The Titans have made a couple roster moves over the past few weeks that cleared some additional cap space for the 2017 season and beyond. Jason McCourty’s release saved $7M of cap space for 2017, which was the final year of his deal. They followed that up by announcing that Harry Douglas and Da’Norris Searcy agreed to restructured deals which reduced their respective cap hits for this season (and 2018 for Searcy). Those two restructured deals saved a total of $4.2M against the 2017 cap.
As of today, the Titans have right at $24M of unused cap space for 2017 (not counting any rollover cap from 2016). Roughly $5.5M of that will go to signing their draft picks (based on their current draft slots), so that leaves about $18.5M leftover. Cleaning up your books and renegotiating bad contracts is good practice for NFL teams in general, so no ulterior motive for saving this money is required, but if the team does want to use this newfound space, I think a long term contract extension for Taylor Lewan makes a lot more sense than going all in for a Richard Sherman trade.
The Titans haven’t had to sign too many big money extensions in recent times thanks to Ruston Webster’s draft classes. Jurrell Casey and Derrick Morgan are the only two players on the roster who were drafted by the team and are now playing on their second contract here. As a frame of reference, the Packers have 12 of these guys and the Patriots have 10. But that gap is about to shrink in the next few years. The Titans have seemingly hit big on three straight 1st round picks with Taylor Lewan in 2014, Marcus Mariota in 2015, and Jack Conklin in 2016. All three of those guys seem to be long term cornerstones that the franchise would like to build around. Lewan, having just finished his third season, is the first in line for a payday.
First, a little background on how rookie contracts work for 1st round picks under the current CBA. All draft choices are given contracts with four guaranteed years at a team-friendly rate, but 1st round picks come with a team option to add a 5th year to the end of the deal. That 5th year option must be exercised or declined after the player’s 3rd season in the league. For 2014 1st rounders like Lewan, the deadline is coming up on May 3rd. For guys who were top 10 picks in the draft, the salary for that 5th year option is automatically set to be the average salary of the top 10 highest paid players at that position in the NFL. Guys drafted 11-32 get the average of the 3rd through 25th highest salaries at their position. Lewan falls just barely in to that second category as the 11th overall pick of the 2014 draft. Picking up his 5th year option would lock him in for the 2018 season at a salary of $9.3M.
Lewan has developed in to one of the best linemen in the NFL over the past three seasons. Chris Simms even went as far as to say that Lewan is the best left tackle in the league. He’s not going to get an argument from me. Lewan is a stud and he would get crazy money (wayyyyyyy more than that $9.3M number) if he were to actually hit the open market next offseason. As a bonus, he’s also one of the most charismatic and engaging guys on the team. If you’ve never listened to his guest appearances on the Rich Eisen Show, you can check them all out here. Yes, he has gotten on the radar of NFL officials at times due to his style of play, but that style of play also perfectly fits what the Titans want. Lewan is a max effort every down kind of guy and he also operates as the Titans enforcer on offense. Want to take a cheap shot at Mariota? Prepare to deal with 77. Lewan is asked to walk a fine line between avoiding penalties and being the tough guy tone-setter for the offense and in 2016 we could see him learning to do that. His level of play more than makes up for the occasional hands to the face penalty.
I believe the Titans and Lewan are likely currently working on a long term extension. As I have mentioned in previous posts, it does make a lot of sense to sign Lewan to a large, slightly front loaded contract this offseason while we still have a cap surplus. That would help keep the peak of Lewan’s deal from matching up with the peak of Mariota’s future deal that could hit as early as next offseason. Looking further ahead, the Titans also have Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Delanie Walker, and Rishard Matthews all set to be free agents after the 2018 season so this team’s cap outlook will change substantially over the next two years. Quick Tangent: This also really emphasizes the idea that the Titans should be looking hard at pass rushers in the draft. I like Dodd more than most and think Aaron Wallace showed some potential, but we can’t afford to bottom out at that position.
The best way to guesstimate what Lewan’s long term contract value will be is to look at comps of contracts given to similar players at his position in recent years. Lewan’s pedigree as a former 1st round pick and his outstanding play make his list of comps fairly short. The three I came up with were Tyron Smith of the Cowboys, Lane Johnson of the Eagles, and Trent Williams of the Redskins.
Tyron Smith is easily the best comp for Lewan. He signed a 8 year, $98M ($40M guaranteed) contract extension in 2014 after his 3rd season in the NFL. He was drafted 9th overall in 2011, and had just made his first Pro Bowl in his 3rd year in the league. His deal has since been reworked as the Cowboys’ neverending battle with the salary cap rages on, but it was originally a $12.25M per year average annual salary. One thing that sets Smith apart from Lewan a bit was his age at the time of the contract. Smith was just 23 years old when he got his extension (he came in to the NFL at age 20), while Lewan will turn 26 this summer.
Lane Johnson would qualify as the next closest comp in my opinion. He got a 5 year, $63M ($35.5M guaranteed) extension in 2016 after his 3rd season in the NFL. Johnson was the 4th overall pick of the 2013 draft, and has ranked as one of the best tackles in the league since. There are a couple differences from Lewan that stand out. He had never made a Pro Bowl when he got his extension. He also plays right tackle instead of left tackle (although the perceived gap in value between LTs and RTs seems to be shrinking in today’s NFL). His deal works out to a $12.6M average. One pretty significant advantage for this comp is that it is just over a year old.
Trent Williams is the last of my group and the worst comp of the three. He signed a 5 year, $66M ($43M guaranteed) extension in 2015 after his 5th year in the league (Williams was drafted under the old CBA which had longer rookie deals). Williams was the 4th overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft and had made 3 consecutive Pro Bowls by the time he got his extension. His average salary came out to $13.2M per year.
Both Smith and Johnson were extended after their 3rd year in the league and there is a good reason for that timing. Let’s look at why signing the long term extension after Year 3 makes sense for both sides in a case like Lewan’s.
The team has decided that this is a guy they want to build around long term. They currently have him on a cheap deal for his 4th year which is great, but that 5th year option will put his price tag much closer to market value for that season. Your goal is to keep Lewan from hitting the open market where his price tag will skyrocket. Sure, you could just exercise his 5th year option and wait to negotiate next offseason after getting one more cheap year out of him, but then you lose most of your leverage for getting him at a discount. Once the calendar rolls to 2018 and Lewan is on that $9.3M option salary, he’s going to be a lot less motivated to cut you a deal since he knows he can just hit the free agent market in 2019 as an in-his-prime left tackle and wait for the bidding war to drive his price through the roof. Take a look at what very average to below average tackles like Russell Okung (4 yr / $53M), Riley Reiff (5 yr / $59M), and Matt Kalil (5 yr / $56M) got on the open market this year. None of those players are anywhere near Taylor Lewan’s level. Extending him now costs you more money in the short term, but saves you much more over the course of the contract. The Titans have the 2017 cap space to easily extend Lewan and still have the flexibility to pull off a Richard Sherman trade or make another move if another premier player suddenly becomes available between now and the start of the season.
Lewan’s angle is pretty simple. Right now he’s scheduled to make just under $2M in 2017. That’s a fraction of his actual value. If he wants to be a Titan long term, and all indications seem to point towards a resounding yes there, then negotiating a fair deal now gets you paid big money faster. The NFL’s mostly non-guaranteed contracts make playing on a cheap contract a massive risk for the players. What happens if he suffers an injury that sabotages his value between now and 2019? Getting a deal done now offers more financial security even if you are somewhat limiting your upside. Today, Taylor Lewan is guaranteed to make about $11.3M in his NFL future assuming the Titans pick up his 5th year option. Signing a long term extension could triple or quadruple the amount of guaranteed money he has coming to him.
It makes a ton of sense for this deal to get done this offseason. Looking at those three comps I laid out above as a guideline, I think we can safely peg the value of the extension somewhere between $12-14M per season. I will guess the Titans sign Lewan to a 5 year, $67.5M extension with about $40M guaranteed gets done sometime between now and the start of the 2017 regular season, and if that deal gets done Titans fans should be very happy.