But there is a strong case to be made that the best choice for Tennessee at No. 1 is Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.
1. Buckner is one of the two best players in this draft
In our most recent draft board at PFF, we placed Buckner at No. 2 overall behind only Ohio State edge rusher Joey Bosa.
A few reasons why:
• He was by far the top-graded interior defensive lineman in college football last season, ranking ninth against the run and first as a pass-rusher, having registered a position-leading 67 quarterback pressures, including 12 sacks.
• This was after ranking in the top 10 of interior lineman grades in 2014, considerably higher than teammate Arik Armstead, who played the same position at Oregon before being drafted No. 17 overall by San Francisco last year.
• Buckner might not have the highlight reel of the other prospects Tennessee could consider at No. 1 overall, but his consistent production was simply outstanding for the Ducks. He was a disruptive force against opposing running and passing games all season long.
• He doesn’t possess jaw-dropping athleticism, but his size (6-foot-7, 291 pounds) and length (34-inch arms and nearly 12-inch hands) are excellent for his position.
• He graded out considerably better in 2014 than Leonard Williams, the Jets’ No. 6 overall pick a year ago who was considered by many the draft’s best defensive prospect, and went on to have an excellent rookie season. Buckner’s 67 total QB pressures dwarfed the 50 generated by Williams.
2. Buckner projects as a better fit in Tennessee’s defense than Bosa
After all of that gushing about Buckner, it’s worth reminding that Bosa is still the No. 1 player on our board. He was the best defensive player in college football last year, ranking first among edge players against the run and as a pass-rusher, recording 70 QB pressures, including seven sacks.
But having played almost all of his snaps at 4-3 defensive end for Ohio State, it’s fair to wonder whether Bosa is an ideal fit for the Titans’ 3-4 defense. That’s not to say we’d fault them if they chose to draft him No. 1, as he could likely transition either to defensive end or outside linebacker in a base 3-4 defense, while lining up at an edge-rushing role on passing downs.
The difference with Buckner is that he is a prototypical fit as a 3-4 defensive end, and in the opinion of our analysts, has the potential to excel in a four-man line as well, either at defensive tackle or lining up out wide on occasion.
3. The Titans don’t need a left tackle
The player who seems to be getting the most buzz at the No. 1 spot to Tennessee is Ole Miss tackle Tunsil, a remarkable physical talent who is the No. 5 player on our board.
There is no doubting that the Titans need to improve their pass protection, having ranked No. 25 of the 32 NFL teams in overall pass-blocking grade last season. But by far the best performer on the offensive line last season was their left tackle – Taylor Lewan, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
One reason why many might not realize this is because Lewan allowed the third-most sacks among tackles last season, with eight. But that’s where sack numbers can be deceiving. Lewan actually allowed the seventh-fewest total pressures, with 23, and he ranked an impressive 15th in pass-blocking grades among all NFL tackles.
Sacks typically get blamed on offensive linemen, but there are many cases in which the quarterback is responsible, and there is evidence that this was often the case with Mariota last year. The rookie ranked 15th among QBs in pressure percentage (the rate of dropbacks during which the defense got heat on him), and first in sack percentage (the rate of dropbacks during which the defense sacked him).
What those numbers mean: Having an inexperienced rookie quarterback with a habit for trying to make plays with his legs clearly took a toll on Tennessee’s sacks allowed number, and Lewan’s in particular.
Starting Tunsil out at right tackle or moving Lewan there would certainly strengthen Tennessee’s line overall. But at that point, the Titans would essentially be using the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on a right tackle – which doesn’t seem justified based on positional value.
4. An interior defensive lineman as productive as Buckner can generate a huge impact
One of the arguments against taking Buckner No. 1 overall, and similarly against taking Williams early in last year’s draft, is that a 3-4 defensive end doesn’t provide the level of impact that a premium position like quarterback, offensive tackle, edge rusher or cornerback does.
But it’s worth noting that we are coming off a 2015 season during which PFF named Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald the best player in football. He was an absolutely destructive force on the interior for the Rams, getting the type of pressure numbers that most edge rushers would be thrilled with. The owner of the “best in the NFL” title the past few seasons has been J.J. Watt, who has primarily lined up at 3-4 DE during his Texans career. The Jaguars just signed former Bronco Malik Jackson to a six-year, $90 million contract based on his ability to get after the quarterback from the inside.
That’s not to draw a direct comparison between Buckner and any of those guys, but the point is that Buckner has the potential to have a significant impact for an NFL defense if he can replicate his college productivity in the pros. Yes, he’s a power player, but just 10 of his 67 QB pressures came on bull rushes in 2015, with the majority of them coming on plays during which he beat his man to the outside.
Moreover, there is a growing trend of NFL defenses employing traditional interior linemen in edge-rushing roles. Watt quietly played a high percentage of snaps from an edge position in 2015, earning the second-highest pressure total of his career. Buckner doesn’t have Watt’s quickness, but a better comp might be the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson, who moved outside this season and was able to get after the QB at a higher rate, utilizing his combination of length and power coming off the edge.
Tennessee drafting Buckner might not generate the same level of excitement of a Bosa or a Ramsey or even a Tunsil, but it’s a move that could give the team one of the draft’s most productive players and the makings of a strong defensive front.