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Looking Ahead: An early look at some Titans offseason decisions

With the Titans 2018 season officially on the ropes, let’s take a peak ahead at the 2019 offseason and some of the decisions facing Jon Robinson.

Tennessee Titans v Miami Dolphins Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

I don’t want to be writing this article right now.

That’s really all I could think as I started to stare at the blank page with the blinking cursor on it. It’s only November. Last season I didn’t write this article until mid-January.

But here we are.

The Titans could, in theory, still get hot and go on a run to sneak in to the playoffs. The schedule isn’t that tough with four of their final five games at home and the opponents having a combined record of 21-34. At least two — probably three if Sam Darnold misses this Sunday’s game — of the remaining foes will feature a backup quarterback, something the Titans haven’t had the benefit of facing all season after seeing a ton of them last year. However, even if they run the table they’ll still need help to get in. One slip up and the odds drop to almost zero. I guess I’m writing this article now mostly because I don’t believe this team can go five weeks without a slip up. I dare them to prove me wrong (please).

Looking forward is less painful than looking back at the last two weeks. So what could the future hold for the Tennessee Titans in the 2019 offseason? Let’s take a look.

Titans Cap Situation

The Titans are set to enter the 2019 offseason with the 14th most cap space in the NFL at $42.7M based on a projected league salary cap of $187M, basically right at league average.

(Skip this next part in italics if you’re already sad and don’t want to be even sadder)

Sad Fact: The Colts and Texans will have $123.7M (most in the NFL) and $68.4M (7th most in the NFL) in cap space, respectively, heading in to this offseason. The AFC South is going to be really tough for the foreseeable future.

That $42.7M in space is before the Titans re-sign any of their own free agents (we will get to those guys in a moment), but it does account for the $20.9M cap hit from Marcus Mariota’s 5th year option. Draft picks will typically eat roughly $5-6M of the available space and teams very rarely spend all the way up to the cap — in part because they want some wiggle room in case they need to sign a guy like Kenny Vaccaro during camp or even midseason — so realistically the Titans have about $30-35M to work with on the free agency market if they want to spend close to the fully allotted cap.

Titans Free Agents

Here is the list of guys who are currently on the roster, but are set to become free agents when the new league year begins on March 13th, 2019.

Brian Orakpo, OLB - Orakpo will be 33 before the start of next season and it’s starting to show. He’s been a shell of his usual self this year and it’s hard to see him coming back on anything but a one year, veteran minimum type deal to be a rotational player and leader for the position group. There is no doubt that Rak is among the best examples for young players to follow in the Titans locker room and that has some value, but his legs are starting to fail him.

The decision with Orakpo and Morgan are tied together. Both have struggled mightily this season, combining for a total of 2 sacks through 11 games. There’s virtually no chance that they bring both guys back for the 2019 season. It’s time to hand the position over to Harold Landry and Kamalei Correa and Sharif Finch and a draft pick to be named later, but I could see one of the two returning in a leadership/situational capacity.

Derrick Morgan, OLB - Morgan will be 30 heading in to 2019 which would be his 10th season in the NFL. Should the Titans bring back him or Orakpo? I can see both sides. I think Rak is the better pass rusher still, but Morgan is both younger and the far superior run defender.

Morgan doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a Dean Pees 3-4 outside linebacker. He can’t drop in to space and cover and isn’t nearly as versatile as every other linebacker on the roster. Maybe the Titans could bring him back as a run down defender who could occasionally slip inside to rush from a defensive tackle position on 3rd downs.

Similar to Rak, he’s a great leader and locker room presence for the young edge rushers to learn from and I think that has some value. I would also expect him to be signed by another NFL team if the Titans don’t choose to bring him back. If I was Jon Robinson, I’d let him walk, re-sign Orakpo as a backup/rotational guy on a one year deal, but there is also the chance that they decide to go all young here and re-sign neither.

Kenny Vaccaro, S - Vaccaro has been a very pleasant surprise after being signed midway through training camp when Johnathan Cyprien tore his ACL and that leaves the Titans with a very interesting decision to make at safety. Cyprien is still under contract for the 2019 and 2020 seasons at a cap hit of about $6.75M per season, but the Titans could get out of the deal with just $1.5M in dead cap space if they choose to release him this offseason, effectively saving $5.25M against the cap.

I would guess that Vaccaro will cost a little bit more than that — but not much — so the Titans could pretty easily decide they prefer their new safety and move on from the old one. They could also decide to bring Vaccaro back in addition to Cyprien and tinker with some 3 safety sets or even get Cyprien some work at inside linebacker — turning a safety in to a quality linebacker is something Pees has been known to do in the past — and I think that could be a pretty good option as well. Either way, I’d say that Vaccaro should be a priority player for Jon Robinson to re-sign off this list.

Quinton Spain, G - The Titans offensive line has been a mess this year, but Spain has been a bright spot. He’s been the team’s best interior lineman by far and now he’s due to become a free agent. Complicating this situation is the fact that the Titans basically dared Spain to leave last offseason when he was a restricted free agent, offering him the lowest level of RFA tender rather than spending the extra money to ward off other suitors. The gamble worked out in the short term. Spain didn’t find another deal to his liking in the market and returned to play on the one-year contract at $1.9M.

The Titans also decided to pay Josh Kline, giving him a 4-year, $26M contract to stick around at the other guard spot. They also decided to bring in competition for Spain’s starting left guard spot, signing Kevin Pamphile and Xavier Su’a-Filo. Neither addition proved to be capable of hanging with Spain and he won the job with ease out of camp, but you can be sure that all those slights were noticed by Spain and his camp. I would not blame the big fella at all if he felt like snubbing his nose back at the team as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Maybe the Titans can give him a good enough offer to make that all water under the bridge, but if we get to March 11th (the first day of the “legal tampering period”) and Spain is still unsigned, my money is going to be on him walking and that would leave the Titans in a bad spot.

If I was Spain, my asking price would start above Kline’s contract. After all, it’s virtually impossible to argue that Spain hasn’t been better than his counterpart for his entire career. That could mean a financial commitment of close to $7-8M per year. That’s a lot for a guard who is just above average, but the Titans may be looking at replacing the entire interior offensive line if they don’t decide to pay up for Spain this time around.

Luke Stocker, TE - Tight end is another position that will be interesting to watch this offseason. The Titans should get Delanie Walker back, but he will be 35 years old and coming off a major leg injury. It’s fair to think that he might not return to Pro Bowl level play. Even if he’s just 80% of what he was the last time we saw him on the field, he’ll be a big help though. Jonnu Smith will slide back to a TE2 role which will fit him much better.

Stocker will be 31 years old and he’s nothing more than a below average blocking tight end at this point in his career. The Titans can surely do better with this spot.

Kevin Pamphile, G - Pamphile was pretty good as a utility lineman before he was lost for the season with a torn biceps just three games into the season. If the Titans bring him back — I probably would — it should be with the idea that he’s a good depth piece. Another one year deal similar to the one he signed last offseason would make sense.

Kendrick Lewis, S - Lewis will just be 31 years old next season, but he hasn’t played very well when pressed into action this season. Dane Cruikshank should be ready to play as a 3rd or 4th safety depending on what the Titans decide to do with Vaccaro and Cyprien so I wouldn’t expect to see Lewis return for a second season here.

Bennie Logan, NT - Logan has dropped to 5th in the defensive line pecking order in recent weeks, behind Jurrell Casey, DaQuan Jones, Austin Johnson, and Darius Kilgo. It’s safe to say he’ll be playing somewhere else next season.

Brynden Trawick, S - Trawick is still a core special teams player and I wouldn’t mind seeing him come back for another season in Tennessee. Cruikshank can probably offer a lot of what Trawick does as a special teams contributor though, so maybe the Titans decide to use that roster spot elsewhere.

Will Compton, ILB - Similar to Trawick, Compton is just a special teams guy at this point. He could return in that role, but I don’t think he will command much money or be a high priority.

Nate Palmer, ILB - Palmer was injured in training camp. He’s another special teams focused linebacker. I can’t imagine he’s back in any substantial way.

David Fluellen, RB - Fluellen is an interesting case. First, he’s a restricted free agent which means the Titans can tender him a one year deal to retain his rights. I think this staff seems to like Flu quite a bit so I wouldn’t be that shocked to see them offer him a “first right of refusal” tender — the lowest available option — to at least bring him back to camp while they look to bring in more running back competition through the draft potentially.

Dalyn Dawkins, RB - Dawkins is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning that the Titans are the only team that can negotiate with him as long as they submit a qualifying offer. They may or may not decide to bring Dawkins back to compete in camp depending on what their plans are for the running back position.

Tye Smith, CB - Smith was injured early in camp, but he’s also an exclusive rights guy. I think it’s pretty likely that the Titans bring him back to compete for a backup cornerback/special teams spot.

Possible Extensions

There are a few guys who are heading in to the final year of their current deals in 2019 that the Titans might consider extending.

Marcus Mariota, QB - This is obviously the big decision facing the franchise, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be made this offseason. Mariota is under contract for one more year in 2019 for $20.9M so they can choose to let him play out his rookie deal and then decide if they want to negotiate after next season with the franchise tag as a safety net. However, if Mariota continues to play well over the final five games the Titans may decide to go ahead and commit to their young QB this offseason. His contract would be fascinating to see at this point. Quarterbacks in general continue to set the market with each new contract. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Kirk Cousins have all recently signed deals with close to $100M guaranteed.

Mariota isn’t as accomplished as any of those passers, but he is much younger. I think the most reasonable comps for Mariota would be Derek Carr’s 5-year, $125M ($40M guaranteed at signing) deal and Jimmy Garappolo’s 5-year, $137.5M ($41.7M guaranteed at signing) deal if the Titans do choose to commit to their quarterback long term this offseason. That’s still quite a bit of money, but the guaranteed money being more palatable feels right for a player that still carries a good deal of risk. We will see what the Titans decide to do here.

Kevin Byard, S - Kevin Byard is probably the most likely extension candidate for the Titans this offseason. While he hasn’t put up the huge stats that he did in 2017, Byard is still pretty clearly an elite talent at safety. He’s also a great leader and the kind of guy you should feel great about investing in long term. He will be heading in to the final year of his rookie contract in 2019 which means he’s firmly in extension talk range.

I’d look for Byard to target Eric Berry’s market-setting safety contract of 6-years, $78M ($29.8 guaranteed at signing) as his mark for a new deal. It’s not crazy to think he could demand that much and it would put his cap hit somewhere in the neighborhood of $13M per year — a pretty huge jump from his current $1.1M cap hit for 2019. Assuming this deal gets done this offseason — and I think it will — that will eat up a chunk of the Titans available cap space. It’s a good problem to have though with a player like Byard.

Logan Ryan, CB - Ryan will be heading in to the final year of his 3-year, $30M deal in 2019 and given his play this season and his leadership I could see them going ahead and re-upping for a couple more years. He will be 28 next season which is getting up there for a cornerback, but he’s talked about a potential transition to safety once the legs start to slow down. I don’t think a position change needs to happen any time soon, but I’d like to see Ryan here as a long term piece. I’m not sure what the numbers would look like for that type of deal, but I would imagine he won’t be making more than what he’s currently getting per year given his age.

Possible Cuts

While Mariota and Byard extensions might take away from the available cap space, there are also some possible paths towards adding some back by moving on from some higher priced players.

Johnathan Cyprien, S - As mentioned above, the Titans could save $5.25M in cap space by releasing Cyprien. That would mean that they would also need to re-sign Vaccaro or add another safety, but it would free up some space if they want it. I tend to think Cyp will be back in 2019, but I could see them moving on if they decide that Vaccaro is the better long term option next to Byard.

Josh Kline, G - Kline’s contract extension signed last offseason already looks like a major bust from Jon Robinson, but to the GM’s credit, he did leave himself with some wiggle room to bail if things went this way. The Titans can save $3.25M against the cap by cutting Kline this offseason. It leaves an ugly $3.5M dead cap hit on the books for next year, but it’s not a cap crippling number by any means. The Titans have to upgrade this position in the offseason.

Ben Jones, C - Jones will be headed in to the final year of his deal in 2019, but the Titans can save $4.5M if they choose to release him this offseason. Jones hasn’t been very good over the past couple years and I think an upgrade at center could really help the Titans up front. Jones and Kline are the weak links and replacing them both would be ideal.

Derrick Henry, RB - He normally wouldn’t be here, but the reports that the Titans were considering trading him at the trade deadline means he’s worth mentioning here. The Titans would be foolish to cut him — they’d only save $1.2M in cap space and would be left looking to replace his production elsewhere — but they might look to trade him again in the offseason if they don’t feel like he fits what they want to do on offense. He’ll be headed in to the final year of his rookie contract so we are heading towards a decision regarding Henry in the near future one way or another.

Wesley Woodyard, ILB - Woodyard has been one of the Titans best defenders over the past couple seasons, but he seems to be slowing down a tick this year. He just doesn’t pop off the screen like he did at times last year. The Titans drafted his replacement in Rashaan Evans in the 1st round last year and Evans has been coming on in recent weeks. Jayon Brown has proven himself to be a guy that shouldn’t be coming off the field often either so that leaves little room for Woodyard as a starter in 2019. However, he would be a great veteran backup/leader and at just $3.5M, he’s not that expensive. I’d expect Woodyard to be back, but the fact that he has zero guaranteed money for next season lands him on this list as a guy to at least keep an eye on.

Dion Lewis, RB - OK, this one is a real longshot, but like Kline, Lewis’ contract is easy for Tennessee to get out of. They’d save a little over $3M against the cap if they released him, leaving just $1.7M of dead cap space on the books. His production hasn’t been what the Titans surely hoped for when they signed him in March, but if you cut him, again, you have to replace his role elsewhere. Ultimately, I think fixing the offensive line will help the running game far more than replacing the guys who are carrying the ball.

Guy who is absolutely not getting cut

Malcolm Butler, CB - I am creating a category for Butler since I know some fans will scream for him to get cut.

It’s. Not. Going. To Happen.

Butler has a cap hit of $13.1M for 2019, but that would actually increase to $18.5M if he’s released so it would cost the Titans over $5M of cap space to have Butler not on the team. He’s going to be back in 2019. Beyond that will be up to how well he bounces back from his rough start. He’s also not going to get traded. There’s no such thing as a market for a 29-year old cornerback with a massive contract who is available because his current team is giving up on him. Teams would be asking for draft picks to take that contract off the Titans hands.

Besides, Butler hasn’t been as bad as the narrative surrounding him suggests. He’s largely leveled out his play over the last few weeks. That doesn’t mean he’s living up to the contract he was given — he isn’t — but he’s not so bad that cutting him should be on the table.

Potential Free Agent Targets

It is wayyyyyyy too early to really be looking at this. Many of the top guys currently scheduled to hit the market are going to be re-signed or franchise tagged by their current teams. Productive, proven players in or near their primes like Dee Ford, Jadeveon Clowney, DeMarcus Lawrence, Trey Flowers, Grady Jarrett, Frank Clark, and Landon Collins are very unlikely to truly hit the open market and if they do, they’ll have a laundry list of suitors to choose from. Maybe one or two of those guys slip through and become available, but I would bet at least 50% of these guys aren’t available on March 11th. That being said, here are the positions that I would be looking at if I was the Titans in addition to a few of the best options that might become available.

Interior Offensive Linemen

I think Tennessee needs to add multiple interior offensive linemen this offseason. My guess is that at least one of those comes from the draft, but you certainly don’t want to rebuild your offensive line with a bunch of rookies so the Titans probably need to sign at least one guy from the group below:

  • Matt Paradis, C, DEN
  • Roger Saffold, G, LAR
  • Ramon Foster, G, PIT
  • Mark Glowinski, G, IND
  • Mitch Morse, C, KC

Saffold and Foster are both on the wrong side of 30, but still playing at a high level. All five of these guys are important parts of some of the best offensive lines in the league right now.

Edge Rushers

Impact edge rushers almost never make it to free agency. It’s such a premier position that teams are usually willing to go to the franchise tag to hang on to their guys if they can’t reach a long term extension. I think that will be the case with many of these guys, but maybe one or two sneak through.

  • Jadeveon Clowney, HOU
  • Dee Ford, KC
  • DeMarcus Lawrence, DAL
  • Frank Clark, SEA
  • Brandon Graham, PHI
  • Ezekiel Ansah, DET
  • Dante Fowler Jr., LAR

Clowney is almost certainly headed back to Houston one way or another unless he tries to force his way out. The Texans have more cap space than the Titans and will almost certainly slap the franchise tag on him if they can’t come to an agreement. It’s the same story for Ford in Kansas City, Lawrence in Dallas, and Clark in Seattle. The Rams are very likely to get an extension worked out with Fowler after trading valuable draft capital to get him before the trade deadline.

That leaves Graham and Ansah as possible additions. The Eagles are cap-strapped which could mean the end of the road for their long time edge rusher, Brandon Graham. He’s going to be 31 next season so Philly may be willing to let him walk and make room for some of their young edge rushers. The Lions could afford to bring Ansah back, but he’s been banged up the last couple years and is also on the wrong side of 30. Neither of these guys are likely to be elite, gamechanging talents, but they could give an upgrade over Orakpo and Morgan in the short term. This is still likely a position better addressed a draft loaded with edge rushers though.

Wide Receiver

Will the Titans ever enter an offseason without listing receiver as a need position? Outside of Corey Davis, it’s hard to feel great about any of the team’s current wide outs. Tajae Sharpe has started almost every game, but produced just 22 catches for 259 yards in 11 games. Taywan Taylor has missed most of the last four games with a foot injury, but was inconsistent prior to getting hurt. Cameron Batson has been better than expected, but he hasn’t shown enough that you’d feel great about him as a big building block piece moving forward. While the young receivers will be a year older next year, the team could still use a veteran presence in that room.

  • Golden Tate, PHI
  • John Brown, BAL
  • Adam Humphries, TB
  • Tyrell Williams, LAC
  • Quincy Enunwa, NYJ
  • Jermaine Kearse, NYJ
  • Donte Moncrief, JAX
  • Cole Beasley, DAL
  • Randall Cobb, GB

I’m not going to go through all of these guys because you know most of these names. I’d say that Tate has a real chance of reaching free agency given the Eagles cap situation. John Brown has cooled off after a fast start in Baltimore, but he’s the kind of deep threat this team still lacks. Tyrell Williams is a different type of vertical threat that would fit nicely without breaking the bank. The sleeper here would be Adam Humphries to me. He’s a young, reliable slot receiver who Jon Robinson helped sign as an undrafted guy out of Clemson back in 2015.

While we’re here though... aren’t you glad the Titans didn’t trade for a receiver back at the deadline? There is no way one receiver makes a difference in the outcomes of the Colts or Texans games.

Depth Tight End

The Titans might decide to try to find this position in the draft or they could even decide they like MyCole Pruitt enough to give him a role as a blocking tight end in this offense. If they choose to add someone from another team, here are some of the options.

  • James O’Shaughnessy, JAX
  • Maxx Williams, BAL
  • C.J. Uzomah, CIN
  • Jesse James, PIT
  • Demetrius Harris, KC

None of these guys are gamechangers, but they’d all be upgrades over Luke Stocker.

Defensive Line

This isn’t a massive need — I think the Titans could use more help at edge than here — but there are a couple potential difference makers that we need to mention.

  • Ndamukong Suh, LAR
  • Grady Jarrett, ATL
  • Sheldon Richardson, MIN
  • David Irving, DAL

The Titans pursued Suh last offseason and they might take another run at him if he doesn’t decide to return to LA, but it’s hard to see him leaving a cushy situation next to Aaron Donald with a chance to win the Super Bowl for a middling Titans team if we’re being honest.

Jarrett is going to be one of the prizes of the NFL offseason if he makes it to free agency as a difference-making interior defensive lineman. He’s very likely to be franchise tagged if he doesn’t reach an extension prior to the deadline though.

Richardson and Irving are both talented, but troubled players. Irving is of particular interest to me because he’s a long, powerful interior pass rusher who would fit really nicely next to Jurrell Casey rushing from the inside on 3rd downs, but he’s struggled with both suspensions and injuries over the last two years. He’s a high risk, high reward option.

Way too early draft preview

I won’t go too far down this rabbit trail, but this shapes up as a nice draft for a team looking for front seven players on defense. The top of the draft is loaded with potential difference making pass rushers. Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver, Rashan Gary, Clelin Ferrell, Josh Allen, Jeffrey Simmons, Montez Sweat, Christian Wilkins, Dre’Mont Jones, Jachai Polite, Raekwon Davis, and Brian Burns are all guys that I’ve seen with first round grades in various places. The Titans could really use a nice complement across from Harold Landry to help the team create pressure without blitzing. Allen, Sweat, and Ferrell are all guys that I particularly like because of their contrast in style to Landry.

If I was Jon Robinson, I’d be looking hard at interior offensive line, edge, wide receiver, tight end, and running back in the draft in no particular order. They could probably use a draft and develop type corner and defensive lineman as well. Maybe a draft and develop quarterback if they find one they really like (look for the opposite of Luke Falk please).

We will have a ton of time to get further in to offseason discussions, but I think last night’s loss at least cracks open the door to 2019 so I wanted to layout some of the major topics and issues facing the team over the next 6 months. Hopefully the Titans go on a five game run and make all of this look entirely premature.