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Patriots Sunday opening drive: A pair of familiar faces garnering less attention this week

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

(1.) With the Patriots traveling to Nashville this weekend, many of the story lines have centered around the numerous roster and front office connections between the the two organizations. While the Malcolm Butler, Mike Vrabel, and Dion Lewis narratives are certainly the headliners, there are a couple familiar faces making a name for themselves in central Tennessee that should not go overlooked.

The first is Titans GM Jon Robinson. After six seasons as a Patriots scout, Robinson was promoted to Assistant Director of College Scouting on 2008, and then transitioned into the team’s Director of College Scouting role in 2009. Five years later, Robinson followed colleague Jason Licht — a former Patriots scout and Director of Player Personnel from 2009-2011 — to Tampa Bay after Licht was selected for the Buccaneers’ GM job.

In 2016, Robinson was hired for Tennessee’s vacant Executive VP and General Manager position following the firing of Ruston Webster — becoming the Titans’ third GM the since the current CBA was signed in 2011, and their fourth of the salary cap era.

After back-to-back 9-7 seasons and a road playoff victory last season in Kansas City, an argument can be made that Robinson is off to the best start of any former Patriots front office staffer in the Belichick era — especially considering the circumstances he inherited. While Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff started 20-12 in his initial two seasons, the Falcons lost in the 2008 Wild Card round, and he was also afforded the luxury of handpicking his own quarterback in the 2008 draft. Interestingly enough, Mike Mularkey was an integral piece of each GM’s first two seasons, as he was the Falcon’s offensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009, and the Titans’ head coach in 2015 and 2016 before being fired by Robinson.

(2.) Now in his third year in Tennessee, it has been interesting to watch Robinson execute his plan and adapt his roster building strategies. The Titans have traditionally been a conservative organization — as evidence by their 24th overall ranking in cash spending from 2013-2016. In fact, until Jurrell Casey’s extension in July of 2017, Tennessee hadn’t had a player with an eight-digit salary cap hit since Chris Johnson’s $12 million figure in 2013.

That all changed in the spring of 2017. As we’ve seen many teams do, the Titans decided to maximize whatever window they felt Marcus Mariota’s rookie contract afforded them, spurring the signings of free agents like Logan Ryan, Johnathan Cyprien, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, and Bennie Logan over the past two offseasons.

Extensions for key in-house player personnel like the aforementioned Casey, left tackle Taylor Lewan, and tight end Delanie Walker have propelled Tennessee’s cash spending ranking from 18th a year ago to 11th this season according to

(3.) The biggest impact Robinson has had since his arrival in Nashville is the amount of depth he’s been able to build within the roster — particularly through the draft. Injuries aside, the Titans have selected somewhere between eight and ten starters from the three draft classes of Robinson’s tenure. Over that same span, the Patriots’ draft classes have yielded between three and four — depending on whether or not Elandon Roberts is starting.

Here’s how the two teams’ last three draft classes stack up. This isn’t an indictment on New England, but more so an effort to highlight the work done by Robinson and his scouting staff.

Number of players drafted from 2016-2018

Titans: 23

Patriots: 22

Draftees from 2016-2018 currently on the 53-man roster or IR/NFI/PUP:

Titans: 16

Patriots: 14

Games played for organization by 2016-2018 draftees:

Titans: 393

Patriots: 204

(4.) Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Robinson’s first two years was the production the team received from the players whose cap hits accounted for at least 1% of the league salary cap — the “middle” and “upper” classes of the roster. In fact, the Titans led the NFL in the number of such players in 2016 and 2017, and no team in football had a higher percentage of their offensive and defensive snaps come from that specific roster group.

(2.) Another former Patriot who has sustained success in the Music City is Titans guard Josh Kline. I wrote about Kline and his “lunch pail” approach as a Patriot back in January prior to the Divisional Round tilt in Foxborough. One thing that stood out was the comments made by Josh McDaniels with regard to Kline in a conference call to reporters that week:

Yeah, tough kid, played multiple positions inside for us, very unselfish, good teammate, smart. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s played a lot of football in Tennessee. This guy’s a physical guy, battled through nicks and injuries and those types of things to stay on the field. Just a great kid to coach, great teammate in the locker room and one of those guys you are happy and proud that you got the opportunity to work with.

(5.) A quick update to that story from January: Kline’s consistent play since 2016 was rewarded with a second contract from GM Jon Robinson in March. The deal keeps the 28-year-old in a Titans uniform through the 2021 season, and is worth a total $28 million with $9.25 million fully guaranteed at signing. Another $2.75 million of his 2019 salary guarantees on the fifth day of the 2019 league year.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter — @BPhillips_SB