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The Titans did not make a trade deadline and that tells us something about Jon Robinson’s mindset

The Titans stood pat at the trade deadline and there are a few ways to look at it.

NFL: International Series-Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

OK, Titans fans... let’s start with some breathing exercises.

Deep breath in...

Let it out slooooooow...

Deep breath in...

Let it out slooooooow...

Still worked up about the Titans lack of activity at the trade deadline?

I thought so... and I get it. The Titans are coming off their bye week riding a three game losing streak and suddenly find themselves looking up at a Texans team that has gone from being two games behind the Titans to a game and a half ahead in just four weeks. Not only has Tennessee been losing games, but their offense has looked ridiculously inept in five of their seven games this season with second half flurries against the Eagles and Chargers being the only exceptions.

And Jon Robinson and the Titans front office did nothing to address issues on the offense at the trade deadline despite several reportedly viable options available to them. Not only that, but the rival Texans did do something, trading to get Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for a 4th round pick.

There is zero doubt that a veteran wide receiver or tight end or interior offensive lineman could have helped this team. None. So why did the Titans pass on the available options and what does that tell us about Jon Robinson?

One possible reason for not making a deal is simple. Robinson didn’t like the players available at the values they ended up going for. The only wide receivers that moved were Demaryius Thomas to the Texans for a 4th round pick (and a meaningless swap of 7th rounders) and Golden Tate to the Eagles for a 3rd round pick.

Let’s start with the Thomas deal. According to reports, it sounds like the Titans did make an offer for Thomas, but it fell short of what Houston was ultimately willing to do.

While Thomas is still a decently productive receiver — he has 36 catches for 402 yards and 3 touchdowns over 8 games this season — he’s far removed from the player he once was when he strung together 5 straight 1,000 yard seasons from 2012 to 2016. The 2018 version of Thomas is averaging just 50.3 yards per game which ranks 58th in the league and would be his worst performance on a per game basis since he became a full time starter. While part of that struggle certainly has to do with his environment — its a lot easier to put up big numbers in a Peyton Manning-led offense than one captained by Case Keenum — it is also tough to argue that going from Denver’s struggling offense to Tennessee’s struggling offense would have been a huge boost for the veteran receiver.

He also struggles with a problem that Titans fans are very familiar with. Thomas is 2nd in the NFL in drops since 2015 with 24. Pro Football Focus has him with the 3rd highest drop rate in the league for 2018, dropping 13.6% of the catchable passes thrown his way. That’s not to say that Thomas is a terrible player or that he doesn’t have some skills that would be helpful to the Titans — he’s far more accomplished than anyone Tennessee has — but as he closes in on his 31st birthday, he’s simply not the Pro Bowl caliber guy that he once was.

Thomas’ current contract runs through the end of 2019, but at a $17.5M cap hit and no dead money for that final season, there is a zero percent chance that anyone was going to keep him on that deal. He’s bound for an extension that lowers his cap number significantly or an outright release at the end of this season. That’s important because it means that the team trading for him would not receive any possibility for compensatory picks coming back to help sweeten the deal.

So is 9 games of 2018 Demaryius Thomas worth a 4th round pick? It sounds like the Texans were the only team to think so. Whether they were right or not remains to be seen, but clearly the Titans felt like that was too rich of an offer.

I don’t have a huge problem with the Titans balking at giving up a 4th for a declining receiver who struggles with drops and doesn’t bring the one thing that this offense needs more than anything: explosive plays.

On the other hand, there were no reports directly tying the Titans to Tate. In fact, Adam Schefter came out after the deadline that the Eagles weren’t bidding against anyone to land Tate. That information conflicts with other reports that multiple teams had been talking to the Lions about their star receiver going all the way back to before the season started so it could simply be that no other team made a formal offer or that the Eagles offer was the only one that met the Lions requirements to move Tate. I find it very hard to believe that Jon Robinson didn’t call to at least check the price, especially in light of Paul Kuharsky reporting that the Titans talked to at least seven teams about potential deals.

Tate was always my preference among the receivers that were rumored to be available so it stings to see him move somewhere else. The price of a 3rd round pick is fairly high for a guy on an expiring contract, but the team trading for him would have a chance to negotiate an extension or let him walk and potentially get a 3rd round compensatory pick back. Either way it wouldn’t have been just a pure rental.

With guys like DeSean Jackson, Odell Beckham Jr., and Emmanuel Sanders staying put, there’s a good chance that those guys were either never truly available or the prices being asked were so high that nobody in the league were willing to meet it. The “pay whatever it takes” mantra is reckless and often produces results like the Cowboys trading a 1st, 3rd, and 6th in 2008 for Roy Williams only to see him fail to reach the 600 yard mark in any of his two and a half disastrous seasons in Dallas. Or how about the Bills trading a 3rd and a 7th for Kelvin Benjamin last season? Think they’re happy with their return on that investment right now?

That’s not to say that Tate wouldn’t have been good here. He very well might have been. But well-run NFL teams set a value for what they believe a player to be worth and don’t go above and beyond it.

That brings me to my next point. None of this happened in a vacuum. While most fans were largely happy with Jon Robinson’s decision to be aggressive during the 2018 NFL Draft, the fact that he netted just a 4-man draft class that quickly became a 3-man draft class likely influences this decision to some degree. He had also already shipped a 6th round pick in next year’s draft to Baltimore for Kamalei Correa to help the pass rush depth, leaving the Titans with just 6 selections in 2019. Moving another of those picks for a veteran would further deplete their draft capital and give them just 9 picks over a two year stretch.

Picks are far from sure things, but they are valuable for a few reasons. First, since scouting and drafting aren’t foolproof processes — even the best GMs miss on a large percentage of their picks — having more educated guesses gives you a better chance at hitting on a Kevin Byard or a Jayon Brown. Second, those players are cheap depth and that allows you to spend money on your best players. While Marcus Mariota’s second contract is far from a guarantee at this point, he’s scheduled to make over $20M on the 5th year of his rookie contract in 2019. If Mariota is re-signed beyond that, he will likely be making at least that number or more. Having talented players on cheap rookie contracts will never be more important than it will be in 2019 and beyond.

All of that calculates in to Jon Robinson’s decision making when he’s deciding whether or not he wants to trade a pick for a player at the trade deadline. He also has to calculate whether or not his team is an [insert trade target here] away from a playoff spot or being able to challenge teams like the Patriots, Steelers, and Chiefs in the playoffs.

Adding Golden Tate or Demaryius Thomas would certainly make the Titans a better football team. However, are they good enough to elevate this team above the Texans or other AFC rivals? I’m not so sure. As I’ve discussed on here many times, this offense’s problems go far deeper than just one receiver. It’s very rare that you see a wide receiver lift an entire offense on his back. How do the Giants look with Odell Beckham Jr. right now? Like it or not, the Titans offense isn’t too far off from New York’s right now. And while Tate is a very good player, he’s no OBJ. Good receivers help, but they certainly aren’t a cure-all.

Throwing a future pick at fixing a problem that is bigger than one player isn’t generally a good practice. I am not saying I agree with Jon Robinson’s decision to stand pat at the trade deadline. Frankly, I don’t have enough information to fully form an opinion on it. What were the Bucs asking for DeSean Jackson? Was Emmanuel Sanders available? If so, at what price? Were there players that were quietly available that didn’t get out through the media? I can say that I probably would have pulled the trigger on a 3rd round pick for Golden Tate as long as I thought that I could re-sign him in the offseason at a reasonable cost, but I don’t think I would have made the deal that Houston did for Demaryius Thomas.

It sounds like the Titans were interested in making a move for a wide receiver, but Robinson’s unwillingness to overpay tells me that he doesn’t feel like any of those guys were the difference between a playoff spot and sitting at home in January. It’s fair to disagree with that assessment and criticize him for it. It’s also fair to point out that the reason they were having to shop for wide receivers at the trade deadline can be directly traced back to him overestimating what he had in the young receivers on the roster. However, it’s not fair to retroactively pretend that Jon Robinson is a passive GM and never makes moves. He’s made 10 trades over the past two and a half years — coming out on top in most of them — and by all reports was sniffing around at the deadline. I think the “asleep at the wheel” characterization is completely false.

How the Titans offense performs over the next 9 games will determine a lot about the path forward for this team. For better or worse, they’re going to figure out what they’ve got in their young pass catchers.