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Front Page - Friday, April 21, 2023

Taking Hooker in draft a good gamble for Titans

Hendon Hooker might have won a Heisman Trophy and a national title last year if not for knee injury. - Photo by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

The time around the NFL Draft often has been called the “season of lies” with rumors and speculation flying all around, often with little substantiation or fact.

NFL teams sometimes want misinformation out there to throw rival teams off the scent of what they really want to do on draft day.

One scenario that has gathered momentum in the lead-up to the draft has been one not only linking the Tennessee Titans to a quarterback, but trading up and using draft capital (or perhaps a player) in order to do so.

While the Titans have done their homework in evaluating this year’s crop of rookie quarterbacks, it still seems hard to fathom Tennessee – with only six picks, no fourth rounder, thanks to the Julio Jones trade a couple of years ago – would part with some of their remaining draft capital in order to jump all the way to the third pick. Rumors have been tossed around that the Titans could make such a move in order to land Florida’s Anthony Richardson or Kentucky’s Will Levis.

While both those quarterbacks certainly could go as high as No. 3 after Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud are off the board in some order, those two QB’s could also begin a slide that might put the Titans in a position to grab one of them at 11, or maybe move up a couple of spots to do so, if that tumble begins.

That said, there is another quarterback prospect that honestly might fit what the Titans need down the road at that position. And he is one who is very familiar to fans in these parts – Tennessee Vols QB Hendon Hooker.

Why Hooker makes sense

Even though new Titans general manager Ran Carthon was with the San Francisco 49ers when they moved from 12 to 3 in 2021 to take Trey Lance, the Titans don’t have the kind of ammunition to do so this year without mortgaging big chunks of their draft classes of 2023, 2024 and 2025.

A look back at the Niners’ move up for Lance shows the impact associated with such an all-in move. The Niners swapped 2021 picks and gave the Miami Dolphins their first-rounders for the next two years, as well as a ’22 third-rounder for the right to select Lance, who has yet to justify such a move, thanks to injuries and inconsistency in a limited sample size.

In fact, the Titans would be smart to think of the other side of the equation – not leaping into the top five, but trading back and collecting more picks while still having a quarterback somewhere on their radar.

If they chose such a path, Hooker could be a prime target. The former Vols quarterback is still recovering from a torn ACL in his final season at UT, and most draftniks project him going at the end of the first round or top of the second round.

Longtime NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network says he loves Hooker in this draft, despite the injury and his age. At 25, he is a couple of years older than most prospects in this year’s pool.

“I understand the knee injury is going to hurt his draft stock, but what it’s also going to do is force him to sit on the sideline in 2023 and observe and absorb,” Pauline says. “So there’s not going to be a lot of pressure on him to lead an NFL offense this season. They’ll basically have to Patrick Mahomes him, if you will. I think that’s going to lead to good things for Hooker down the road.

“I wouldn’t do it with the 11th pick. Would I potentially trade up into the bottom of round one from the top of round two to get him? Yes, I probably would.

“I’d probably make that trade before I’d give up a boatload of picks to move up and get Anthony Richardson. Richardson’s got greater upside than Hendon Hooker, but Richardson also has a lot more risk and needs a lot more work.”

Pauline says Hooker outranks both Richardson and Levis on his draft board.

“Right now, he’s my third-rated quarterback,” Pauline says. “He was a guy that played better in 2021 than he did in 2020, and then played better in 2022 than he did in 2021. He’s got a big body of work behind him, and he’s a leader.

“Will Levis, for example, has a hard time reading the field and seeing what’s happening. Hendon Hooker doesn’t have that issue.”

Vince Ferrara, morning drive host at WNML in Knoxville and a part of the Vol Radio Network, has seen Hooker up close ever since he got to Tennessee and agrees that Hooker is a much safer bet than either Levis or Richardson.

“I think he’s easily the third best quarterback in this draft,” Ferrera says. “People that project Will Levis and Anthony Richardson ahead of him, to me, is pure insanity – having seen both of those guys and him.”

Better off than others?

Both Ferrera and Pauline it would be better for Hooker to go lower in the first round or early in the second rather than to a team trading up because he can learn from a veteran quarterback and be ready to take the controls in 2024.

The Vikings have been projected as a possibility to take Hooker and groom him to eventually replace Kirk Cousins. The Seahawks, with Geno Smith, and the Titans, with Ryan Tannehill not under contract beyond this year, would be solid landing spots for Hooker.

Carthon has indicated the club will ride it out with Tannehill in 2023 but certainly has not committed to him beyond this season. And Malik Willis has not shown an indication yet that he is ready to be a starting caliber NFL quarterback.

So could a Hooker/Titans hookup be a win-win down the road?

“I think that’s where you hear him projected more, with those teams like the Titans, Vikings and Seahawks, where you have a guy for this year but then you develop him and let him take over,” Ferrera says. “I think it would make a lot of sense for the Titans. He’s been there for a visit, but he’s gone to a lot of teams that already have those established quarterbacks. I think it would be a smart play for them.”

Adds Pauline, “I think Hendon Hooker is in the best position of any quarterback in this draft.”

What type of prospect?

A couple of questions about Hooker, besides the obvious one of whether or not he will be able to play in 2023, are his age and how well the hurry-up, fast-break offense he ran for the Vols will translate to the NFL and the decisions a quarterback has to make on that level.

One AFC personnel man says that while there are plenty of things he likes about Hooker, there are some questions that must be answered.

“I don’t like the age and the injury issue, and he has a bit of a problem with in-cut routes,” he says. “But I like his leadership. He’s very poised and throws a good deep ball. I also like his feel in the pocket.”

Fair enough, though Ferrara seems to believe the question of the Vols system is a bit overblown.

“I’ve asked Heupel and Hooker about that,” he says. “Heupel kind of laughed it off, saying it’s kind of funny, because NFL coaches have been asking about our offense and trying to implement some of the things we do. So if the NFL doesn’t think it’s going to translate, they wouldn’t be doing that.

“They do so much presnap, that that’s what cuts it down. He knows where he’s going with the ball because he’s processing everything presnap. They do so much in terms of matchups that they don’t have to go post-snap through progressions,” Ferrara continues. “That is different than the NFL game, but because you have to process so much presnap, I think he can transition to being able to process post-snap, and he doesn’t turn the ball over and make mistakes.

“It’s a little bit different, but I think GMs know that because he’s so intelligent and knows what every other player is doing, and is taking care of the ball, I think it will translate, because there was so much on his plate in terms of protections and reading the defense and finding the right matchup before the snap.”

Pauline acknowledged that much like most quarterbacks coming from the college ranks and the spread offense that whatever team takes Hooker would be smart to incorporate some of what he did for the Volunteers into their own offense.

As for the age factor, that one is debatable. The COVID rules gave Hooker extra time in college after he transferred from Virginia Tech. Pauline says Hooker’s age shouldn’t be a big deal, even though he could be 26 before he ever takes an NFL snap.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a non-argument. Some people will look at it and poke holes in it, but in my opinion, it’s ridiculous,” Pauline says. “At the quarterback experience, you’d rather have a guy who has life experience underneath him and has that body of work on the football field, rather than a younger naive guy. That latter is dangerous. You look at the quarterback position now, and guys are playing at a high level well into their 30s. The age is not a red flag for me in any way, shape or form for Hooker.”

The intangibles

As the NFL personnel man indicated, Hooker’s leadership is a major asset. It is something that showed through during the preparation for the draft.

“He came in pretty mature, but he’s taken such a hold of everything he’s had. Once he became the guy, he started to blossom in his leadership,” Ferrara says. “Last year, he knew he was the guy going in, and you saw him impact the entire team, because he had an offseason of being the guy. In the process of being injured, he handled that better than any guy I’ve ever seen.”

Hooker was invited to the Senior Bowl though he couldn’t play due to the knee injury. But it allowed him to meet teams and might actually have elevated his draft stock. He apparently said and did all the right things at the Combine and during his pro day as well.

“I think the way he handled the pre-draft process is something nobody else has done. And that probably is maturity,” Ferrara says. “I’ve asked scouts this, and I’ve asked analysts this, and no one can ever remember a player going into the draft that was injured and improved his draft stock and created so much buzz when he couldn’t do anything on the field. That’s what Hooker has done.”

His play on the field for the Vols over the past two seasons has made him the program’s most celebrated quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning.

Ferrara concluded that once teams get to know Hooker, they will be sold on him.

“He’s mature, he’s older and he’s smart,” he says. “He did everything. All these teams are figuring it out now because they’re meeting with the guy.

 “He’s a guy that – because he’s older and smarter – is a lot more than just the tape. For an NFL quarterback, if you’re talking about that ‘it factor,’ and being the face of a franchise, I think you need those other things, and he has that.”