As we wait — patiently, I’m sure — for news of who the Titans next offensive coordinator might be, let’s take a look at some of the other decisions facing Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel this offseason. This team feels like it’s at a critical point in it’s current trajectory and the moves made over the next four months could determine whether the Titans are playoff contenders for a fourth straight year in 2019 and beyond.
With Marcus Mariota’s $20.9M fifth year option kicking in for 2019 the Titans will be much tighter against the cap than they have been in recent offseasons. That means that each and every move will be magnified as Jon Robinson tries to improve his roster. Over the next few weeks I plan to get into deep breakdowns of the team’s needs on a position by position basis, but we need to start with the cap situation and decisions that the Titans face with their current players because that will inform a lot of the deeper discussions that we will get into later.
Titans 2019 Cap Situation
OverTheCap.com has the Titans with $43.5M of available cap space for the 2019 season, 13th most in the NFL. With that $43.5M they will need to re-sign some of their own free agents, add outside free agents, extend some current stars who are entering the final year of their deal, and sign their 2019 draft class. The rookie class will take about $5.8M given the Titans current picks (subject to change if picks are traded of course). However, the net add is less than that since those 6 picks will bump the lowest 6 contracts off the top 51 total. The net add is actually $2.4M, leaving the Titans with right at $41.1M worth of space to work with.
However, the Titans are almost certainly not going to spend all the way up to the cap. Leaving a little bit of space is a necessity to give the team the flexibility to add players later on if someone they like becomes available or an injury creates an immediate need (like Johnathan Cyprien going down for the season in camp) or they get an opportunity to add a difference maker at the trade deadline. Even leaving just $7M of cap space would be a pretty aggressive stance from the Titans front office. So before the Titans re-sign any of their own veterans, they will only have about $34M to realistically spend. That sounds like a lot, but when you start to look at the holes that would need to be filled, it gets stretched pretty thin quick.
There are, of course, some ways that the team could increase their available cap space by releasing some current players, but every hole they create then has to be filled with either current depth on the roster, another veteran signing, or a draft pick. We will break down the players that could be released to create space later, but we are talking about around $15M at the very most that could realistically be freed up and that would leave at least three more starting jobs open that will need to be filled.
Expecting the Titans to spend crazy money in free agency is a recipe for disappointment this season. Not only is it not in their nature, but they really don’t have the cap room to do it this year.
Vaccaro vs. Cyprien
This is one of the more intriguing decisions of the offseason. When Johnathan Cyprien went down with a torn ACL during camp, the Titans were able to quickly pivot and grab Kenny Vaccaro as a fill in. Having a player of that quality and experience sitting on the market at that time of season is rare and it really paid off for Tennessee in 2018. They were able to get him on a very modest one year contract worth just $1.5M. Vaccaro ended up being the tonesetter of the Titans defense — along with rookie Rashaan Evans — as his big hits and physical play helped inspire his new teammates.
Vaccaro’s versatile skill set also allowed Dean Pees to deploy him as an interchangeable safety with Kevin Byard. Those two both spent time in the box and ranging over top as a deep safety which kept offenses from being able to anticipate coverages based on where they were lined up. Vaccaro’s play quickly made him a fan-favorite in Tennessee and it’s clear from his Twitter account that he wants to return to the Titans next season.
Re-signing Vaccaro seems like it should be a slam dunk for Jon Robinson, but it is a little more complicated that it might seem due to other contract situations at the safety spot. Cyprien is heading into the third year of his four year, $25M contract in 2019. He is scheduled to have a cap hit of $6.75M for the season. Kevin Byard is heading into the final year of his rookie contract and is due for a big extension that could be worth somewhere around $12M to $14M per year. That’s already a lot of money to be spending at the safety position so re-signing Vaccaro at a market contract — probably somewhere around $4M to $6M per year — would be an insane amount of money to spend at the position.
So I think this boils down to an either/or situation between Vaccaro and Cyprien. By all accounts Cyprien has been a model teammate over the past season. Despite being on IR, he was still attending meetings and sitting in on the defensive back meetings, something that not all IR players do while they’re out. However, there is zero doubt that Vaccaro’s 2018 was better than Cyprien’s 2017 with the Titans.
The team can move on from Cyprien’s contract relatively easily this offseason. Releasing him outright would leave a dead cap hit of just $1.5M, saving the team a net of $5.25M in cap space for 2019. That should be enough space to essentially cover the cap hit from Vaccaro’s new deal.
Cyprien’s ACL recovery is yet another factor here. The Titans just saw what the aftereffects from ACL surgery can look like the following season with Jack Conklin and while Cyp’s injury occurred about five months earlier in the season than Conklin’s did, it’s still pretty likely that he won’t be 100% physically in 2019.
It seems really cold to cut a player coming off a major surgery like that, but this is a business and I think the Titans would be wise to make this swap and commit to Vaccaro as Byard’s counterpart for the next few seasons. Dane Cruikshank was impressive as a special teams player during his rookie season and could step into the third safety role in 2019.
Jack Conklin’s Fifth Year Option
The Titans have to choose whether or not to exercise the fifth year option on Jack Conklin’s rookie contract by May 3rd, 2019. Final numbers aren’t available yet, but that option would likely end up paying the big right tackle around $13M for the 2020 season. Again, this decision is probably a little more complex than it would seem at first glance. Conklin was excellent as a rookie in 2016 and very good in 2017. His 2018 season was a step back as he tried to rush back from a torn ACL suffered in January.
However, like the safety decision, the surrounding players and contracts have to be taken into consideration. At left tackle, Taylor Lewan is the highest paid offensive lineman in football, holding a cap hit of $18.2M for the 2020 season (the biggest cap hit season out of his entire 5-year contract). The Titans are also fortunate to have an excellent third tackle in Dennis Kelly who stepped in for Conklin during parts of the 2018 season and performed like a top 20 NFL tackle, but he’s heading into the final year of his contract in 2019 and will likely be in line to get some pretty serious offers when he becomes a free agent. The Titans certainly can’t afford to have Conklin on a $13M option year, Lewan on a $18.2M cap hit year, AND sign Kelly to a market contract so this trio won’t be together past 2019 barring a major surprise.
I usually don’t like to dabble in the fantasy trade speculation world, but I can’t help but wonder if the Titans might consider feeling out what the trade market might be like for Conklin. The 2019 season will be the last year that he’s going to be a bargain from a contract standpoint. After that, the Titans would be looking at paying their starting tackles somewhere around $25M to $30M per season, eating up 15% of their total cap space. If they could extend Dennis Kelly — who is about to turn 29 years old without a ton of wear and tear — for something like $4M per year and get something like a 2nd round pick back for Conklin, that would be a pretty attractive scenario in my opinion. They would need to fill that third tackle spot with a quality player — preferably a draft pick to develop behind Kelly — but that’s doable. I’m not saying I’d necessarily advocate for this plan (trading away good, young offensive linemen isn’t usually a winning strategy), but it’s an interesting thought experiment.
Trade speculation aside, I would expect the Titans to exercise Conklin’s option. Yes, $13M is a lot to pay for a tackle, especially when you have an even more expensive tackle across from him, but offensive line is one place where I don’t mind long term investment. It’s a position that usually ages well and the league is currently starving for good ones.
The Titans have 14 players whose contracts are set to expire on March 13th. One of those 14, edge rusher Brian Orakpo, has already announced his retirement so the Titans will have 13 decisions to make regarding players on the current roster that they could bring back. The team is free to negotiate with these guys exclusively from now until the opening of the free agency “legal tampering period” when they would then be able to talk to all 32 NFL teams.
- Kenny Vaccaro (S) - We discussed him at length above. I think he should be re-signed and I don’t think you’ll find many who disagree.
- Derrick Morgan (OLB) - This is another one of the bigger decisions of the offseason. Morgan is the longest tenured Titans player after being the team’s first round pick way back in 2010. His 44.5 career sacks rank 3rd among Titans players since the team moved to Tennessee, but at 30 years old and coming off the worst season of his career, it’s certainly possible that the team might choose to go young at the outside linebacker position in 2019. Rookies Harold Landry and Sharif Finch showed some promise and the Titans also have Kamalei Correa under contract for one more year. Obviously, they will need to address this position group during the offseason via the draft or free agency (possibly both), but that’s true even if Morgan returns. He’s always been an awkward fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker and I feel like this is probably the end of the road for Morgan in Tennessee.
- Quinton Spain (LG) - Spain has been the Titans starting left guard for the last three seasons and has played well for most of that time. However, the team doesn’t seem to be crazy about him for whatever reason. They signed Josh Kline to a long term contract instead of Spain last offseason when Spain was a restricted free agent and then gave Spain the lowest level tender possible. They also signed veteran competition for his starting job. Combine all that with the benching at halftime of the Jets game and I think you have some pretty convincing signs pointing towards Spain not coming back. My guess is that he will command somewhere around a $4M to $6M per year type deal on the open market.
- Luke Stocker (TE) - The Titans have gotten pretty decent play from Stocker over the past season and change after claiming him off waivers from Tampa Bay during the 2017 season. He’s certainly more of a blocker than a receiving threat — though 2018 was the best season of his career as a pass catcher — and heading into his age-31 season it’s not likely that he suddenly gets a whole lot more productive. The Titans will get three-time Pro Bowler Delanie Walker back in 2019 along with rising third year pro, Jonnu Smith. MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser also remain under contract for next year which means the team is pretty deep at tight end. While Stocker is certainly the most prototypical Y-type tight end on the roster at 6’-5” and 253 pounds, his role as a blocker could be replaced by Pruitt based on his performance during an extended look in 2018. Stocker won’t be expensive so the Titans may decide to bring him back for camp, but I would be pretty surprised if he ends up on the 53-man roster again.
- Kevin Pamphile (G/T) - Pamphile is an ideal utility backup. He’s capable of playing all five offensive line positions with starting experience at left guard and right tackle. A torn biceps muscle cost him most of his 2018 season, but he was pretty good in the limited work we did see. If the Titans are going to let Spain walk, they could do worse than Pamphile as a guy to throw in the mix along with Corey Levin to compete for a starting spot without breaking the bank.
- Bennie Logan (NT) - The best nose tackle the Titans have had on the roster over the past three seasons is currently starting for the Dallas Cowboys for $480,000. Meanwhile, the team has thrown over $11M at Sylvester Williams and Bennie Logan for bad-to-mediocre results. Logan made $4M for 229 snaps (21.9%) in 2018. He wasn’t bad, but he really didn’t make a huge difference either. I wouldn’t expect him to be back.
- Brynden Trawick (S) - Trawick has been one of the Titans special teams leaders since signing in 2017. He has helped that phase improve slightly from 19th in 2016 to 13th in 2017 and 2018 according to DVOA. The Titans have another safety who qualifies as a special teams ace in Dane Cruikshank so that might make Trawick expendable as they look for areas to save money.
- Kendrick Lewis (S) - Lewis acted as the Titans third safety in 2018 after sitting out the 2017 season. He was a pretty huge step down from Vaccaro when he was pressed into action and I would be pretty surprised if he was back in 2019.
- Will Compton (ILB) - One of the best personalities on the 2018 Titans is up for a new contract this offseason. He’s a solid backup and special teams player, but he would be the Titans fourth inside linebacker at best behind Wesley Woodyard, Jayon Brown, and Rashaan Evans. Compton would probably be able to find more opportunity playing time elsewhere, but he’s the kind of guy I could see sticking around and playing special teams.
- Nate Palmer (ILB) - I still haven’t seen confirmation of what the injury was that caused Palmer to be carted off and put on IR during training camp. It was a lower body injury so it seems like a torn ACL or ruptured Achilles would be possible. Either way, it could prove to be the end of the longtime special teams contributor’s career.
- Austin Davis (QB) - Davis was the Titans third QB for part of 2018 when Marcus Mariota and Blaine Gabbert were dealing with injuries. It’s very unlikely that he’s back in 2019.
- David Fluellen (RB) - Fluellen is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA) which means that the Titans can bring him back if they want to simply by extending a qualifying offer. The team seems to like him quite a bit as both a special teams contributor and a depth back. We still don’t know exactly what his injury was either. It was a knee injury, but based on the fact that he wasn’t immediately put on IR, I would assume that it’s not a torn ACL or anything that would put his offseason availability in doubt. Assuming he would be healthy for OTAs, I would think they at least bring him back to compete in camp.
- Tye Smith (CB) - Smith was set to be the Titans CB5 this season before a training camp ACL injury ended his season before it began. He’s a restricted free agent so the Titans would have to tender him a qualifying offer to retain his rights, otherwise he will become an unrestricted free agent. Given that $1.9M was the lowest tender amount for RFAs in 2018 — and that will go up in 2019 — I would expect Smith to not receive a qualifying offer from the Titans. Over $2M is a lot to pay for a fifth cornerback and the team seems to like Josh Kalu quite a bit.
If the Titans do decide to get aggressive in free agency, there is a good chance they’ll need to move on from at least one of these guys to create space.
- Johnathan Cyprien (S) - The Titans would save $5.25M against the cap if they released the veteran safety this offseason. For the reasons mentioned above, it’s almost certain that the Titans will have to choose between Vaccaro and Cyprien as their starting safety for 2019. If they choose not to re-sign Vaccaro — or if he simply demands more money than they are comfortable agreeing to — Cyprien would almost certainly be back.
- Ben Jones (C) - The Titans would save $4.5M against the cap if they released Jones. While that might sound like a great deal given some of Jones’ struggles over the past couple seasons, there are really only two possible free agent replacements that would qualify as upgrades — Mitch Morse (Chiefs) and Matt Paradis (Broncos) — and there is no guarantee that their teams let them reach free agency. Jones’ positional flexibility increases the likelihood that he stays too.
- Josh Kline (RG) - The Titans would save $3.25M against the cap by releasing Kline. While you can certainly criticize Jon Robinson for re-signing him last offseason given his poor play in 2018, at least the GM gave himself an out with the contract. Moving on from Kline after one year wouldn’t be cap crippling. Robinson has spoken recently about the improved play of the line late in the season and the importance of continuity with that group recently so I wouldn’t bank on Kline being released.
#Titans GM Jon Robinson: "DaQuan Jones got better as the season went on and we are counting on him into next season. Same with Josh Kline, it is important to have continuity within the offensive line. He has a lot to work on going forward, as does most of team."— The Midday 180 (@Midday180) January 9, 2019
- Dion Lewis (RB) - Another contract that the Titans could get out of relatively quickly if they desire to do so, cutting Lewis would save $3.175M against the cap for 2019. Clearly his first season in Tennessee didn’t go the way he or the team hoped. He averaged just 3.3 yards per carry — over a full yard short of his previous career low — and was reduced to being just a 3rd down back by the end of the season. Could the Titans find his production in the middle rounds of the draft at a position that is notorious for being easy to find late? Quite possibly, though I tend to doubt that the team would want to rely that heavily on a rookie on 3rd downs.
There are several key contributors who are set to enter the final year of their current contracts in 2019. Some of those guys could be in line to get a contract extension this offseason. Jon Robinson has typically preferred to hand out extensions right around the start of training camp. Last year we saw Taylor Lewan and Delanie Walker receive new deals. The year before it was Jurrell Casey in that same time frame. Here are some of the guys who could be getting new money this summer.
- Kevin Byard (S) - Byard is the big one obviously. He’s one of the games best safeties and is a guy that there is zero question about whether the Titans should re-sign him. He checks every box for a player that you would want to build around long term. His rookie contract has been a steal for the Titans. The team has paid him less than $3M total over the last three seasons and he is scheduled to have a cap hit of $1.1M for 2019. His new deal will pay him somewhere in the Eric Berry range of $12M to $14M per year and he’s worth it.
- Marcus Mariota (QB) - This conversation deserves it’s own article and Justin Graver did a great job of breaking down the alternatives here if you haven’t checked it out. Personally, I would be surprised if the Titans offered a contract extension this offseason. Mariota is dealing with recurring nerve issues right now. Yes, the prognosis seems to be that his injury will heal on its own this offseason, but nobody will really know if it’s gone for good until he starts taking hits again next season. I wouldn’t want to hang $50M-plus of guaranteed money on the hope that these nerve issues aren’t lasting. The fact is that the Titans can let Mariota play on his $20.9M fifth year option this year and see how it goes. If he stays healthy and lights it up, they’ll be able to negotiate a long term extension at that point with the franchise tag as a safety net if they can’t come to terms. If he gets hurt again or simply struggles to perform to the level that they expect, they can move on from him with no sunk cost. Essentially, the Titans could look at Mariota’s current contract situation as a two-year deal worth about $50M total ($20.9M in 2019 plus about a $29M franchise tag option in 2020) with a team option for the second year. The opportunity to move on with no dead money if things go south has a lot of value in this scenario.
- Logan Ryan (CB) - Logan Ryan has been outstanding in his two seasons in Tennessee. He’s now entering the final year of the 3-year, $30M deal he signed two offseasons ago and I would imagine the Titans would be interested in keeping him around a while longer. Ryan is a massive value as a slot corner with his tackling and blitzing allowing him to contribute beyond coverage. Earlier this season on his weekly segment on Midday 180, he mentioned being open to the possibility of transitioning to safety once he got to the point where he wasn’t quick enough to cover wide receivers. We certainly aren’t there yet, but Ryan would make an excellent safety with his smarts and skill set. He’s quickly become one of my favorite Titans and I hope the team decides to add to his deal this offseason.
- Derrick Henry (RB) - This hasn’t been talked about a ton yet, but Derrick Henry is also heading into the final year of his rookie contract in 2019. If you asked anyone following the Titans whether they thought Henry should get a big money contract extension midway through the 2018 season, you likely would have been laughed at. He had essentially been demoted to a backup role and was reported to have been available at the trade deadline. Then the second half of the season happened and now it’s hard to imagine this team without Derrick Henry. The MCM staff voted on end of season awards and Henry was unanimously selected as the Titans Offensive Player of the Year, the only unanimous choice among the categories. Again, this probably deserves it’s own article, but the value of non-pass catching running backs on their second contracts in the modern NFL will be put to the test with Henry. My guess is that the Titans don’t extend him prior to the 2019 season and try to get something done next offseason if they’re going to stick with him long term.
- Wesley Woodyard (ILB) - Woodyard just refuses to slow down. A couple years ago it seemed like he was likely to be phased out while another linebacker was brought in to team up with Avery Williamson. Instead, Woodyard got the extension and Williamson was phased out. It ended up being the right call. Woodyard has been nothing short of outstanding over the past two seasons, leading the team in tackles each year. The Titans have a glut of talent at inside linebacker now with Woodyard, Jayon Brown, and Rashaan Evans so there is a pretty good chance that 2019 really is Wood’s last year with the team, but I’ve learned never to count this guy out over the past five years.
Those are the likely extension candidates for this season. I think Byard and Ryan have to be the priority based on performance and positional value.
The Bottom Line
The Titans should have roughly $34M to spend in free agency this offseason. That doesn’t mean that they’ll spend all of that, but it’s available to them. The only potential cut candidate that I would feel comfortable replacing with a cheaper veteran or a draft pick would be Dion Lewis, but I don’t expect that to happen. As bad as Lewis’ first year here was statistically, he is — at the very least — a trustworthy 3rd down back who can handle blitz pickups and even run some routes from receiver spots. Cutting Jones or Kline would create an immediate need on the offensive line that would likely cost just as much or more money to fill.
Even if Tennessee chooses not to retain Quinton Spain, Derrick Morgan, Luke Stocker, or any of their other current players on expiring contracts, they’re going to have to make some veteran depth signings to fill out the roster similar to the Will Compton, Kevin Pamphile, and Bennie Logan signings last season. That means we are likely to see just one big name free agent addition. Who that might be is a conversation best left to later in the offseason, but this should give a pretty good idea of what the Titans will have to work with heading into free agency.