It seems most of the NFL’s media and fans have turned their attention to April’s draft. However, free agency will play an important role in predicting and determining the outcome of the draft, and we still have over a month before free agency even begins...
So in the meantime, I thought we could discuss something else: which Titans who are currently under contract are due for an extension soon?*
This list will not include players who are set to become free agents (or restricted free agents) on March 14. Rather, these are the players who are already under contract for the 2018 season that General Manager Jon Robinson might want to keep around for a bit longer.
There haven’t been very many Titans over the past few years who were worthy of a second contract (or a contract extension), thanks mostly to
Ruston Webster’s He Who Shall Not Be Named’s horrendous draft classes. Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug are the top two that come to mind.
But towards the end of his tenure, Webster was able to find a few gems that it may soon be time to re-sign. Who might those players be?
There are two obvious Titans set to receive huge paydays in the near future. Let’s get those two out of the way first.
Marcus Mariota, Quarterback
The face and future of the franchise will soon be a very wealthy young man. Jimmy Garrapolo recently reset the market price for franchise quarterbacks with his 5-year, $137.5M contract, a number likely to be surpassed by Kirk Cousins when free agency opens.
The new league year starts on March 14 at 4:00pm EST, which means the Titans have until then to officially pick-up Mariota’s fifth-year option (which they will do, no doubt). Because Mariota was a top-ten draft selection, his 5th-year option contract will pay him the average of the 10 highest annual quarterback salaries in the NFL.
According to overthecap.com’s list of highest-paid quarterbacks, the average salary (currently) works out to $24,017,593.30 for the 2019 season. That number is likely to increase after Kirk Cousins inks his new deal.
No doubt the Titans would like to lock-up Mariota long-term as soon as possible, ideally this offseason, considering that the young signal-caller is coming off of a “down year” statistically with a very good chance that his numbers (and therefore his value) will improve after a season of playing in Matt LaFleur’s supposedly “quarterback-friendly” offensive scheme.
However, the Titans’ plans to quickly extend Mariota are ultimately irrelevant if Mariota doesn’t agree to sign so soon.
For all of the reasons that the Titans would want to get his deal done ASAP, Mariota’s agent will be pushing for him to wait to sign the long-term contract, so he will probably encourage his client to hold off until at least after the 2018 season. There’s even a chance Mariota plays out 2019 under his fifth-year option if he doesn’t plan to sign a long-term contract before the league forms a new CBA in 2020. The new CBA could change the structure of the salary cap or impose new rules regarding guaranteed salaries in ways that will likely benefit the players.
There’s also a scenario where Titans may have to franchise tag Marcus Mariota for the 2020 season if the two sides reach a deadlock in negotiations. The franchise tag could be applied after 2019 to buy the two sides more time to work out a long-term agreement. I don’t think this will happen, but it’s not impossible. After all, Mariota was the last player of his first-round draft class to sign his rookie contract, thanks to his agent.
Another unknown element at play is how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will handle Jameis Winston. Mike Florio thinks the Titans and Bucs could wait each other out, while I think it’s actually more likely that the two teams could race to be the first to extend their quarterbacks in order to “set the market,” so to speak.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that will impact the timing of Marcus Mariota’s extension. Odds are we will start to hear rumblings next spring/summer that Mariota’s new contract is “a priority” for the Titans, and then one day we’ll get a news alert on our phones informing us of his new contract. His salary will probably set records.
Who knows if that day will come this year or next...
Taylor Lewan, Left Tackle
The player most likely to sign a contract extension before any other is of course superstar left tackle Taylor Lewan. Last April, the Titans picked up Lewan’s 5th-year option, which will pay him just over $9 million for his services in 2018.
Lewan’s new deal will probably get done sometime this summer and, like Mariota, Lewan’s salary will likely set records for his position. There are currently 4 left tackles making over $13M per year. Lewan could very well be looking at upwards of $14M annually when things are all said and done.
There are a handful of other Titans that could receive a “surprise” extension at some point this summer. The players I would like to see extended include...
Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver
Rishard Matthews signed a 3-year deal with the Titans prior to the 2016 season, meaning he is now entering the final year of his contract. The Titans got Matthews for what turned out to be an incredible bargain, paying him just $5M per year, which is currently tied for the 33rd-highest wide receiver contract in the league.
For reference, the Packers are paying three different wide receivers over $9M per year each. The Raiders, Falcons, Broncos, and Chargers are all paying two receivers more than the amount Matthews gets from Tennessee. Even Corey Davis’s rookie contract as the 5th overall pick comes with a higher average annual salary than Matthews’.
All of that to say: Matthews is being criminally underpaid considering he has been far and away the Titans most reliable wide receiver (i.e., not tight end) since signing in 2016. He is a prime candidate to receive a contract extension sometime this summer. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s likely he gets another two or three years added to his deal, along with a well-deserved raise.
Delanie Walker, Tight End
Delanie Walker recently signed a contract extension to make him a Titan through 2018. Now, it’s time to do it again.
As long as Walker isn’t planning to retire after next season, there’s no reason the Titans shouldn’t be looking to keep the outstanding tight end in Tennessee for at least a couple more years. Walker played at a high level in his age-33 season, showing no signs of slowing down.
I’d expect Delanie to get another extension this summer for a similar amount of money, if not more.
Even if Delanie starts to slow down through the duration of his next contract, he’ll still contribute on the field and in the locker room.
Karl Klug, Defensive End
Karl Klug signed a two-year extension prior to the 2017 season, and (assuming Vrabel and his staff are on board) it may be time to extend him further. Coming off of an Achilles injury suffered in 2016, Klug may have returned to the field rather quickly, however, he did not return to form quite as fast.
With another offseason to regain more of his strength and agility in his lower body, Klug may get closer to his 2016 pre-injury form. When fully healthy, Klug can be a relentless and versatile lineman that Vrabel and Dean Pees could move all around the defensive line.
It remains to be seen if Klug can be the same player he was before his injury, and that could be the thing that gives Jon Robinson pause before the team offers Klug another contract.
The following list includes players who could receive extensions, but who knows if Robinson and Mike Vrabel will want to bring any of these guys back. Let’s take a look at who qualifies as a “wildcard”...
Da’Norris Searcy, Safety
Da’Norris Searcy was signed by the previous regime in 2015 to be the Titans starting strong safety. After starting and working in a three-man rotation with Kevin Byard and Rashad Johnson in 2016, Searcy took on more of a rotational role in 2017 after the signing of Johnathan Cyprien. Although Cyprien’s injury pushed Searcy to see more action this year, the team also decided to put unproven players like Curtis Riley on the field at safety, as well.
Searcy provides reliable, if uninspiring, depth at the safety position. However, he’s currently being paid like a starting, every-down safety.
He probably has the same odds of being released as he does of being extended. Ideally, he will agree to take a paycut to stick around for a few more years.
Tye Smith, Cornerback
Tye Smith was a fifth-round draft pick of the Seahawks in 2015. He only appeared in 4 games that season, making zero starts. He was released as part of Seattle’s cut-down to 53 prior to the 2016 season, spent 2016 on the Redskins practice squad, and finally scooped up by the Titans finally on a futures contract in January of last year.
Smith worked his way into the Titans cornerback rotation this year, appearing in 15 games and even notching his first (and only) career interception in Week 5 against Miami. His only start of the season came against the Rams.
Smith played fairly well down the stretch for Tennessee, especially after the injury to LeShaun Sims. The Titans have Smith under contract through 2018. I don’t know that they will extend him this offseason, but if he performs well in 2018 after spending time with Coach Coombs, he could be looking at another contract with the team around this time next year.
Derrick Morgan, Outside Linebacker
Derrick Morgan, believe it or not, was the last defensive player to be selected by the Titans in the first round of the NFL draft until Adoree Jackson was picked 18th overall last year. Morgan second’s deal with the franchise, a four-year extension, was finalized in 2015. That contract coincided with the signing of free agent Brian Orakpo and is set to expire after 2018.
With Erik Walden having completed his service as a one-year rental (pending a surprise contract extension between now and March), the Titans are extremely thin at outside linebacker behind Orakpo and Morgan. Ideally Mike Vrabel and Co. will be able to unlock Kevin Dodd’s potential, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that to happen.
Of the two starting outside linebackers, Morgan is the younger one. That makes him the likelier candidate to receive a contract extension sometime before he hits the open market.
Brian Orakpo, Outside Linebacker
Brian Orakpo will be almost 33 years old when his current contract expires in 2019. Orakpo is still playing at a high level, but age-related decline often sneaks up on players, especially those with a history of injuries, so it’s possible Orakpo decides to hang it up after next season. However, if Orakpo maintains his current level of play, it’s possible the Titans look to extend both of their outside linebackers.
The situation that would be mildly surprising is if Brian Orakpo was signed to an extension while the same was not pursued with Derrick Morgan. The Titans will likely be on the hunt this offseason for an edge rusher or two to groom to take over for Orakpo and/or Morgan, should either end up retiring or moving on after 2018.
It’s often difficult to predict the timing of the signing of contract extensions. The negotiating process can vary greatly in length from player to player (or agent to agent), and although sometimes lengthier processes can produce telling rumors, new contracts are often announced with no warning.
It’s common for rumors to swirl when a team plans to extend one of their players, and then one day, the news randomly breaks (usually through Adam Schefter or Ian Rapoport) that a player has signed a new contract with his team.
Those kinds of rumors will soon start for Taylor Lewan. Others will surely follow.