The Tennessee Titans franchise is coming to a fork in the road over the next 12 months and the path that Jon Robinson takes will set the course for the roster for years to come.
Last weekend Jimmy Morris highlighted the 11 players who may be playing their last season in Tennessee. In addition to that group — which includes 7 projected starters in Taylor Lewan, Delanie Walker, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Rishard Matthews, Bennie Logan, and Quinton Spain — the team is entering contract extension range for Marcus Mariota, Kevin Byard, and Derrick Henry next offseason. Robinson will also need to decide whether or not to pick up the 5th year option on Jack Conklin’s rookie contract next spring and could even face decisions on what to do with Logan Ryan, Wesley Woodyard, and Ben Jones in this time frame.
That’s 13 of 22 starters that the Titans brass could be making long term commitments to (or deciding to walk away from) in the next 12 months and it’s a group that includes many of the team’s best players. In fact, I’d argue that 7 or 8 of the team’s top 10 players are listed above.
The biggest of the decisions center around stars coming to end of their rookie contracts in Lewan, Mariota, and Byard. Lewan’s contract has been the talk of the Titans offseason and for good reason. When the deal gets done it will almost certainly make Lewan the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. Based on the recent contracts handed out to other top offensive linemen in Andrew Norwell, Zack Martin, and Nate Solder, I would expect the numbers to come in around 5-6 years with $15-17M per year and about 50-60% of the total dollars guaranteed. That would make it the second largest contract ever handed out by the franchise behind only Steve McNair’s 6-year, $112M deal* signed in 2004.
*In reality this deal was a restructuring cap maneuver made by former GM Floyd Reese to try to squeeze one or two more runs out of that early 2000’s Super Bowl window. That contract ultimately led to the ugly break up between the Titans and McNair when the ridiculous $23.46M cap hit came due in 2006.
The next two major contracts are unlikely to come this offseason, but will probably get done before the start of the 2019 season. Kevin Byard’s first two seasons as a pro have been outstanding and he already has his new coaching staff raving about his preparation and leadership. Those qualities have allowed him to quickly become an instrumental piece of the Titans defense. Though his rookie contract runs through the end of the 2019 season, it seems likely that the team would try to lock him up to a long term deal by the end of next summer. If Byard’s 2018 performance is anywhere close to his First-Team All-Pro season a year ago, his agent will have a real argument to make him the top paid safety in the NFL. That throne currently belongs to Eric Berry who signed a 6-year, $78M deal before the start of the 2017 season. I think the floor for any long term deal would start at Reshad Jones’ 5-year, $60M contract.
However, both of those potential contracts would be dwarfed by the looming Marcus Mariota extension. The Titans picked up Mariota’s 5th year option on his rookie deal earlier this offseason which means he is now officially under contract through the 2019 season. Franchise quarterbacks are the NFL’s most valuable asset and it’s reflected in their pay. The average annual salaries for quarterbacks hit the $30M mark with Matt Ryan’s 5-year, $150M extension earlier this offseason and you can expect Mariota’s deal to top that number. There is no doubt that Ryan is more accomplished than Mariota, but the Titans QB is younger and has shown tremendous potential for the majority of his 3-year career to this point despite a less than stellar supporting cast. Besides, quarterback contracts will continue to skyrocket as long as there aren’t enough good QBs to go around. One small benefit to the Titans is the fact that Jameis Winston likely isn’t going to be getting a mega-contract from the Bucs with his current off-the-field issues, so there will be one fewer contract to one-up for Mariota’s agents. If the Titans aren’t 100% sold on Mariota’s long term prospects by the end of 2018, they can always choose to let him play out his 5th year option and then have the option to franchise tag him for a couple years before truly committing long term. The risk with that strategy is that you antagonize your most important player and you also likely end up paying more in the long run thanks to larger and larger comparable QB contracts hitting the market.
If the Titans extend all three of these players before the start of next year’s training camp, they will have handed out three contracts worth more than $10M per year in less than 12 months after only giving out three such deals in the team’s entire existence to this point (McNair, Chris Johnson, and Jurrell Casey). It’s possible that they allow either Byard or Mariota to play on the final year of their deal in 2019 with the knowledge that they could use the franchise tag to hang on to them for another year if needed, but again, the franchise tag tends to be a distraction and frequently leads to hold outs during the offseason. If they can reach a reasonable deal without getting to that point, it’s certainly in the team’s best interest to do so.
Those deals would add roughly $60M per year to the Titans bottom line — nearly one-third of the projected 2019 salary cap — and will completely change the team’s cap dynamic moving forward. Tennessee currently ranks 4th in the NFL with $33.2M in available cap space for 2018 and roughly $68M (after rolling over their unused cap and assuming a league wide cap bump to $190M for next season) for 2019. That $68M number includes a $20.9M cap hold for Mariota and a $1.1M cap hold for Byard based on their current deals, so the Titans would be able to pay Lewan, Mariota, and Byard prior to the 2019 season and still have about $30M to spend on free agency and the rookie contracts for their 2019 draft class.
That will make it very difficult for the Titans to afford Orakpo, Morgan, Walker, Matthews, Logan, and Spain. You could have three of those guys back, maybe four if one or two of them take a team friendly deal, but that won’t leave room for much else. And that doesn’t even begin to speak to other 2019 free agents like special teams ace Brynden Trawick, depth tight ends Phillip Supernaw and Luke Stocker, or other potential depth/special teams players like Will Compton, Kevin Pamphile, Nate Palmer, and Michael Campanaro. Those roster spots will all need to be filled one way or another. Draft picks will likely play a big role in that, but I would expect at least two or three veteran starters to be playing elsewhere by 2019.
The team has some opportunities to save money elsewhere if needed as well. Logan Ryan, Ben Jones, Wesley Woodyard, and Johnathan Cyprien will all have very little guaranteed money left on their deals for the 2019 season so they would be prime candidates to be cut or restructured next offseason. Of course cutting any of those players also means replacing another starter.
That means that we will soon find out what Jon Robinson truly values. Where will he choose to invest his limited capital on the roster? Will he try to build a dominant defense and hope Mariota’s play can raise the level of the offensive players around him? Or will he continue to try to build Mariota’s supporting cast and hope to get by with one or two defensive stars surrounded by young or unproven talent? Will he invest more in receivers or offensive linemen? Derrick Henry will also be looking for a new contract by the end of 2019. Will the Titans give it to him, or will they choose to dip back in to the draft for a cheap replacement? Does Robinson prefer a dominant pass rush or a dominant secondary?
These questions will start to be answered over the next calendar year and it could either set the Titans up for a long run of relevance and another legitimate title window or it could cause them to backslide in to more mediocrity (or worse). There is far more reason for optimism than fear for Titans fans heading in to this pivotal stretch though. Robinson has been excellent during his first two and a half years on the job, changing the culture and upgrading the talent of the team. His complete lack of fear when it comes to making bold decisions is refreshing and should serve him well as he faces some of the most important questions in this franchise’s history over the next 12 months.
With this back drop, I will be taking a look at what analytics and history have to say about some of these team building decisions over the next few weeks, but if you’re Jon Robinson, who would you pay and what’s your plan moving in to this new era of Titans football?
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