But it’s hardly a slam dunk the Heisman Trophy winner will be the choice.
The Titans’ roster is thin, and they could look to trade down or simply take another player and stick with Zach Mettenberger for at least another season.
It’s the season for connecting dots and drawing (hopeful) conclusions.
San Diego Chargers veteran quarterback Philip Rivers has let it be known he’s not interested in moving to Los Angeles if the Chargers relocate. He’s from Athens, Alabama, 100 miles south of Music City. He did good work with Ken Whisenhunt when the Titans coach was offensive coordinator for the Chargers in 2013.
And San Diego, which drafts 17th, has scheduled a visit with Mariota on April 15.
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Chargers reporter Eric Williams consider whether the Chargers could trade Rivers to Tennessee for a shot to draft Mariota.
Paul Kuharsky: Eric, I know the Chargers aren’t outright fueling this speculation, and general manager Tom Telesco said he loves Rivers, but they have not come out and clearly said there is no chance they would deal him, right?
Williams: There’s always a chance something unexpected can happen on draft day. However, the Chargers are a veteran team constructed around the durable Rivers to win now. So I would be surprised if Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy would be willing to move the veteran quarterback for the chance to draft a talented but unknown prospect such as Mariota. Telesco said he wants Rivers to retire a Charger and would like to get a contract extension done sooner rather than later. McCoy said the expectation is Rivers will play in San Diego in 2015. Telesco and McCoy also have one year left on their contracts after the 2015 season. In the bottom-line business of the NFL, going with a young quarterback does not lead to job security.
Paul, the Titans finished 2-14 and have several holes to fill in molding Tennessee back into a playoff contender. Why would the Titans want to bring in Rivers this early in the team’s rebuilding effort?
Paul Kuharsky: I don’t buy that the quarterback and the team have to grow up together. It usually happens that way because a team like this would be using its high pick on a quarterback and the chance to trade for a proven guy is exceptionally rare. But given that chance, I’ll take the proven commodity like Rivers over an unknown like Mariota. A lot of people are measuring Rivers against the optimal Mariota scenario. But the Titans didn’t get 10-year quarterbacks out of their last two high quarterback picks, Jake Locker and Vince Young. I have trouble presuming they would with Mariota, who doesn’t fit Whisenhunt the way Rivers does. Also, the Titans have zero identity. I think they could pass on Mariota if they stay at No. 2. If they take him, they are selling hope. If they somehow managed to get Rivers, he’d give them a presence they’ve been severely lacking and he would own Music City in two seconds.
I know the Chargers have some other key guys who are heading into contract years. Do you see a scenario where, if they love Mariota, they decide they would rather get him and think long-term than only have one more guaranteed year with Rivers? Do you think Rivers, even if he’s given the franchise tag next offseason, could walk away if they go to LA?
Williams: That’s a lot of what-ifs, and as you know most NFL coaches and general managers like to deal with a reasonable amount of certainty. Here’s what we know: Foundational players Eric Weddle, Antonio Gates, Corey Liuget and Rivers are in the final year of their respective deals. The Chargers will play in San Diego in 2015. There’s no guarantee the Chargers -- or any other NFL team -- will play in Los Angeles in 2016. Rivers is under contract through this season. Thereafter, the Chargers can franchise him for the next two years at a price tag north of $20 million to keep him on the roster, whether Rivers likes it or not. The Chargers would gladly do that, because Telesco and McCoy know they can win with him. Rivers is a man of his word, so he possibly could retire if the team moves to Los Angeles. But Telesco is a man of conviction as well, and appears committed to keeping Rivers with the team long-term. The Chargers like Mariota, which is why team representatives are holding a private workout with him on April 15. But they have also showed interest in other quarterback prospects such as Baylor’s Bryce Petty, Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. Working out Mariota could be San Diego doing its due diligence to get an apples-to-apples comparison with other quarterbacks in the draft in case Mariota falls down the draft board.
Paul, the draft compensation needed to secure Rivers likely will be at least two first-round picks, and possibly some additional selections in future drafts. The Titans also would have to negotiate a new contract with Rivers. Is Tennessee prepared to give up that much draft capital? And do they have the cap space to make that deal work?
Paul Kuharsky: Oh, I don’t think they can give up much more than No. 2. Maybe No. 2 and a 2016 third-rounder or something like that. I started off thinking Rivers and 17 for No. 2 and something else. Now I think I’d do No. 2 for Rivers, and maybe a bit more, understanding they would have to entice the Chargers to make a move, and that an elite quarterback -- even one who is older -- is going to cost a premium. But the Chargers would also have to conclude something now is better than nothing later. I think the Titans would be happy to negotiate a new deal and would give him a very fair package, and that would be a mandatory piece of any deal. They have the cap space to make that work. So there would have to be some groundwork, I would think, before Tennessee was on the clock.
It’s probably a fantasy scenario for Tennessee. But I bet Whisenhunt would be on board. Being paired with Rivers would give Whiz his best chance at a third year in Nashville.
Eric, Rivers turns 34 in December. Does he still have some gas left in the tank?
Williams: If he stays healthy and is protected, I believe Rivers can play at an elite level for at least another three years. He’s made 144 consecutive starts, second among active leaders at quarterback to Eli Manning (167). And over the past two seasons, Rivers is second in the NFL in completion percentage (68 percent), fourth in touchdowns (63) and fifth in total QBR (69.3). However, back and rib injuries slowed him down during the stretch of 2014, so staying healthy long-term could be a concern moving forward.
Paul, do you believe Tennessee has the personnel in place for Rivers to succeed in his first year there if the Titans complete a trade?
Kuharsky: No. But they had a good draft last year, so there is cause for some optimism they can do it again. The free-agent additions, keyed by outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, have a chance to be a big help. The second year of the 3-4 with Dick LeBeau now heading it should be better. They need to keep working on the defense, the offensive line and the weapons for who is playing quarterback. We see unexpected teams make big jumps every year in the NFL. The 2015 Titans are an incredible long shot to be a playoff team, with or without Rivers. But in two years?
I've told Titans fans if they are going to dream of a veteran quarterback scenario, Rivers is the one to dream of. If that dream comes true, the dream of playoff contention in 2016 would be a lot more realistic.