The 2016 Tennessee Titans are fun. And that makes them much different than their 2014 and 2015 counterparts. These Titans are not the laughing stock of the NFL and can hang with almost any team in the league thanks in large part to some of the shrewd offseason moves by new GM Jon Robinson. While we really should be enjoying watching a competitive and improving NFL team in Nashville for the first time in what feels like ages, I can't help but look ahead to the 2017 offseason and see what kind of moves we might be able to make to take this team from competitive to contender.
TITANS FREE AGENTS
Step 1 in the offseason will be deciding what to do with the current Titans whose contracts are up at the end of this season.
Chance Warmack - I think this one is pretty obvious at this point. Chance had some moments where it looked like he was putting it together, but those have been too few and too far between for the Titans to bring him back. Josh Kline has outplayed Warmack at RG since stepping in for him when he injured his hand. Chance will be hoping to resurrect his career somewhere else in 2017.
Kendall Wright - This is probably the toughest call of the bunch. In my opinion, Kendall is the best WR on the Titans current roster. He is the only WR who threatens defenses over the top with his speed and he also is our best guy after the catch. However, he also has struggled to remain healthy during his 5 years as a Titan and has never replicated his big 2013 season. I think the Titans have to bring him back though. While miscast as a #1 WR, Wright can be a very good #2 option and this team cannot afford to go in to 2017 with Harry Douglas as our 3rd best WR. I am not fond of the 2017 free agent class at WR (more on that later) so that also makes me more inclined to bring KW back. Based on the 2016 WR free agent class I think Wright will be able to command a deal somewhere around the $24M over 4 years deal that Travis Benjamin got from San Diego. Marvin Jones' $40M over 5 years is probably the very top of Wright's potential contract range. My guess is that KW returns to the Titans on a 4 year deal worth $28M with the last year or two of that being a team option (keep in mind that NFL contracts usually are less than 50% guaranteed).
Anthony Fasano - Fasano is 32 years old and while he is still adequate as a backup TE, I expect that we decline to bring him back for next year. Supernaw and Amaro are both younger options that offer more upside than Fasano at a cheaper price. Fasano's $2.6M per year can be better applied elsewhere.
Sean Spence - Spence is a guy that I think the Titans like quite a bit. He has been on the field a lot lately and is probably our best ILB in pass coverage. In fact, he is our best ILB overall according to PFF this year. I can't see the Titans giving him much more than $10M over 3 years, but I do think he will be back and may be a starter for us in 2017.
Rashad Johnson - This is a tough call because I think Johnson is a smart player and a solid, but unspectacular option at safety. Byard will likely be ready to be the full time starter next year, so the question is can we bring Johnson back if he knows he will be a rotational player at best? I hope the Titans can bring him back on another 1 year deal for around $2M, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him move on after this season.
Valentino Blake - I think we can all agree that moving on from this guy would be in our best interest.
Marc Mariani - "The Human Fair Catch" will not be back in 2017.
Brian Schwenke - Schwenke has filled in pretty well for Spain since he went down, but he clearly will not be a regular starter on this team moving forward. If we can bring him back for cheap to be a backup G/C then I think we will, but my guess is that Schwenke moves on.
Nate Palmer - Palmer has been a good special teams contributor for us. Another guy that if we can get him super cheap I'd like to have him, but if he can get more money or a larger role elsewhere we can let him walk.
Daimion Stafford - The only way I see us bringing Stafford back is if we decide to cut Searcy. Otherwise, I suspect we will target a safety in the draft to try to improve what has been a weak position group for us this year.
David Bass - He will be gone. Dodd and Wallace give us enough depth at OLB not to worry about bringing back a veteran.
2017 NFL FREE AGENCY
The Titans will be in the market to improve several positions in free agency at the end of this year and have some cap space to work with. We have almost $26M in free cap currently and will probably end up taking more salary off the books than adding to it by re-signing our own free agents as noted above. By rough math I think the Titans will head in to free agency with somewhere around $35M in free cap space. However, I would be surprised if we didn't see them try to lock up Taylor Lewan to a long term deal during the offseason so that may end up eating in to some of that space. Using Tyron Smith's recent extension as a guide, expect Lewan's deal to be worth somewhere around $10-12M per year which would cut $7-9M out of our free space. Additionally, we will need to start prepping our books for the massive Mariota contract extension that will likely land during the offseason before the 2018 season. But let's assume we have somewhere around $28M of cap space once free agency hits. There are several positions that we will address this offseason, but I am just going to focus on a few: WR, CB, ILB, and S.
The Titans WR group is not terrible. As I talked about above, Kendall Wright is a good player. Rishard Matthews is starting to look comfortable in this offense and is a reliable #2 or #3 type option. Tajae Sharpe has been very good for a rookie WR (especially a 5th rounder from UMass). The reason I think we have to address this position is simple. None of these guys consistently create separation and/or make difficult contested catches. Wright can offer some semblance of a deep threat, but that is a big hole for us. If we bring back Wright we can absolutely go in to 2017 with Wright, Matthews, and Sharpe as our top 3 so I don't think this is something that we HAVE to address in free agency. I would expect us to address WR through the draft instead.
Best Available: Terrelle Pryor (CLE), Alshon Jeffery (CHI), DeSean Jackson (WAS)
I love the idea of Pryor in a Titans uniform, but I fully expect the Browns to lock him up before he hits the market so take him off this list. Jeffery would give the Titans a big redzone and downfield target that they are currently lacking, but his inability to stay healthy concerns me. Jackson is a great deep threat, but he's a one trick pony with attitude issues and his one big skill is something that will likely begin to erode over the next few years. I don't think the Titans would (or should) sign either of those guys.
Next Tier: Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN), Kenny Britt (LA, yeah I know), Michael Floyd (ARI), Ted Ginn Jr. (CAR)
I'm passing on all of these guys if I'm the Titans. Out of this group, Patterson is the most interesting to me due mainly to his return skills. The Titans desperately need help in the explosive play department and he's a guy that can bring that. I don't think you can count on him as a WR though. Britt has actually been really good in LA this year, and somehow is still only 27 years old. I don't think we bring him back given his history here, but he actually would be a good fit on the field. Floyd is like a less successful version of Alshon Jeffery. Ginn brings the ability to stretch the defense and return game abilities, but how long will his speed remain elite?
Verdict: I would pass on signing any of these guys unless Pryor is somehow available.
This may be the weakest position group on the Titans roster. McCourty is pretty decent, but Cox, McCain, and Blake have all been disasters. Additionally, McCourty is going to be 30 at the start of next season and he was never a fast corner even in his prime. He can still play outside, but I wonder if he wouldn't be more effective as a free safety like his twin brother Devin plays for New England. Unfortunately, our CB depth won't let us test that theory any time soon. He still would make for a very good #2 corner, but for this defense to really improve we need to find a lock down corner to play opposite him.
Best Available: Stephon Gilmore (BUF), Morris Claiborne (DAL), Prince Amukamara (JAC), Malcolm Butler (NE)
I don't think the Cowboys will want Claiborne to make it to free agency based on how well he has played this year, but they don't have much cap room so there could be a chance. Butler is a restricted free agent so it is tough to see him leaving New England. Gilmore has struggled a bit this year, but has a great track record. Amukamara has been really good for Jacksonville this year and could be ready to jump off that train wreck after the season. I would go hard after Claiborne or Butler if they become available.
Next Tier: Terence Newman (MIN), Logan Ryan (NE), Captain Munnerlyn (MIN)
Newman is old, but is having a great season in Minnesota, but that defense is so good that it makes it tough to tell who is really a difference maker and who is along for the ride. I don't think he fits here. Ryan and Munnerlyn are two guys that are also having good years on great defenses. I wouldn't break the bank for either one, but they would certainly be better than Cox, McCain, Blake, etc.
Verdict: If Claiborne or Butler is available, go get them. If not, I would like to see us bring in a Ryan or a Munnerlyn type to upgrade this position in addition to taking one or two corners high in the draft.
If corner isn't the weakest position group on the roster, inside linebacker is. Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard struggle mightily in pass coverage which is a major reason for our struggles defending tight ends and running backs. The middle of the field is wide open for opposing QBs more often than not.
Best Available: Zach Brown (BUF, again, I know), Keenan Robinson (NYG)
There isn't a ton of talent at this position that will be coming available in the 2017 free agent class. Zach Brown is putting together a career year in Buffalo after failing miserably here. Similar to Britt, I think this guy would be a great fit on the field for us, but will his baggage here allow us to even consider making a move to bring him back? Also, this season he is putting together strikes me as a classic "contract year bounce" that he may not be able to replicate for whoever pays him big money in the offseason. Robinson is a talented player, but does not have the upside that Brown has.
Next Tier: No one else is really an upgrade over what we've got on the current roster.
Verdict: If we don't want to bring back Brown, then I think this is a position best addressed via the draft.
The Titans have a strange group at the safety position right now. Rashad Johnson is a steady, but unspectacular veteran who brings more brain than brawn to the team. Kevin Byard is a potential difference maker, but he's still young and unproven on this level. Da'Norris Searcy and Daimion Stafford are both undersized linebackers masquerading as safeties. Johnson and Stafford are both free agents at the end of this year so it will be interesting to see if the Titans choose to bring back either one. I am not sold on Searcy. He disappears more often than he shows up.
Best Available: Tony Jefferson (ARI), DJ Swearinger (ARI), Barry Church (DAL), Eric Berry (KC)
Tony Jefferson is having a great year in Arizona, but he excels more in run defense than pass coverage. Swearinger and Church both fall in to more of the traditional "Strong Safety" role as well. Eric Berry is the dream scenario, but it is hard to see how KC lets him leave.
Next Tier: Duke Ihenacho (WAS), Jonathan Cyprien (JAC), TJ McDonald (LA)
TJ McDonald is my favorite of this tier. All three are good players though and would be an upgrade over our current group.
Verdict: Assuming Eric Berry isn't leaving KC, I would like to see us pursue McDonald or Cyprien to pair with Byard in next year's starting defensive backfield.
2017 NFL DRAFT
The Titans will have two first round picks, no second round picks, and two third round picks in next year's draft for Jon Robinson to work with on days 1 and 2. If the Rams keep losing we may end up with another top 5 or top 10 pick which would be excellent news. There has been a lot of speculation about who the Titans may take with their two first rounders next year (assuming we don't trade one of them for a haul of additional picks). Let's take a look at a few options that may be very interesting to the Titans in Round 1.
Jabrill Peppers (S/LB, Michigan) - Peppers is a do-it-all LB from Michigan who they use all over the field. Peppers lines up at LB, S, WR, and returns kicks and punts for Michigan. I am very much against this pick. In three years in Ann Arbor, Peppers has yet to pick off a pass or recover a fumble. Turnovers are something the Titans defense desperately needs to find. Additionally, Peppers is a talented athlete, but doesn't have the cover skills to play defensive back in the NFL from what I've seen. I could be wrong, but I think Peppers reminds me a lot of Daimion Stafford with a better publicist and that is not what I'm looking for in a 1st round pick.
Jamal Adams (S, LSU) - If you like the idea of taking a safety early, but aren't sold on Peppers, Jamal Adams is the other elite safety prospect likely to come out in the 2017 Draft. Adams has been a starter at LSU since he stepped on campus as a freshman which is not an easy feat to accomplish. LSU has a great track record of producing outstanding NFL defensive backs (Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne, etc) and Adams could be the next one. Adams is more of a true safety than Peppers, but his elite skill is still run stopping instead of pass coverage.
Desmond King (CB, Iowa) - I think that corner is more likely where the Titans need to go first to improve the secondary play and King is among the best available there. King was projected as a top 20 pick in the 2016 Draft if he had decided to come out after his junior year. He had an incredible 8 interceptions and 13 pass break ups last season, but his senior year has produced just 1 INT and 6 PBUs so far. That may be the result of teams targeting King less this year. He has good size for an NFL corner at 5'-11", 203 lbs and is a solid tackler/run defender.
Teez Tabor (CB, Florida) - Tabor is a trash talking corner with a lot of swagger and a lot of character concerns. He has elite size (6'-0", 200 lbs), speed, and ball skills which is what make him an interesting prospect. I could easily see Tabor being a top 5 CB in the NFL, but he has a checkered past with a marijuana possession citation and a suspension for a fight during practice. Tabor could bring some much needed swagger and, more importantly, cover skills to a Titans secondary that needs help, but he could also be the next Pacman Jones.
Quincy Wilson (CB, Florida) - Wilson is Tabor's counterpart in the ultra-talented Florida defense. While Tabor gets most of the hype, some actually think Wilson could turn out to be the better NFL prospect (myself included). Wilson has prototypical size and length at 6'-1", 211 lbs, and has had a fantastic 2016 season. Additionally, he doesn't bring the same character concerns that his teammate Tabor does (duck pulling truck quotes aside). I really like Wilson as a potential fit for the Titans.
Sidney Jones (CB, Washington) - Jones is not as well known as the SEC guys on this list, but he has been a big part of Washington's rise in the Pac-12 this year. Jones' stats may not jump off the page at you, but that is mostly due to opponents avoiding him altogether. Jones had only been targeted 18 times in 8 games heading in to last weekend's game against Cal. Cal decided to challenge Jones last weekend and he punished them with 2 INT's. Considering Jones plays in the pass happy Pac-12, those target numbers are really remarkable. His size concerns me a bit at 6'-0", 180 lbs. That is a little light for an elite NFL CB, but the coverage skills are undeniable.
Marlon Humphrey (CB, Alabama) - I am putting Humphrey on here since I know we have a lot of Alabama fans around here. While he has elite size at 6'-1", 200 lbs, he struggles with allowing big plays and making plays on the ball in the air. I think we could do better with one of the guys above.
Zach Cunningham (ILB, Vanderbilt) - Cunningham has been the leader of a very good Vanderbilt defense for the past two years and has been climbing up draft boards in the process. He has played well against both the run and the pass while putting some some ridiculous tackle numbers. Cunningham was a highly recruited prospect coming out of high school and has improved year after year. His speed and athleticism allow him to roam sideline to sideline and also hang with tight ends and running backs down field in coverage. I love the idea of Zach Cunningham as a Titan.
Reuben Foster (ILB, Alabama) - Foster is the engine that powers the dominant Alabama defense this year. Most scouts view Foster as a better prospect than the 1st round pick that he replaced, Reggie Ragland. Foster has complete control in the middle of the field and helped shut down Leonard Fournette last weekend. Foster will be an elite NFL linebacker.
Myles Garrett (EDGE, Texas A&M) - Garrett is widely considered the best prospect in this draft so I only think he would be available for the Titans if the Rams end up giving us a top 3 pick. I don't think EDGE is a "need" position for us, but you can't pass up a game changing talent like Garrett if you can get him.
Jonathan Allen (DT/DE, Alabama) - Jonathan Allen is an incredible football player. In 2015, he finished with 14.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in 14 games as a defensive tackle. So far this year, he has 7.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks in 9 games. At 6'-3", 291 lbs, Allen moves like a linebacker (which is where he played when he got to Alabama) which gives him the versatility to line up anywhere on the defensive line. In our defense he would likely play a DE role opposite Jurell Casey to form a truly terrifying defensive line. Again, this would not be a need pick since I think we have good depth and decent starters along the entire D-line, but Allen is a game changer and you don't pass those up.
Mike Williams (WR, Clemson) - I am in love with the thought of Mike Williams in the two-tone blue. At 6'-4", 220 lbs, with great speed and the ability to make contested catches, Williams is the prototypical #1 NFL receiver. As Titans fans know better than any other fan base though, size and speed does not make a great wide receiver by themselves (see Calico, Tyrone / Britt, Kenny / Hunter, Justin / Green-Beckham, Dorial), but what makes me excited about Williams is the contested catches. If you watch his highlights, you see him going up and attacking the ball in the air which is something all of those previous duds could not do as Titans. You also see him catching a ton of back shoulder throws from Deshaun Watson which requires a receiver to be able to read the coverage of the opposing corner and adjust his route accordingly.
Juju Smith-Schuster (WR, USC) - Another guy with elite size at 6'-2", 220 lbs, Smith-Schuster is overlooked around here because USC has struggled and he plays on the west coast. JJSS lacks top end speed, but is a very physical and tough receiver who does a great job catching the ball away from his body. He also is excellent after the catch as he looks more like a running back than a wide receiver once the ball is in his hands. I think he will likely struggle to create separation in the pros unless he improves his route running.
Corey Davis (WR, Western Michigan) - A guy that a lot of casual fans have never heard of, but Davis is about to break the FBS record for most career receiving yards. Not only that, but Western Michigan is currently undefeated. Davis has good size at 6'-3", 213 lbs and appears to have pretty good speed on tape, but the level of competition makes it tough to gauge how fast he really is. His 40 time during the combine will have a huge impact on where he ends up in the WR pecking order. Davis has great hands, but does not aggressively attack the ball in the air on deep passes. For me, I don't think this guy is much different than Tajae Sharpe, but he will cost a team a lot more in draft stock.
While cornerback is undoubtedly our biggest need position heading in to next year, that is also the deepest position in the draft. In addition to the 5 CB's I listed above, Jourdan Lewis (Michigan), Cordrea Tankersley (Clemson), Adoree' Jackson (USC), Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State), Tre'Davious White (LSU), and Cam Sutton (Tennessee) are all very good prospects. Because of the depth at this position, I think the Titans will end up taking the best player available strategy in the first round. If the draft ended up playing out as it did on Dan Kadar's most recent mock draft, I would be a very happy Titans fan. I would expect the Titans to take corners with both of their 3rd round picks if it played out this way.
What I am really excited about is that the Titans are close. We are in playoff contention this year against all odds and while we might not make it in the tournament in 2016, we are in great shape moving forward. Our core is young and we have one of the best young QBs in the league to grow around. It is finally an exciting time to be a Titans fan again.