The Tennessee Titans needed to find two to three plug-and-play starters in the 2023 NFL Draft to shore up the roster for the coming season.
But when the draft – new general manager Ran Carthon’s first – was over, the Titans had fallen far short of that goal.
As a result of draft failures past – especially 2020 and 2021 – plus some moves to get the club out of salary cap jail in the offense, the Titans need at least one offensive line starter from this year’s draft and at least one receiver who can step in and be an upgrade over Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Kyle Philips and Racey McMath.
The Titans solved the first problem with their first selection at No. 11, grabbing Northwestern offensive lineman Peter Skoronski.
On the high side of the pick, Skoronski figures to become the long-term solution at left tackle, replacing Taylor Lewan after nine years on the job. On the low side, he would slot in at left guard and fill that role for a few years.
While not the sexiest pick to grab an offensive lineman, few could fault the choice of Skoronski to help rebuild a line that allowed 49 sacks last season and helped land Ryan Tannehill on the injured reserve.
The second day of the draft is when the Titans front office seemed to get sideways with their draft picks, at least to the naked eye.
It had been rumored for a couple of weeks that the Titans wanted in on the quarterback derby, having had Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis in the building on top 30 prospect visits.
When Levis slid through the first round – Carthon later admitted that had Skoronski not been on the board at 11 that Levis would have been a consideration – the Titans gambled and moved up to take him at No. 33 overall with the second pick of the second round.
Levis was a polarizing pick, with some fans and media openly wondering what type of pro quarterback he will be after some inconsistent play last year for the Wildcats. This made him the focus of the Titans’ draft, for better or worse.
The pro-Levis draft analysts and scouts say the 6-4, 230-pound QB has a high ceiling and could develop into a Josh Allen dual-threat type quarterback. Levis detractors say he compares more closely to former Bears first-round bust Mitchell Trubisky.
Which turn Levis’ career ultimately takes will be the measure of whether Carthon’s first draft as the Titans general manager will be labeled a success or failure. Two years from now, if Levis joins the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert as a top franchise quarterback in the AFC, then no one will care what other positions were or were not addressed in 2023.
If that doesn’t happen, the Levis pick will be recalled as the pinnacle of a questionable draft, both for his production and what it cost the Titans to select him.
To select Levis, the Titans gave up a 2024 third-round pick, leaving them with only five selections going into next year’s draft. Tennessee has picks in rounds one, two and four, plus a pair in the seventh.
The fifth-round pick was sent to Carolina for tackle turnstile Dennis Daley, and the sixth went to Philadelphia for nickelback Ugo Amadi, who didn’t even make it through half a season in Tennessee last year.
For the Levis selection, the Titans surrendered that third-round pick in ’24 and swapped picks with former front office member Monti Ossenfort in last weekend’s third-round, falling from 72 down to 81.
That might not seem like much, but it was enough to thwart their chances of grabbing a receiver who could make an immediate impact.
Before the Titans could pick at 81, there was a brief run on receivers that took the Tennessee tandem of Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman off the board at 73 and 74. North Carolina’s Josh Downs went at 79.
Any of the three would have likely been a No. 2 receiver for the Titans this year. But the move down erased that opportunity.
Carthon wound up selecting Tulane running back Tyjae Spears, who has potential to be a playmaker but will spend his rookie year at least caddying for Derrick Henry. And so the Titans left Day Two without the impact receiver they so badly needed.
By Day Three, it was virtually too late to find that impact without trading more of their already depleted draft capital. Tennessee went for a tight end in round five, and Josh Whyle figures to have some sort of role as a second tight end similar to what Austin Hooper did last year.
In round six, the Titans went back to offensive line and nabbed Jaelyn Duncan, a tackle from Maryland, who figures to be a backup but potentially could develop into a starter down the line.
Throughout the process, as Carthon and Mike Vrabel were questioned time and again by the media about the lack of receivers taken in the draft, they kept referring to their overall board and wanting to take the highest-rated player, regardless of position or need.
“I think always you have to be patient. We talked about it not just taking a guy to fill a need. We want to get the right people and the right players in here that will help this program,” Carthon says. “But also understanding the board and value and if there’s a valuable player that can help us and contribute and we have a clear vision for it, and it’s standing out then we’re going to take that guy, as well.
“We don’t have to be at 90 (players) tomorrow. There’s still a million more ways we can go about acquiring guys to help us. So we just gotta let this full process take shape,” Carthon continues. “We don’t have to have the roster at 53 until September. So we’ve got to continue to let this process go.
“We have free agency first, we started there, now it’s draft season and still there’s players that are going to come available to us and it’s just all a part of the process.”
Toward the end, the Titans’ board finally showed a wide receiver as worthy of being chosen. It turned out to be a good local story with former Wilson Central and UT Martin receiver Colton Dowell getting the call.
With all due respect to Dowell, it will be a long shot for a seventh-round rookie to come in and contribute right away.
And so the receiver search will continue with undrafted diamonds in the rough, some secondary free agents, some cap cuts and maybe even a foray into the USFL or XFL for a guy looking for a second chance.
After the draft, Vrabel asked that people trust them that they made the right moves, despite the absence of an immediate impact receiver in their haul.
“For us to add a receiver we would have come far off our board at those certain levels,” Vrabel says. “That’s what I’m happy about. You guys are going to trust us. We’re going to put players in here that are going to help us win.”