On Jan. 5, Tennessee Titans’ controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk promoted Jon Robinson from general manager to executive vice president, the second-highest ranking position in the organization.
“Jon has done great work since his arrival to our organization and this is a way to recognize that fact,” said Strunk with regards to Robinson’s promotion.
“His leadership and football acumen helped change our culture and improve our team. He and Mike [Mularkey] deserve a great deal of credit for our turnaround this year, and I am hopeful that will continue this coming year and into the future. This is an acknowledgement of his work, and it puts him on equal footing with others in the league who direct football operations.”
When Strunk says, “Jon has done great work,” she could be referring to a number of feats that Robinson accomplished during his first season in Tennessee — six more wins than the 2015 season, five players named to the Pro Bowl, the third overall rush offense in the NFL, and a near playoff birth.
However, perhaps the greatest work to which she refers is rookie right tackle Jack Conklin, whose arrival to Tennessee is direct result of Robinson’s planning.
Prior to the 2016 NFL Draft, Robinson executed two trades in order to “position ourselves to get [Conklin].”
First he traded the team’s No. 1 overall pick to the Los Angeles Rams in return for the No. 15 pick and a handful of later-round picks. Then he made a deal with the Cleveland Browns to move up from No. 15 to No. 8, where he successfully selected his man.
Certain analysts considered Conklin to be a “reach” — particularly since Laremy Tunsil, the top prospect at offensive tackle, was available on the draft board when the Titans were called to make the eighth overall selection.
However, unlike other offensive line prospects, Conklin demonstrated qualities that Robinson hoped to introduce to the Titans’ culture: toughness, reliability, and a team-first mentality. “We thought [Conklin] embodied that to the nth degree,” said Robinson after the draft.
The offensive tackle grew up in Plainwell, Mich., a small town just north of Kalamazoo. There, it was hard for Conklin to garner the attention of collegiate scouts since Plainwell’s population hovers just below 4,000 citizens, according to the 2010 national census.
As a result, Conklin did not receive any Division I offers upon graduating from Plainwell High School. “There hadn’t been anyone in my school who had gone Division I in 20 or 30 years,” Conklin said. “So we didn’t really have a basis to go off of.”
Conklin instead planned to attend the Fork Union Military Academy for a semester. At the all-male preparatory school, he hoped to catch the eye of a prominent college football program and transfer.
These plans were short-lived, however.
On a visit to Michigan State after his senior year, Conklin impressed the university’s offensive line coach Mark Staten. “I loved his makeup. I loved his mentality,” Staten said. “I thought he and I would click from a player-coach relationship.”
Staten invited Conklin to Michigan State’s spring practice, where Conklin did well enough to earn an invitation from head coach Mark Dantonio to walk onto the football team.
With his foot in the door, Conklin began to prove his worth.
He redshirted his first year (2012) at Michigan State. During that time, Conklin learned as much as possible from his veteran teammates. “The older guys when I got to Michigan State, they really helped me a ton. They helped me out after practice, whether it was doing extra drill work or hitting the film… They really brought me along.”
This work earned Conklin a starting role the following season. In 2013, he played 12 of 13 games at either right or left tackle. In 2014, he started every game and allowed just 2.5 sacks. And in 2015, he was the first offensive tackle from Michigan State to be named a first-team All-American since Flozell Adams in 1997.
During his collegiate years, Conklin earned the reputation of being a blue-collar player who thrived off physicality. Moreover, by playing in the Big Ten, he was able to showcase his skills against some of the best defensive ends in the nation, particularly DeForest Buckner of Oregon and Joey Bosa of Ohio State.
“[Conklin] wanted to show everybody,” said Staten, “when I go up against the top players, they’re going to know that I’m the top player. And he didn’t do it with any malice. He didn’t do it with ill-intent. But when he crossed that white line, he played with that ill-intent.”
“He’s not going to gloat, stand over you, and showboat. He’s just going to run down, try to knock somebody else out, and then come back and do it again the next play.”
Not much has changed since Conklin’s departure from Michigan State and arrival to Tennessee. In fact, the very actions that defined his career as a Spartan have begun to define his career as a Titan.
He continues to learn from veterans.
During OTAs and training camp, Conklin sought advice and instruction from older members of the offensive linemen, particularly left tackle Taylor Lewan. “[Taylor is] a guy who I can really ask any question,” Conklin said, “and he’ll give me a good answer for it.”
He continues to bridge preparation and production.
Conklin’s training during the offseason translated into an exceptional rookie year. He surrendered only two sacks all season, while drawing just two penalties, and graded as the best right tackle in the NFL per Pro Football Focus.
Last, he continues to carry himself quietly.
According to coach Mularkey, Conklin played “quietly really good” in 2016, without the showboating that might accompany exceptional play in the NFL. “He did his job, didn’t say a whole lot, but did an outstanding job…”
It seems fitting that on Jan. 6 — one day after Strunk promoted Robinson to executive vice president — the Associated Press named Conklin an NFL All-Pro. He got 27.5 of 50 votes at right tackle. The closest competitors were Mitchell Schwartz of Kansas City and Marcus Cannon of New England, who got six votes each.
Conklin and his All-Pro nomination exhibit the “great work” Robinson has done in his first year with the Titans. The rookie, of course, carried out the necessary work to earn his first All-Pro title, but it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge that Robinson scouted Conklin and brought the gem to Tennessee.
In four short months, Robinson will have another go at the draft. It will be exciting to see which players he brings to Tennessee next.
Photo credit: Tennessee Titans