That's when you remind yourself that every climb up the mountain begins with a good hard step. Selecting guard Chance Warmack and left tackle Taylor Lewan in back-to-back years reminded me a bit of the 2006 NFL Draft when the Jets landed D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold in the first round. It was a 10-year game-changer.
If nothing else, the Titans now have a foundation on which to build. That's why Lewan and Warmack are our next featured players on Making the Leap.
What gives us so much hope?
On an individual level, Warmack improved immensely from 2013 to 2014 under new offensive line coach Bob Bostad. He reduced the guard's sack total from seven to two despite the fact that the quarterback situation worsened behind him. Notably, against the Jets in Week 15, Warmack was working with absolutely nothing around him. Lewan, Michael Roos, Michael Oher and Brian Schwenke were all out and he had his best game of the year against one of the hardest fronts in the league.
What specifically has gotten better? Power, confidence and blitz recognition. Sometimes a big-body player like Warmack just needs a year to remember that he's massive and far stronger than many of his opponents. It's a confidence that shined on tape, especially during the second half of the 2014 season.
I can't imagine what it's like for him to be able to cause that much disruption with a simple shove mid-play. As his technique continues to sharpen, this can make him a more violent downfield blocker.
The perfect example
As a unit -- Lewan and Warmack only played 10 games together last year -- I thought their best game was in a narrow loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a high-effort game for both players despite the season circumstances and they didn't play overmatched up front. Early in the game, Tennessee went to a stretch play on the left side that featured Warmack as a backside blocker on a linebacker. I have to believe that, as Bishop Sankey develops, this can become a bread-and-butter play for the Titans that can net four yards per attempt and get some extra flavor out of the shotgun with Marcus Mariota. Warmack, in the six games I watched of his last season, has really grown as a second-level blocker against linebackers and strong safeties, where I feel Lewan is best at the point of attack.
Lewan was also tested wide the game versus Pittsburgh, often by James Harrison. The combination of Harrison's experience and Zach Mettenberger's developing feel for the pocket could have been a disaster scenario, but Lewan handled it like a veteran. There wasn't a ton of desperate flailing, save for one or two plays, and Harrison ended up not registering a sack.
For me, Lewan can be encapsulated in one play. Against the Steelers on a Sankey touchdown run, he started the block with a great push on defensive end Cameron Heyward. Noticing that Sankey was in a dog pile, he slowed a bit until he saw his running back re-emerge toward the end zone. In what seemed like a split second, Lewan moved five yards laterally to finish in the heart of the play -- he essentially tackled Sankey into the end zone and was the first one up to celebrate.
If I'm guessing correctly -- and who knows, without being in the Titans' meeting room, this is open to interpretation -- I'd bet Lewan got a positive grade for his initial push and for his overall energy. Coming off the block is a rookie mistake, and one we bet he'll eliminate this season.
I hate to use the word "gamer" because it's cliché, but I feel like it fits well with Lewan's puppy-dog energy off the ball.
Coming into next year, I think it would be a disappointment if Lewan wasn't one of the league's 15 best left tackles and it would be a major disappointment if Warmack didn't make the leap into the top 12 alongside budding stars like Chicago's Kyle Long. For reference, Pro Football Focus viewed him as the 25th-best guard in football behind Logan Mankins and another Around The NFL favorite, Trai Turner.