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John Glennon / The Tennessean

In the 17 years since the Titans moved to Tennessee, their first-round draft picks more often than not have made immediate impacts as rookies.

Guard Chance Warmack, for instance, started all 16 games last season, and wide receiver Kendall Wright caught 64 passes as a rookie in 2012.

But as the Titans prepare for the start of the NFL draft on Thursday, they might be looking at making a first-round selection who doesn't see a ton of playing time as a rookie.

That's because a number of positions — even edge rusher, tackle and quarterback — appear set for the short term but aren't necessarily in good shape for the long haul.

So the question the Titans must answer: Can a team that finished 7-9 in 2013 afford to make a first-round pick with an eye toward the future as much as the present?

"In the perfect world, that's what you want — for a guy to come in and play well, and play in every game, and be rookie of the year and all that," said general manager Ruston Webster, who is running his third draft for the Titans. "But really, it is more of a long-term investment.

"I have seen guys come in and play well their rookie year, and then fade after that. And I've seen those players that you wanted to cut after their first training camp and they ended up being Pro Bowl players."

Build the right way

When the Titans decided against exercising the option year in quarterback Jake Locker's contract, it was a reminder of how quickly teams must make decisions on the future of their first-round draft picks.

Under the NFL's previous collective-bargaining agreement, teams could sign first-round draft picks to lengthy contracts, which meant they didn't necessarily have to push players into critical roles right away.

But things are different under the current CBA, as shorter contracts for first-rounders mean teams have less time to make long-term decisions. All first-round picks now are signed to four-year deals. Teams can exercise an option for a fifth year, but they must make that decision well before the start of the player's fourth season.

Another factor to consider under the current CBA is that first-round selections — and all draft picks, for that matter — are less expensive these days, meaning it might make more economic sense to get them on the field as early as feasible.

"Because of the modern era and salary cap, you want as many rookies to be on the field because they're the most affordable," ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden said. "You better get good players out of the draft that make your team because they're affordable and they're the life blood of the organization."

Still, Webster doesn't believe the Titans absolutely must draft a player just to fill an immediate hole. He advises patience, pointing out that new coach Ken Whisenhunt — unlike Mike Munchak last year — isn't necessarily in a make-or-break season.

"We have a coach with a nice long contrac,t and we're trying to build this team the right way," Webster said. "So you have to think not only in terms of this year, but the future as well."

Whisenhunt's record

Speaking of Whisenhunt, he had a mixed pattern of putting his first-round draft picks into the starting lineup right away during the six years he was head coach of the Cardinals.

Some players were starters from day one, such as cornerback Patrick Peterson, the 2011 first-round pick who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. There was also tackle Levi Brown, the 2007 first-round pick who was in the starting lineup on opening day and finished the year with 11 starts.

On the other hand, Whisenhunt's 2010 first-round pick, defensive tackle Dan Williams from Tennessee, didn't start a single game as a rookie, and neither did running back Beanie Wells, the 2009 first-rounder.

NFL DRAFT

• When: 7 p.m. Thursday (round 1), 5:30 p.m. Friday (rounds 2-3), 11 a.m. Saturday (rounds 4-7)

• TV: NFL Network and ESPN

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