One thing seemed certain in the Tennessee Titans' 2021 draft.
General manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel were not about to have a repeat of the Isaiah Wilson situation if they could prevent it.
Wilson, the Titans' first-round pick who famously bombed last year by caring more about fast cars and his wannabe rap career than football, is now free to hip and hop on down the road without the distraction of the NFL in his way, having been discarded by both the Titans and the Miami Dolphins in the off-season.
Meanwhile, Robinson and Vrabel were working to add players who had a love for football, something that Wilson apparently fooled them on last year under the restrictions of Covid-19.
While many similar restrictions were still in play this year, the Titans made sure they got better access to this year's prospects by taking advantage of whatever limited meetings they could.
They obviously decided that the best way to do that was to take advantage of the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where they could meet with the players, see them up close and get a feel for who they were not only as players, but as people.
The result: The Titans chose five players in the draft that they had a chance to get up close and personal with in the evaluation process. Tackle Dillon Radunz in the second round, cornerback Elijah Molden and linebacker Monty Rice in the third round, receiver Dez Fitzpatrick and edge rusher Rashad Weaver in the fourth round and receiver Racey McMath from the sixth round all took part in the proceedings in Mobile.
“I think that those guys – that was the one setting where we could really sit down and talk to those guys,” Robinson said. “They had Plexiglass up. Restrictions certainly weren't as loose then as they are now. But we had masks on and we were able to talk to them face-to-face and interact with those guys and came away impressed with those guys that we selected this weekend after talking to them down there.”
For Vrabel, it was about being able to watch the Senior Bowl practices and get an idea of what the players could do in a setting where teams could learn about them and the players could showcase their skills.
“Some of the practices are critical, that you can go back and watch, the one-on-ones and drill work and watch practice. Sometimes the game gets a little muddy. There's not a whole lot of time to prepare. It's pretty simple scheme on both sides. But I think the practices are really cool, to be able to go back and watch on tape as well,” he said.
In the case of Radunz, who now has the inside track to be the Titans right tackle of the future instead of the jettisoned Wilson, the Senior Bowl game was the way he proved himself to be worthy of the Titans spending a second-round pick on an FCS-level player who got into only one game in 2020.
“I think I proved myself well at the Senior Bowl. I was able to perform well against those guys and continuing to get stronger, get faster against those high-level opponents is going to be huge. So, continuing to get better, not thinking that I made it at any point in my career, doing that and I think I'll be very successful,” Radunz said. “I worked with a lot of NFL guys to get myself ready and, like I said, I performed pretty well. I think being able to bring that nastiness from the FCS, NDSU power-style football to the Senior Bowl was a huge benefit to me and I think it showed.”
The Titans came away convinced by what they saw that Radunz was their type of guy, despite having not played at the highest level of competition in college. The makeup of his character and approach combined with their evaluation at the Senior Bowl sold them on him.
“That Senior Bowl exposure was really good for him to go against some of the best of the best in college football,” Robinson said. “Got a chance to spend some time down there with him, get to know him. He's about what we're about, you know, football-wise and makeup and commitment to being a good football player. That Senior Bowl experience and week down there for him both in the practices and in the game was very positive in his favor.”
And judging by their overal draft haul, it was very valuable to the Titans as well.
“That's what the Senior Bowl does, and then you go back and study what tape is available and watch their workout and try to project and have a vision for them,” Vrabel said.