The first overall pick can be an incredibly valuable, franchise-changing asset, but all first overall picks aren't created equal. Finish with the league's worst record when Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning is in the draft pool, as the Colts did, and you can paper over holes around the roster for years to come. Other years, teams aren't so lucky. The Chiefs were only able to come away with a decent tackle when they had the top pick in 2013 and grabbed Eric Fisher.
In 1991, the New England Patriots found themselves in similarly frustrating straits. They had the first overall pick in a draft in which the top prospect, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, had decided to spurn the NFL for the riches of playing in Canada (really). Faced with no obvious top overall pick, they sent the selection to the Cowboys for the 11th and 41st selections and three players, only one of whom (linebacker Eugene Lockhart) was a starter.
This year, it's the Tennessee Titans who finished with the league's worst record, and they could be in line to consider that sort of deal. There's no consensus top prospect or franchise quarterback available, so the trade market for the selection will be sparse at best. Tennessee would likely struggle to get fair value for its pick. To get a commensurate return, Chase Stuart's empirical draft value model suggests the Titans would need to get two first-rounders amid the top 15 selections (or a bevy of later picks). That's not going to happen.
The alternative for new Titans general manager Jon Robinson is to hold onto the pick and use it to upgrade one of the league's thinnest rosters. Oddly, for a team that could use just about everything, this draft aligns poorly with Tennessee's needs. The top six in Mel Kiper's latest mock draft hits the Titans where they're strongest. It includes two quarterbacks, and after drafting Marcus Mariota the Titans don't need a passer. Joey Bosa could be superfluous given that the Titans have invested in Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan on the edge, plus he isn't an ideal physical fit as an outside linebacker if the Titans stay in a 3-4. And defensive lineman DeForest Buckner plays the same position as Tennessee's best player, Jurrell Casey.
The Titans could opt for gifted Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but most observers -- Kiper included -- think Tennessee will go after Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil with the No. 1 pick. Tunsil is generally regarded as the best player available and as a projected franchise left tackle, he plays one of the more valuable positions in football. The vast majority of the league's teams could use Tunsil.
While Tennessee would find a spot for Tunsil, that part of the equation isn't quite as clear. Under deposed general manager Ruston Webster, the Titans spent heavily on their offensive line over the past five years. Their current left tackle is 24-year-old Michigan product Taylor Lewan, taken with the 11th pick in the 2014 draft. One year earlier, the Titans took massive Alabama guard Chance Warmack with the 10th pick. They also went into free agency with big deals for Andy Levitre and Michael Oher, neither of whom are still with the team.
If Robinson uses the top pick on Tunsil, the Titans would be in the exceedingly rare position of having three first-round picks on rookie contracts playing along the same offensive line. The Cowboys were in a similar situation before Tyron Smith signed his massive extension, but that group also included center Travis Frederick, who was taken with the next-to-last pick of the first round. If the Titans take Tunsil first, it would be three top-11 picks used on offensive linemen in four years.
That's a lot of draft capital. The Titans maxed out their budget in Mint on offensive linemen, to an extent the league hasn't seen in decades. We can calculate how much the Titans have invested in offensive linemen by using Stuart's aforementioned draft value board. Tunsil would be the seventh offensive lineman the Titans have selected across the past five drafts, between 2012 and 2016. Those picks will have cost them, by Stuart's model, 87.1 points of draft capital:
To put their spending in context, the last time a team has spent this much of its draft assets over a five-year (or four-year) span on offensive linemen? You have to go all the way back to 1980. Entire generations of players and coaches and offensive concepts have come and gone since the last time an organization committed to its offensive line the way the Titans would be if they used the first overall pick on Tunsil (or another lineman). This would be the core of the 2016 Titans line; the only question mark would be at center, where Brian Schwenke has had injury issues and is coming off of a dislocated ankle.
Here's the good news for Titans fans: The last team that did it was pretty happy with how things turned out, and it was a very familiar bunch. The Houston Oilers selected seven offensive linemen across a five-draft stretch between 1980 and 1984. That included two second-rounders, neither of whom lasted long: Angelo Fields was gone after two years, while Harvey Salem held out early in his fourth season with the team and was traded for a future second-round pick.
The first-rounders were a little more notable. In 1982, the Oilers used the eighth overall pick on Mike Munchak, who made nine Pro Bowls with Houston before eventually becoming Tennessee's head coach. The following year, they traded down twice and used the ninth overall selection on Bruce Matthews, who made 14 Pro Bowls with the Oilers and Titans. Both Munchak and Matthews are Hall of Famers. The worst pick of the bunch was the most expensive selection of all; Houston used its 1984 first-rounder, the second overall selection, on Nebraska tackle Dean Steinkuhler. Steinkuhler suffered a knee injury during his rookie year that kept him out for part of 1984 and all of 1985. When he came back, he had to settle for a seven-year career as the starting right tackle on a team that made the playoffs five consecutive times between 1987 and 1991 (and two more times after Steinkuhler left).
Two Hall of Famers in three tries isn't a bad ratio. Houston's gambit worked, but it took a while to get there. Munchak and Matthews were onboard by 1983, and the Oilers replaced Oliver Luck (Andrew's dad) with CFL star (and future Hall of Famer) Warren Moon in 1984, but the offense was still a mess. The Oilers ranked 23rd or lower in points scored in each of Moon's first three seasons at the helm before finally breaking through to 10th in 1987. They would finish in the top 10 in each of the next six seasons, falling precipitously once Moon and Munchak left after the 1993 season. The Titans would be happy if Warmack and Lewan became Hall of Famers, but they also would like to see their offense take strides forward before 2019.
Houston spent 101.4 points of draft capital on linemen between 1980 and 1984. That's the second-highest five-year total since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The 1975-1979 Rams narrowly topped the Oilers at 102.9, but that was mostly a result of sheer quantity. The Rams drafted 15 linemen over that five-year span, and while three of them were first-round picks, none of them was higher than the 11th overall selection.
The most notable offensive lineman Los Angeles selected over that time frame wasn't one of those first-rounders, either; it was future Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, a third-round selection in the 1976 draft. The Rams ranked as one of the league's top offenses over that time frame and stayed above league average thereafter, but they were also one of the league's top attacks heading into that run too, finishing in the top five in points scored six times in seven years between 1967 and 1973.
Let's look at more recent teams, though. There are only a handful of teams that spent 70 points of draft capital or more on linemen over a given five-year stretch, and their results are ... mixed at best:
The 2009-2013 Chiefs (74.2 points) used most of their capital on Fisher when they took him No. 1 in 2013. The jury is still out on the former MAC star. Fisher was the only first-round pick from the bunch, which speaks to just how much capital is tied up in the first overall selection; it's worth 34.6 points of draft capital, or nearly half of what the Chiefs spent. By the end of this offseason, with Donald Stephenson and Jeff Allen free agents and both Rodney Hudson and Jon Asamoah already out of town, Fisher could be the only player from this bunch left on the roster.
The 2008-2012 Dolphins (77.3) were another team that used the first overall pick on a lineman, taking Michigan tackle Jake Long first in 2008. They used the 15th overall pick on center Mike Pouncey three years later and added a second-rounder on Jonathan Martin. Their investment was almost entirely for naught. The 2013 Dolphins infamously had one of the worst offensive lines in league history, and here in 2016, the only lineman from these drafts left on Miami's roster is Pouncey.
The 2005-2009 Rams (70.8) are an even scarier story. Their first-round picks were Jason Smith and Alex Barron, two of the worst tackles in recent league history. The only players from this group to last more than five seasons in the league were third-rounders John Greco and Richie Incognito, guards who remain in the NFL. And they both enjoyed most of their professional success away from St. Louis. In fact, not a single lineman from these five drafts stuck around with the Rams after their rookie contracts were up. This is the worst-case scenario for the Titans.
The 1996-2000 Seahawks (75.8) were part of a run that saw Seattle spend four first-round picks on offensive linemen across a six-year span. This five-year bunch, which cost slightly more draft capital, includes first-rounders Pete Kendall (1996), Chris McIntosh (2000) and Hall of Famer Walter Jones (1997). The 1997-2001 drafts were slightly cheaper (at 72.8 points), but that bunch swaps out Kendall for a more successful guard, seven-time Pro Bowler Steve Hutchinson. Second-rounder Todd Weiner and fourth-rounder Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack also played 100-plus games in the NFL; this was an excellent return on Seattle's investment.
The 1991-1995 Eagles (79.3) took the Seahawks one further; they were part of an eight-year run between 1991 and 1998 which saw Philadelphia draft five offensive linemen in the first round. Just two of those five linemen -- Jermane Mayberry and Tra Thomas -- stuck around in Philadelphia after their rookie contracts expired, combining for four trips to the Pro Bowl. The three other first-rounders -- Lester Holmes, Bernard Williams and Antone Davis -- failed to make a trip to Hawaii, with Williams bouncing out of the league after one season by virtue of a marijuana addiction.
The 1991-1995 Patriots (72.9) didn't get much out of their two first-round picks; Pat Harlow was a solid tackle before running afoul of Bill Parcells and getting traded to the Raiders for a second-round pick. (The Pats would turn that pick into five selections in 1996, one of which was Tedy Bruschi.) Fellow first-rounder Eugene Chung lost his job after two seasons and never started another NFL game. Instead the Pats found value from midround picks such as Max Lane, Todd Rucci and David Dixon, the last of whom started 134 games after being taken in the ninth round of the 1992 draft. The ninth round doesn't even exist anymore.
Look through those drafts and there's no clear trend or takeaway beyond the simple fact that throwing resources at a position isn't enough to solve a problem. As frequently as you'll hear that offensive linemen are safer picks than players at other positions, it's not really true. There are more places to try offensive linemen -- there's a positional spectrum in moving from the left side to the right side and from tackle to guard in a way that there isn't at quarterback -- but even a series of first-round picks isn't a guaranteed ticket to a great line.
It's more about what you do with those linemen after they arrive in town, and that's where the Titans might be concerned, given that the organization doesn't appear to have gotten much out of its previous investments. Ironically, much of that failure came under the coaching of Munchak and Matthews. Both Levitre and Oher were massive disappointments before leaving town, and Oher has drastically turned around his career with the Panthers. Warmack has been inconsistent and failed to deliver on the promise he showed at school. Even Lewan is a work in progress. This is a new personnel office, and Mike Mularkey has been at the helm as head coach for only a few months, but the Titans haven't gotten more out of a lineman than we would have expected since Michael Roos, and he was drafted in 2005.
And that, in turn, is why it makes the most sense for the Titans to trade down and grab more picks. This is a team without a lot of finished products. They're not one selection away from fielding the best roster in the AFC South, let alone the conference. They lack playmakers and much of a defense. The Titans need as many shots as possible to find worthwhile, cheap contributors to flesh out the back of their roster. Robinson's former boss in New England was Bill Belichick, who gets more out of draft-day trades than anybody else in football. It might be time for Robinson to follow his lead, even if it means passing on Tunsil with the first pick.