Titans embrace mentoring younger players; Vrabel not so sure

Friday, June 8, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 23
By John Glennon

Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard relishes the role of mentor, but his help comes at a price. He demands young players work hard, learn their playbooks and try to get better every day.

-- G. Newman Lowrance Via Ap

Only days after the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted quarterback Mason Rudolph in April, veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asked whether he planned to serve as the rookie’s mentor.

He offered a less than enthusiastic response.

“I don’t think I’ll need to, now that he said he doesn’t need me,” Roethlisberger told Pittsburgh media with a laugh. “If he asks me a question, I might just have to point to the playbook.”

Roethlisberger later said he would answer questions if Rudolph asked, but also indicated second-string quarterback Landry Jones would be a better resource for the youngster.

It was a surprising reaction from Roethlisberger, considering he’s entrenched as the team’s starter and that Roethlisberger himself was mentored many years ago by former Steelers starter Tommy Maddox.

But the exchange raised a fundamental NFL question, one that’s applicable to the Titans this year as well, following the selections of first-round pick Rashaan Evans and second-round pick Harold Landry: Should veteran players – especially starters – be expected to tutor up-and-coming draft picks at the same position, especially since those youngsters may be gunning for the veterans’ jobs?

From a fan or organizational standpoint, the benefit of veteran mentoring might be a better overall team, one that’s deeper and more talented.

But it’s easy to see why a veteran – one who’s concerned about holding on to a starting role or getting as many snaps as possible – might not see it in his best interest to help young talent at his position.

In fact, Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who played 14 seasons in the NFL, is among those who don’t believe veterans should feel obligated to help coach up the new faces. But he also appreciates those vets who go the extra mile with rookies.

“It’s not their job, that’s not in their contract,” Vrabel says of his veterans. “Their job is to know what to do and play fast and aggressive. If along the way they see fit to take a guy under his wing who showed him that he’s willing to play hard and he knows what to do, then that’s up to them.

“But the coaches are the ones that are responsible for making sure that those (rookies) are ready to go. Now, the veterans are the ones that can make a difference, a huge difference, because sometimes players tune out coaches, but they rarely tune out teammates.”

The Titans traded up to select Evans with the 22nd overall pick of the draft in April, a clear sign the three-down linebacker may become a future franchise cornerstone.

A strong and athletic player who spent four years at Alabama, Evans should contend for a starting job right away. If he does crack the starting lineup, Evans would most likely take the place of Avery Williamson, who left the Titans for the New York Jets during free agency.

But it’s not out of the question that Evans could impact the starting position – or at least the playing time – of 10-year veteran Wesley Woodyard, who led the Titans with 172 tackles last season.

Help everybody

The 31-year-old Woodyard, however, says he finds no conflict of interest when it comes to helping out youngsters at his position, even those as talented as Evans. He says he recalls his early days as an undrafted free agent in Denver, when veterans like Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins, D.J. Williams and Mario Haggan showed him the ropes.

“A lot of guys put time into my career because they saw the talent I had, and most importantly, I was accepting to what they said to me,” Woodyard explains. “No man should ever hate on another man or talk bad about him or wish bad things. You should want to help everybody, and that’s the approach I take.”

Woodyard, who’s been a team captain ever since he was a senior in high school, adds he encourages young players to follow his lead.

“I tell all the rookies, every time I get a chance to speak to them, that as a veteran or a young player, if you’re not changing this game for a positive – trying to mentor people and do what’s right, then you’re being a negative to the game,” Woodyard continues.

Woodyard demands a few things from rookies in exchange for his help. He wants to see a strong work ethic, a willingness to listen to coaching and a consistent competitive fire.

It sounds as if Evans is moving in the right direction.

“It’s been exciting, a little breath of fresh air in that room with a rookie. It’s all fun and games,” Woodyard says. “He is continuing to learn, and he comes out here every day and shows up and tries to get better. That’s all you can ask of him, try to get better and compete every day.”

‘That’s Ben’

At the Titans’ outside linebacker position, nine-year veteran Brian Orakpo finds himself in a situation similar to that of Woodyard’s.

The 31-year-old Orakpo is playing very good football, evidenced by the fact he’s averaged more than eight sacks in his three seasons with the Titans. Still, there is the possibility that Landry – who piled up 21.5 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons – could threaten the playing time of Orakpo or fellow veteran Derrick Morgan in the near future.

But Orakpo sounds more enthused than concerned about the arrival of talented new blood at his position, focusing on the potential benefits for the team.

“We’re excited about (Landry) coming on board,” Orakpo says. “He’s full of energy, full of life. He’s going to get us better as well.

“(The rookies) are learning each and every day. It’s a bright future. I know those guys went first and second for a reason, and I’ve seen it out there on the field with my own eyes.”

Orakpo envisions a scenario in which Landry, Morgan and Orakpo might all see plenty of pass-rush success, through use of effective personnel rotations and creative defensive schemes.

“The more (rushers), the better,” Orakpo adds. “You see the teams around the league, they have a multitude of pass-rushers coming in and making plays. There can be three double-digit (sack) guys on the edge – it’s possible.”

If it sounds as if Orakpo’s opinions on rookie teammates differ from those of Roethlisberger, that’s probably accurate.

“That’s Ben,” Orakpo says regarding Roethlisberger’s comments on Mason. “Ben’s got two Super Bowl rings. He can say whatever the hell he wants. It really don’t matter here.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.