Zach Mettenberger’s eyes weren’t fixed on a TV screen while he slid down draft boards.
Instead, the former LSU quarterback sat on the end of the dock at his aunt and uncle’s home in north Alabama and simply waited for his phone to ring.
Tabbed as a potential second-round pick, leaks about his medical history merged with his dismissal from Georgia left the Tigers signal-caller tumbling to the later rounds. If he had watched broadcasts, there would be highlights of lower-rated prospects such Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas or an ascendant Tom Savage from Pitt getting plucked.
Early in the sixth round, though, the Tennessee Titans — one the last teams to work out Mettenberger — grabbed him with the No. 178 pick overall. The resolution came with potential silver lining. Titans starter Jake Locker may be vulnerable, and new coach Ken Whisenhunt is fond of passers molded in the form of a strong-armed pocket passer.
“It’s never something anyone wants,” Mettenberger said of the wait. “I’m just grateful to finally be picked.”
While 10 quarterbacks were picked ahead of him, the Titans worried that a slew of them were about to get grabbed in close succession, prompting them to swap their sixth- and seventh-round picks with Washington to climb up 10 slots to take him.
“We’d heard that there were other teams trying to move up to get him,” Whisenhunt said. “At that point, we felt like it was a low-risk, high-reward type of situations.”
Late in the fifth round, fellow Southeastern Conference quarterbacks in Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s AJ McCarron — the other members of a trio with Mettenberger facing scrutiny — were taken back-to-back by Kansas City and Cincinnati.
Murray, who beat out Mettenberger for the job in Athens, is coming off a torn ACL, and at 6 feet tall faced questions about his size. McCarron, meanwhile, reportedly came off as arrogant to some NFL personnel and rubbed some the wrong way by skipping the Senior Bowl.
Whisenhunt, though, said “It didn’t really matter where (Mettenberger) was in that progression.”
The Titans’ front office coveted Mettenberger’s obvious traits in his size, experience in a pro-style system under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and a strong arm that passed for a school-record 5,783 yards and 35 touchdowns. Its scouting department also liked the progression he made in terms of efficiency, completing 64.3 percent of his passes and finishing third nationally with 172.3 passer rating.
“He would rank in the upper-third,” Titans scouting director Blake Beddingfield said. “That’s one of his best attributes. He’s got great size, and he’s strong in the pocket.”
Mettenberger also said he walked away from his workout with the Titans last week with a sneaking suspicion they might be his ultimate landing spot.
“I thought I did a fantastic job in that workout and really hit it off with them,” Mettenberger said. “It was kind of in the back of my mind that it was would be a place for me. It’s close to home and close to a lot of family.”
And he arrives with the quarterback position in flux.
Fourth-year veteran Jake Locker, who was nicked up and passed for just 1,287 yards and eight touchdowns last season, is entering the final season of his rookie contract. The arrival of Whisenhunt, who has tutored quarterback such as Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers, also led to speculation that the mobile Locker may not fit a system built around a pocket passer and play-action.
Yet Whisenhunt said the move wasn’t made to apply pressure on Locker to keep his job.
“I can’t speak to the long-term situation about Jake,” Whisenhunt said. “That’s something that will play itself out based on how everybody plays. Every player in the NFL is based on what he does now. It doesn’t matter what he’s done in the past or what you think he can do in the future.”
Nor was Mettenberger keen on dissecting what his arrival may mean as far as contending for the starting job on a short timeline.
“I’m excited to work with (Locker), and excited to compete with him,” Mettenberger said.
Still, Mettenberger arrives in Nashville facing the task up clearing up perceptions about his health or off-the-field issues.
First, there’s the 2010 guilty plea to two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery, which stemmed from groping a woman at a bar when he was a Georgia freshman, which led to his exit from the Bulldogs program and a year a Kansas community college.
Over this two years at LSU, Mettenberger openly admitted he’d made a mistake and never engaged in any similar behavior while in Baton Rouge. In meetings with the Titans, he said he was transparent about his past. But the quarterback admitted he faces dispelling assumptions about his character.
“Absolutely,” Mettenberger said. “The jury is still out on me, and I’m going to do everything I can to prove that I am a great player and a great person.”
Titans scout Jon Salge said he walked from his time with Mettenberger convinced that perceptions about his personality didn’t mesh with what he saw face-to-face.
“When you do get a chance to sit down and really get to know the guy, I think you’d be surprised,” Salge said. “He’s a down to earth guy. He’s an intelligent guy.”
Titans brass were also satisfied with Mettenberger’s explanation.
“People are put in situations and faced with things in their life that happen,” Whisenhunt said. “The way Zach handles himself when he comes here will determine how people feel about him on and off the field.”
Yet a Fox Sports report Monday that the quarterback submitted a diluted urine sample at the NFL combine in February — which counts as a failed test — raised red flags. Mettenberger’s agent and trainer told The Advocate it was the result of drinking too much water to prevent muscle cramps stemmed from rehabbing a torn ACL.
Asked about what led to the test result, though, Mettenberger didn’t delve into details.
“I’d just rather not talk about it,” he said.
Nor could Whisenhunt, citing league policy precluding him from discussing a player’s medical history.
Setting those issues aside, Mettenberger’s durability coming off a knee injury suffered late in the regular-season finale against Arkansas and a CBS Sports report that some franchises flagged him for a back condition called spondylosis also raise questions.
Granted, Mettenberger showed functional mobility during his pro day April 9 on roll outs. And LSU’s medical staff has said his back condition — one that can lead to microfractures in vertebrae — never flared up.
Mettenberger said he is “anxious to get up there and show my knee is healthy and make this a better team.”
On Sunday, he’ll make a two-hour drive north to a city he’s visited only once and confront a third image overhaul the only way he knows how.
“I’m going to show up ready to work,” Mettenbeger said. “I’m going to show up every day with a lunch pail and compete my tail off.”