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Titans Free Agency 2017: Salary Cap Situation

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Taking a deep dive in to the Titans cap situation as we get closer to the opening of free agency on March 9th.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In December I wrote a FanPost about the Titans 2017 cap situation and free agency possibilities. I want to go back and revisit that topic now that we are just 5 weeks away from the opening of free agency. This article will focus on our available cap space and how that could be impacted by who we re-sign among our own free agents, contract extension candidates, and possible cap casualties. I will save the analysis and speculation about specific potential outside free agent signings for future posts.

Before we get started in to the numbers I want to explain a few components of my methodology for this article. All of my salary and contract information is coming from Spotrac. I will be assuming their 2017 NFL Salary Cap figure of $168M for all cap space calculations which seems to be a reasonable number based on other reports I have seen. We are going to keep the math as simple as possible for the purposes of this article so when we talk about contracts we will assume that the total dollar figure is spread evenly over the length of the contract for cap calculation purposes (i.e. a 5 year, $40M deal will have a $8M cap hit for each season). Realistically it is much more complicated than that, but I don’t want this to get too far off in the weeds and spreading it evenly will be close enough to get a real understanding of where we are.

Since offseason rosters are allowed to carry up to 90 players before getting cut down to 53 active roster players before the regular season begins, the NFL salary cap only counts the “Top 51” cap hits against a team’s salary cap during the offseason. This is what allows teams to sign players to futures contracts or bring in UDFA’s and other “camp bodies” without having to worry about going over the cap. This means that when a team signs a big free agent in the offseason they bump the 51st highest paid player off the team’s cap when they do so. For example, the Titans current 51st highest paid player is Bennett Okotcha at a cap hit of $465,000, so when they sign their first free agent this offseasLon, the new player’s contract goes on the cap and Okotcha’s cap hit gets bumped off. Okotcha is still on the team, but his salary no longer counts against the cap since it is not one of the Top 51.

Current Cap Figures

As of this writing, the Titans have 52 players under contract for 2017 for a total Top 51 Cap Hit of $121.3M. Additionally the Titans have remaining “Deap Cap” from 14 former players who were released or traded away totaling $3.3M. The largest of these Dead Cap holds that we are still paying for are DGB ($1.2M) and Perrish Cox ($0.8M) in case you needed another reason to be frustrated about the Ruston Webster Era. Add the Deap Cap number to our Top 51 Cap Hit and you get to a total of $124.6M counting against the 2017 cap to start with.

That leaves us with $43.4M of cap space before re-signing our own free agents or signing new players from other teams. You are probably thinking “wait a second, I thought I heard we have $70M of cap space this offseason” right now so let me explain where that number is coming from. There is a provision in the salary cap rules that allows teams to rollover any unused cap space from the previous year in to the next season allowing those teams to go over the cap by that amount for that season. The Titans were $24M under the cap in 2016 which means they can theoretically spend up to a total Adjusted 2017 Cap of $192M. That gives us $67.4M to spend this offseason which is where that $70M number has been coming from. It is important to note, however, that the rollover cap does not continue to rollover season after season. For example, if the Titans go wild this offseason and hit that maximum allowable $192M number, they will have zero rollover to the 2018 season. That means they would have to find a way to get under the projected $178M cap in 2018. I think it is far more likely that the Titans end up spending closer to the $168M number due to the fact that their numbers would get extremely tight in 2018 and beyond if they went all the way to $192M. My guess is that the Titans will take advantage of the “extra” $24M to front load a bunch of contracts and extensions this offseason. That would allow them to land several big time players while still keeping themselves in good shape for 2018 and beyond when Mariota will likely be making $25M per year. For the purposes of this article all you need to know is that the Titans will have at least $43.4M and at most $67.4M worth of cap space to work with.

Below is a table from Spotrac that neatly summarizes where are current numbers sit.

www.spotrac.com

Titans Expiring Contracts

The Titans have 20 players who have their current contracts set to expire on March 9th. Those 20 players fall in to 3 different categories: Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA), Restricted Free Agents (RFA), and Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFA). You can learn more about how those categories work here. The Titans can negotiate and sign extensions for these players between now and March 9th if they (and the player) choose to do so. Here are my thoughts on each of these guys:

  • Chance Warmark, G (UFA) - The first signal that Warmack may not be in the Titans long term plans was when they declined to pick up Warmack’s 5th year option last offseason. Warmack was underwhelming early in 2016 before tearing a tendon in his right hand during the second game of the season. He chose to opt for season ending surgery rather than attempting to recover which apparently ruffled some feathers among Titans brass. The Titans offensive line seemed to play better after inserting Josh Kline in his place which leads me to believe that Warmack will be signing elsewhere this offseason. Chances are good that another team will spend a lot of money to see if they can help Warmack realize the potential he was believed to have when people were calling him the best guard prospect to enter the NFL since 1973.
  • Anthony Fasano, TE (UFA) - Fasano is 32 years old and doesn’t put up big receiving stats at this point in his career, but don’t let that fool you. He was a big part of the Titans success on offense in 2016. Fasano was on the field for 50.2% of Tennessee’s offensive snaps this year and he was rated as easily the best run blocking tight end in the NFL this year according to PFF. He also checked in as the 4th best pass blocking tight end. Fasano is a big part of what the Titans want this offense to be and I think he will be re-signed to a deal similar to his existing contract. Something like 2 years, $5M sounds about right.
  • Sean Spence, ILB (UFA) - Spence was brought in on a 1 year, $2.5M deal last offseason and contributed as a nickel linebacker and special teams regular in 2016. He is probably the Titans most athletic inside linebacker currently on the roster. Considering Williamson and Woodyard are the only ILBs under contract for 2017, I think Spence is likely to be re-signed to another short deal to continue to provide depth. Lets say another 2 years, $5M deal.
  • Byron Bell, G/T (UFA) - Bell was expected to compete for a starting job on the offensive line heading in to the 2016 season, but suffered a season ending ankle injury on the first day of OTAs. Given the performance of Quinton Spain and Josh Kline in his place it seems unlikely that Bell will return to Tennessee in 2017.
  • Kendall Wright, WR (UFA) - Wright has been a frustrating player for Titans fans over the years. He has never been able to replicate his breakout 94 catch 1,079 yard season from 2013 in the three season since. This year he injured his hamstring in camp and it ended up costing him several games early in the year. Wright also ended up getting benched later in the year due to missing team meetings. It seems like a lock that Wright will not return. In fact he has said publicly that he doesn’t think the team wants to bring him back. Spotrac is projecting a 4 year, $28M deal for Wright which seems really high, but I suppose it is possible considering his pedigree.
  • Rashad Johnson, S (UFA) - Johnson was signed to a 1 year, $2M deal before the season to take over at free safety for Michael Griffin. Johnson was largely anonymous in the Titans secondary this year. He made very few big plays, but also didn’t allow very many. Johnson is known as a great football mind and was described as the “quarterback of the defense” by Patrick Peterson when he was in Arizona. He was also credited with some of LeShaun Sims’ late season development thanks to helping show the rookie corner some of his film study habits. When Johnson originally signed here he said that being closer to his father in Alabama was a big factor in him choosing the Titans. I think it makes sense to bring him back for another 1 year, $2M deal to primarily backup and help develop Kevin Byard and possibly a rookie safety if the Titans decide to address the position in the draft.
  • Matt Cassel, QB (UFA) - Another guy on a 1 year, $2M deal in 2016, Cassel was pretty much what you want in a backup QB. He’s an experienced veteran who can help act as a sounding board for Mariota on the sidelines and in the QB meeting room, and he wasn’t a total disaster when he came in to play the last 5 quarters of the season. I think the Titans bring both him and Tanney in to camp next year and let them compete for the backup job. I would sign him to a 1 year, $2M deal again.
  • Karl Klug, DE (UFA) - This seemed like a slam dunk re-sign back when I wrote my original post, but after Klug tore his Achilles in the Chiefs game I am no longer sure what’s going to happen with him. The average recovery time for a ruptured Achilles is 11 months according to this article which would mean a return around mid-November for Klug. He is only 28 and has been a very productive player so I don’t think this is a career killer, but it will be interesting to see what he signs for this offseason. I could see us getting him back for 2 years, $4M since the injury will likely depress his free agent stock. Get well soon Klug.
  • Valentino Blake, CB (UFA) - Blake was a lightning rod for criticism this season thanks to multiple high profile gaffes. If you need a reminder, just go to the 2:22 mark of the video below. Those moments made it seem like Blake was much worse on the field than he actually was in my opinion. He was easily our fastest defensive player and was a physical tackler on special teams. He isn’t great, but he wasn’t the unmitigated disaster a lot of fans think he was. That being said, Blake is the Titans only free agent corner and it is pretty evident that they are going to be pursuing that position in both free agency and the draft. I would guess they add at least 3 players to that position group between now and the end of the draft so I expect Blake to be gone.
  • Marc Mariani, WR (UFA) - Mariani was brought in to save the Titans from a season of muffed punts and bad decisions in the return game and did that very well. The problem is that is a really low bar, and the Titans need to find someone who can be a real difference maker in the return game. I think we will either draft or sign a player this offseason that will offer an upgrade at this spot.
  • Brian Schwenke, G/C (UFA) - Schwenke filled in well as a backup left guard when Spain was injured for a couple games and could be a very valuable backup since he has credible NFL experience at both center and guard now. The question is whether we would rather sign an upgrade over Kline at right guard and then use Kline or Tretola as the backup interior lineman next year. There is also a chance that another team could see Schwenke as a potential starter and give him more money than we are willing to spend at that spot. I think it is more likely than not that Schwenke signs elsewhere.
  • Antonio Andrews, RB (RFA) - Our first restricted free agent on the list, Andrews was the 3rd string back this year and only ended up getting two carries on the season, both of which came during the week that Derrick Henry missed with a calf injury. I am not sure the Titans will offer him a tender since that would mean paying over $1.5M for a 3rd string running back. I would think they could sign a better player for about the same amount on the open market.
  • D’Joun Smith, CB (RFA) - Smith was picked up late in the season, but never really got a chance to make an impact on the field. He was taken by the Colts with the first pick in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft, but was released prior to the start of the 2016 season due to “lack of professionalism”. He has a lot of talent, but it remains to be seen if he has the right attitude to succeed at this level. Perhaps his experience with the Colts will act as a wake up call for him. I think the Titans will bring him in for a cheap deal to compete in camp for a roster spot at corner.
  • Nate Palmer, ILB (UFA) - Palmer is another depth/special teams guy that could be brought back for the right price. I would be surprised if inside linebacker isn’t a spot that the Titans address at some point during the draft so chances are slim that Palmer would make the roster next season if we re-sign Spence and draft a guy at this spot.
  • Justin Staples, ILB/OLB (RFA) - Staples is a fringe roster guy as well. I doubt he makes the 53 man roster next season.
  • Daimion Stafford, S (UFA) - Stafford was a pretty good player last year. He quietly played more defensive snaps than Da’Norris Searcy (613 for Stafford, 555 for Searcy) over the course of the season. Stafford is a true strong safety; a thumper in the run game, but he struggles in pass coverage. I expect him to have a market in free agency with teams looking for guys that can play the “monster back” role that Deone Bucannon has made popular with the Cardinals the last few years. He fits that mold perfectly. I would like to see Stafford brought back for something like a 3 year, $6M contract, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see another team offer him a bigger deal and role.
  • Phillip Supernaw, TE (RFA) - Supernaw is a good depth/special teams player, but I think the Titans will only bring back one of the two between him and Fasano. With Walker still leading the line at tight end and the Titans likely to draft a rookie to become the long term replacement for Walker, there just isn’t going to be much room at the position for a guy like Supernaw.
  • David Bass, OLB, (UFA) - Bass has been good depth the past two years, but with Orakpo, Morgan, Dodd, and Wallace all ahead of him, its hard to see him coming back as anything but a camp body here.
  • Tre McBride, WR (ERFA) - Same with McBride. The Titans have very little depth at receiver with Kendall Wright moving on and Harry Douglas a possible cap casualty (more on that later). Expect him to get a deal to get him in to camp.
  • Alex Tanney, QB (ERFA) - Tanney turned down a chance to get on the Browns 53-man roster this season to remain on the Titans practice squad. He has shown enough in the last couple preseasons to have the Titans keep him around. I expect he will get another chance to compete with Matt Cassel for the backup quarterback position.

If we sign Fasano, Spence, Johnson, Cassel, Klug, and Stafford to the deals outlined above that adds another $13M to our cap total for 2017 while knocking 6 minimum salary guys (at roughly $0.5M each) below the 51 man cutoff line, bringing us to a new total committed cap number of $134.6M and somewhere between $33.4M and $57.4M to spend depending on how much of the rollover space we decide to use.

Contract Extension Candidates

Well-managed NFL teams usually try to lock down their key players a year before they hit the free agent market. This usually keeps the total cost down since the team doesn’t have to worry about another team coming in with a huge offer and starting a bidding war. Players also like it because it gets them more money in the short term and more long term financial security even though NFL contracts are never fully guaranteed. With that in mind here are some players the Titans may look at extending this offseason.

  • Taylor Lewan, LT - Lewan was a first round pick in the 2014 Draft which means the Titans have a 5th year option on his rookie contract that they can pick up this offseason which would lock him in for the 2018 season. This almost certainly is going to happen, but I think there is a chance that the Titans go ahead and get his long term extension done this offseason as well. Here is my reasoning: Lewan’s 5th year option for 2018 will likely pay him somewhere around $9.5-10M based on the 2016 numbers for offensive linemen taken between picks 11-32 (Lewan was pick #11). Lewan is only making $2M in 2017 under his current deal. The Titans have the “extra” cap room this year to eat up whatever increase we decide to give him over his 2017 salary while putting ourselves in a better position with the cap in 2018 and beyond. Mariota’s mega-extension will probably hit either during the 2018 offseason or the 2019 offseason so paying Lewan a few extra bucks now when we can afford it could significantly ease the cap crunch Mariota’s deal will bring. Tyron Smith is the best comp for Lewan and this is exactly what the Cowboys did with him after his 3rd year. His deal was an 8 year, $110M extension with $40M of that being guaranteed. Expect that to be the starting point for Lewan’s negotiations.
  • Quinton Spain, LG - Spain is currently one of the NFL’s best bargains: an undrafted free agent who is an above average starter. He made just $525,000 in 2016 while performing as one of the top 20 guards in the NFL according to PFF. That is an incredible deal for the Titans. Spain is going to be a RFA after next season instead of a UFA which makes a huge difference as the Titans would probably be able use a 2nd round tender to keep other teams away from him next offseason. I don’t think a deal will get done for him this season, but he would be a prime candidate next offseason.
  • Avery Williamson, ILB - Williamson and Woodyard are both scheduled to become UFAs in 2018 so you would think the Titans would want to lock at least one of them up unless they are planning to totally overhaul the position this offseason. You could argue that Woodyard outplayed Williamson for a good part of 2016, but he is 6 years older than Williamson so Avery is the extension candidate here. I think Williamson is ultimately a very good 2-down 3-4 inside linebacker who is currently being asked to be a 3-down guy because we don’t have a better option. I expect that Williamson’s absolute max would be the 3 year, $12M contract the Bears gave Jerrell Freeman last offseason. I would hope we could get him for a little bit less.
  • DaQuan Jones, DE - Jones is another guy that seems like a somewhat interesting candidate for a contract extension this offseason. He was ranked 16th among NFL interior linemen in run defense according to PFF in 2016. He is never going to be the Jurell Casey penetrating game wrecker type, but he doesn’t need to be to do his job on this defense. His contract is probably something in the 3 year, $6M range.

Let’s run with the idea that we decide to extend Lewan, Williamson, and Jones this offseason at the deals described above. Assuming the numbers are spread evenly over each season that adds $15.6M in cap hits for the 2017 season after backing out each player’s existing deal. This brings our running total cap hit for 2017 to $150.2M with somewhere between $17.8M and $41.8M to spend.

Potential Cap Casualties

OK, so those numbers are starting to look a lot less fun that the $70M number that we talked about at the beginning. Don’t worry, there are ways to free up some of that space that we just gave up. It just might hurt a little bit. Here are some players that we could consider moving on from to free up more cap space.

  • Jason McCourty, CB ($7M potential savings) - This one hurts the worst so lets get it out of the way first. Jason McCourty has been an excellent player for the Titans since we drafted him in 2009 and an even better ambassador for the team off the field. However, the last two years have seen him take a step back in his performance to the point that he was getting fewer snaps than LeShaun Sims and Valentino Blake by the end of last season. We know that corner needs to be addressed aggressively this offseason via both free agency and the draft, and if McCourty was our 4th best corner by the end of 2016 behind Sims, McCain, and Blake, it is hard to see how he is going to be able to get on the field after the Titans add 2-3 more corners to the mix. McCourty will be 30 before the start of the 2017 NFL season and I think we would be better served putting that $7M towards one of the really good younger corners that will be hitting free agency this offseason.
  • Harry Douglas, WR ($3.8M potential savings) - Douglas is often bashed by Titans fans but, similar to Blake, I think much of it is undeserved. Douglas is a hard working team first guy and the coaches trust him. That is a lot more than can be said about many former Titans receivers. However, similar to McCourty’s situation, Douglas is on the wrong side of 30 and was on the field for just 22.3% of the Titans offensive snaps in 2016. That level of usage just doesn't correlate to his cap hit in 2017 of $4.5M. The Titans will certainly address the wide receiver room this offseason and it's hard to see Douglas being a regular contributor worthy of that level of pay. I think Douglas is likely to be released as well to free up additional space.
  • Da’Norris Searcy, S ($4.5M potential savings) - As I mentioned above, Searcy was outsnapped by Daimion Stafford this season while getting paid like the 5th best strong safety in the NFL. His play and his pay simply don't match which is a good formula for making it on this list. His situation is a little more complicated than McCourty or Douglas though since 2 of the Titans other 3 safeties on the current roster are UFAs this offseason (Johnson and Stafford). If the Titans re-sign both those guys or bring back one and go get another free agent safety, I think the Searcy move could be realistic. Not only would it save $4.5M against this year's cap, but it would also save $6.1M against the 2018 cap.
  • Wesley Woodyard, ILB ($4.8M potential savings) - Woodyard’s play in 2016 was probably his best as a member of the Titans. However, that level of play still doesn't live up to his large cap number. Woodyard will be the 10th highest paid inside linebacker in the NFL in 2017 under his current contract. He's nowhere near that level in terms of ability at this point. He's another guy on the wrong side of 30 too. Similar to Searcy though, both of Woodyard’s potential replacements on the roster are set to become UFAs this offseason (Spence and Palmer). With the free agent market being extremely thin at inside linebacker it seems the only viable option for replacing Woodyard would be through the draft unless Robinson can pull off a surprise trade like the DeMarco Murray deal last year. This is the one that I think is least likely. A restructuring may be the best option here since it would allow the Titans to ease some of his cap hits per year while keeping him around for another year or two and removing the possibility of both Woodyard and Williamson hitting the free agent market in 2018 at the same time.
  • Al Woods, NT ($2.3M potential savings) - $2.3M isn't a ton of savings, but with Austin Johnson likely in line to replace Woods at starting NT in 2017 anyway this could be an option. This becomes particularly interesting if the Titans decide to pursue a free agent upgrade at NT like Brandon Williams or Dontari Poe. Another potential scenario that could put this in play would be signing Calais Campbell and then kicking DaQuan Jones inside to NT to rotate with Johnson.

For the purposes of this article let's assume that the Titans release McCourty and Douglas freeing up an additional $10.8M of cap space bringing our running total back down to $139.4M and leaving somewhere between $28.6M and $52.6M of available cap space to spend on outside free agents.

Conclusion

Depending on how they structure contracts and who they actually decide to re-sign, extend, or release these numbers could fluctuate a little, but I think somewhere around $30-40M worth of new spending on outside free agents is a pretty good guesstimate. These kinds of numbers should put any free agent corner we want firmly in play as well as at least one or two other premium free agents. The Giants spent right under $30M of annual cap space on Janoris Jenkins, Snacks Harrison, and Olivier Vernon last offseason which completely transformed their defense taking them from 30th in defensive DVOA in 2015 to 2nd in the same rating in 2016. The Titans could have a similar impact with that kind of money this offseason in addition to the two first round picks.

Some of our potential cap casualties will also allow us to consider chasing players like Eric Berry or Brandon Williams since you have the option to cut Searcy or Woods to make some additional room if you successfully land them. Over the next few weeks I will spend some time profiling some of the potential free agent targets that the Titans could spend all this money on. To be continued...