- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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Not only does the NFL draft "matter," as the ad tells us, but that stress-filled Saturday and Sunday in late April are only the most important 48 hours of the year in pro football. It's like having Tax Day and your wedding anniversary back-to-back on the calendar. Both days can set the tone for an entire year. Look at the teams that in the past few years have been regulars in the postseason: New England, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Baltimore they've all done well on draft weekend. There's a direct correlation between what a team does in the draft and what it does or doesn't do in January and February.
The futures of 32 teams, 32 corporations are at stake. So, yes, it's important. And for no team is this year's draft bigger than naturally the Titans.
Nestled in Nashville, Tenn., the Titans often are overlooked. But they're a team to pay attention to next weekend. It's unusual for them to be picking this high (sixth), because they've been one of the league's most consistently successful franchises (56-24 from 1999-03). Coming off a 5-11 season during which, according to head coach Jeff Fisher, Tennessee starters missed more than 130 games due to injury, and an offseason that saw the departures of several mainstays for salary cap reasons, the Titans must make the most of their 10 selections.
The league granted Tennessee compensatory selections in the third and fourth rounds based on its losses during free agency last year, among them Jevon Kearse and Robaire Smith. Those extra picks were welcome inside the team's Baptist Sports Park facility. And the Titans got a fifth-rounder from Kansas City in exchange for defensive end Carlos Hall, whom there was a chance they would not have been able to re-sign when he hit unrestricted free agency next year, a la Justin McCareins last year. With those extra choices, the Titans can move up to get a desired player and shoot for quantity over quality.
A nice draft bounty and the Titans could rebound quickly, especially with Steve McNair coming back. And they'll be players in free agency next offseason, after the $23,825,872 in dead money from the releases of Kevin Carter, Derrick Mason, Fred Miller and Samari Rolle comes off their cap.
But miss on too many picks, on the other hand, and Tennessee's rebuilding process could continue for another year.
"I wouldn't say pressure, but there's excitement about this draft," head coach Jeff Fisher said. "If you look at last year's draft and this year's draft, you're talking about 23 selections, 45 percent of your team. That's quite a turnover. You expect about 20 to 25 percent a year, but most clubs are balancing that turnover with UFAs and draft choices, whereas our philosophy because of the cap situation and because we wanted to keep it together the last couple of years has been to draft for depth and eventual starters, and then plug in an occasional free agent here and there. So this is a big draft. This may be one of the biggest as long as I've been here.
"We've been preparing for this [paying the parity piper known as the cap]. This ends up being, not the final step, but a huge step in the process that's been going on for the last couple of years. Next year before we start the new cap year, we'll be millions of dollars under the cap and will be in position to balance draft and free agency. With that said, this ends up being step two for us. We didn't anticipate in the planning stages picking sixth. That makes it even bigger for us considering where we're selecting."
Tennessee has needs just about everywhere, particularly at corner, linebacker, receiver and running back. So the sixth pick probably will be the best available player and fulfill a need.
"If you look at us over the last six or seven years," general manager Floyd Reese said, "we've kept an average of double-digit rookies every year. The same thing will happen this year. The difference will be in the roles of those players. Instead of a guy coming in and being a part-time starter, a guy or two will be thrown into a starting role right away."
In addition to the Titans, here are four other teams that really need to have a nice weekend:
2. Arizona (eighth pick): Based on immediate returns, the Cardinals had the best draft of any team last spring. They've got Kurt Warner at quarterback now, and if they can swing a deal with Buffalo for Travis Henry and pick up a few more stud rookies, Dennis Green's club might challenge for the NFC West crown.
4. Minnesota (7 and 18): The Vikings upgraded their defense with the signings of Pat Williams, Darren Sharper and Fred Smoot. Everyone will be watching to see what Minnesota does with the pick (No. 7) acquired from Oakland in the Randy Moss trade.
5. San Diego (12 and 28): So far, it looks like the Chargers got the better of the trade that netted the Giants Eli Manning. But we still don't know if Philip Rivers can play, and Manning could turn out to be the real deal. Getting the picks from New York was the easy part. Now the Bolts have to make them count.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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