Patriots Southeast? Titans establishing contender culture that attracts free agents

Logan Ryan was a key recruiter in Tennessee's efforts to bring in fellow former Patriots Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler. Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans general manager Jon Robinson isn't satisfied with running a slightly above-average squad, and he's making offseason moves in hopes of earning leaguewide respect as championship contenders. Free agents are noticing.

References to the Titans becoming "Patriots Southeast" only increased after Robinson signed former New England cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis with Tennessee's first two outside free-agent moves. Josh Kline, a guard the Titans picked up off waivers from the Patriots in 2016, also re-signed on a four-year deal with Tennessee this offseason.

There's a "getting the band back together" feel in Tennessee. The Patriots are a great model to follow, but nobody has been able to duplicate it yet. There's no Tom Brady for other teams to pick up. Still, what the Titans are doing is garnering notice throughout the league.

"It doesn't matter what they're trying to build; as long as it's right and it's going to win, I'm down for whatever," said Butler, citing a good franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota, a familiar teammate in cornerback Logan Ryan, warm weather and a belief that the Titans are close to a championship as reasons why he signed in free agency over several other suitors.

Lewis offered his take

"They're trying to bring good, smart football players here," Lewis said. "We got Logan, Malcolm, myself and Coach [Mike] Vrabel played with the Patriots. It's a lot of carryover, but at the same time, they're trying to get good, talented players to win. I'm just happy they thought of me as one of those players to help."

Robinson, who began his NFL administrative career as a Patriots scout, has a strong affinity for the New England organization. He personally selected Vrabel to replace former head coach Mike Mularkey, noting that the two share a similar philosophy on how to create a championship culture. Both prioritize tough, "we instead of me" guys.

"We shared a bunch of success there," Vrabel said earlier this offseason when asked if the Titans are following the so-called Patriot Way. "To get a ‘way,’ you have to win. You have to be able to win championships before people start giving you ‘ways’ to do things. That will be our ultimate goal, but I talked about how our players are going to be prepared.

"They’re going to play fast and aggressive, and that’s what I believe in. Until we can win a championship doing that, then there’s not going to be this ‘Titans Way.’"

Ryan, another former Patriot whom the Titans signed to a three-year deal last offseason, was a significant recruiter as Tennessee pursued Butler and Lewis.

"It's like the first day of school, but you got two brothers with you in the new school," said Butler, who felt relieved to be in a comfortable place after an offseason full of turmoil relating to his curious Super Bowl LII benching. "The Patriots are all about doing your job and being locked in and focused 100 percent. That was probably not the case [with me]. ... But the experience made me better and stronger. Pain don't last long, like a scab on your arm."

Ryan thought highly of Butler, remembering their strong chemistry and communication during three seasons together in New England. Butler would get the fast guy. Ryan would get the strong guy. Ryan actually called Butler and Lewis on Tuesday morning to make his pitch.

"He said, 'C'mon man, let's get this reunion back together. The same one-two punch with me and you, plus [cornerback Adoree'] Jackson,'" Butler said. "Logan had always been a good teammate to me. I don't think he would sit there and tell me anything. I believe him and I believe in this organization."

Lewis shared his thoughts on the matter.

"Logan is a big part of this as well," Lewis said. "He mentioned he just bought a house and he's only been here for a year. To buy a house that quickly, you really must love the area you're in. That meant a lot to me. Malcolm came too, so that was another big one."

If you're willing to follow the Patriot Way, you've got to accept the Patriots' expectations. And the Titans seem focused on moving from dark horse contender to legitimate championship threat. We'll see if the plan works.