafting an offensive lineman in the first round. This included a sample of 73 linemen taken in the first from 2001 to 2014. Turns out it was an effective strategy.
On average, teams that addressed the offensive line in the first round improved their Adjusted Passing NEP per play by 0.027 in the first year and 0.033 in the second. Their Adjusted Rushing NEP per play went up 0.014 in year one and 0.005 in year two. Not too shabby.
This trend continued this year. Each of the seven teams that drafted an offensive lineman in the first round of the 2015 draft saw their Adjusted Passing NEP per play increase in the 2015 season. This included an improvement of 0.26 points for Washington and 0.25 for the Cincinnati Bengals. If the Titans were to improve 0.25 points this year, they would be the seventh most efficient passing offense in the league based on 2015's marks.
Clearly, we shouldn't expect that big of an impact, but we can have lofty expectations.
When we narrow the scope to just teams that used a top-10 pick on offensive linemen from 2001 to 2015, the average increase in Adjusted Passing NEP per play was 0.094. That would be the difference between the Titans finishing 31st this year and finishing 20th. For just one year, that's really not bad. If they get a full season out of Mariota as opposed to drudging along with Mettenberger, things could be even better. Maybe they've got some hope after all.
The Titans are not a team that is just one piece away from competing. This (and general prospect bust rates) is why a trade back to accumulate more picks would be the optimal solution. Targeting the offensive line isn't a bad back-up plan.
When two quarterbacks with significant sample sizes both appear as outliers in their sack numbers, you should realize that the issue runs beyond inexperience from the signal callers. Allocating resources to the offensive line is a must.
If they do so, the Titans could be on the fast track to efficiency. Mariota was a quality passer this year when he was given time to throw, and a move toward the league average would do wonders for him. We've only seen the beginning of what this dude can do.
The success rates of teams that have gone offensive line early is one that should help ease any concerns the Titans may have. These teams have consistently seen improvement, and that improvement increases dramatically when the linemen is a top-10 pick. It's generally a safe selection, but it's also one that carries considerable upside.
All of this isn't to say that the Titans will magically have all of their issues evaporate with one draft pick. Picks fail, and there's no guarantee that this one will be a success. However, given what we saw last year, it's obvious that the Titans need to make an effort to cure this ill, and doing so could put that 3-13 record in the rearview mirror.