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Checking in on the Titans salary cap situation after the first week of free agency

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How much space do the Titans have left and what does that mean for this season and beyond?

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The first week of free agency has been a whirlwind for the Titans as GM Jon Robinson brought back some familiar faces in Kenny Vaccaro, Kevin Pamphile, David Fluellen, and Tye Smith while adding some new ones in Adam Humphries, Rodger Saffold, Cameron Wake, and Ryan Tannehill. The team also said goodbye to a few players as Josh Kline, Johnathan Cyprien, and Blaine Gabbert were released and free agent Luke Stocker signed with the Falcons.

Contract details have been reported for all of the new additions, Pamphile, and Fluellen, but not the re-signings of Vaccaro and Smith so that leaves a little bit of guesswork to be done to figure out exactly where the Titans stand against the 2019 NFL salary cap of $188.2M. However, we should be able get within a million or two at most of where the “real” number is by going contract by contract through the new additions.

All numbers are courtesy of Spotrac.

Additions

Kenny Vaccaro, S

Contract: 4 years, $26M total, $11.5M guaranteed

2019 Cap Hit: $4M (projected)

Vaccaro’s average contract value of $6.5M per year ranks 16th among safeties and is less than half of what top of market players Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu received from the Redskins and Chiefs, respectively. It also checks in almost $1M per year lower than what Eric Reid — a player that the Titans chose Vaccaro over in 2018 — got from the Panthers earlier in the offseason. This deal is quite a bit less than what I expected to see for a player who had such a big impact on the Titans defense last season, but it was clear that he wanted to be back in Nashville.

We don’t have details currently for Vaccaro so we have to do some assuming here. The Titans have followed a similar contract structure for all three of their new signings. They are keeping the 2019 cap hits low, making them roughly half of what the cap hit will be in the remaining years of the deal. If they follow that same pattern with Vaccaro’s deal, his 2019 cap hit will be around $4M with hits of $7.3M in 2020, 2021, and 2022.

Adam Humphries, WR

Contract: 4 years, $36M total, $19M guaranteed

2019 Cap Hit: $5M (confirmed)

Humphries got an average contract value of $9M per year — and apparently could have gotten $10M per year from the Patriots — which is tied for 25th among wide receivers. When you look at what other receivers got in free agency, Humphries at $9M per year is a pretty good bargain, checking in behind Tyrell Williams ($11.1M from the Raiders), Devin Funchess ($10M from the Colts), Jamison Crowder ($9.5M from the Jets), Golden Tate ($9.4M from the Giants), and DeSean Jackson ($9.2M from the Eagles). He tied with John Brown ($9M from the Bills) and finished just ahead of Cole Beasley ($7.25M from the Bills).

After a cheap first year, Humphries’ cap hits moving forward will jump to $10M in 2020, $9.75M in 2021, and $11.25M in 2022. The $10M signing bonus means the Titans are pretty locked into this contract for the first two years. They could get out in the 2021 offseason for a dead cap charge of $5M if things go terribly for Humphries in Music City.

Rodger Saffold, G

Contract: 4 years, $44M total, $22.5M guaranteed

2019 Cap Hit: $6.375M (confirmed)

Saffold will receive an average contract value of $11M per year which ranks him 6th among guards in the NFL behind Zack Martin ($14M), Andrew Norwell ($13.3M), Kevin Zeitler ($12M), Kelechi Osemele ($11.7M), and Trai Turner ($11.25M). As a player who was a Second-Team All-Pro selection in 2017 and ranked inside the top ten among guards for the second straight year in 2018, its really not bad value.

Like Humphries, Saffold has a cheap cap hit in 2019 followed by hits of $12.375M in 2020 and 2021 and then $12.875M in 2022. Also similar to Humphries is the fact that the Titans are pretty much locked in for the first two seasons before gaining some flexibility in the final two years.

Cameron Wake, EDGE

Contract: 3 years, $23M total, $10.75M guaranteed

2019 Cap Hit: $5.24M (confirmed)

Wake gets an average annual contract value of $7.67M per year which ranks him 30th among edge rushers. He is still among the most productive pass rushers in the league at age 37 — more on that here — which means that this contract will be a fantastic deal for the Titans if he continues to produce at the level he has in recent seasons.

Wake has a cap hit of just $5.24M in 2019 followed by hits of $8.58M in 2020 and $9.08M in 2021, but the Titans can get out of the deal pretty easily after each season if Father Time comes for him. Wake carries a dead cap charge of just $2.67M in 2020 or $1.33M in 2021 if he was to be released.

Ryan Tannehill, QB

Contract: 1 year, $2M total, $2M guaranteed

2019 Cap Hit: $2M (confirmed)

This is a really interesting deal. The Titans traded a 2020 4th round pick to secure Tannehill and also swapped their 2019 7th round pick for Miami’s 2019 6th rounder. As part of the trade, the Dolphins restructured Tannehill’s contract, converting it to a one year deal with a $5M signing bonus and a $2M salary for 2019 plus playing time incentives that could add $5M to that number.

The $5M signing bonus stays on Miami’s cap with just the $2M salary hitting the Titans books. Tennessee would also be on the hook for the playing time bonuses if Tannehill reaches those milestones, but that would be a postseason cap adjustment. For right now, Tannehill should cost the Titans just $2M for the season. The team saved $1.5M off the cap by releasing Blaine Gabbert, so the upgrade at backup quarterback will only cost Tennessee $500K if he doesn’t have to play. If he does have to play, the Titans will happily pay however much of the $5M in incentives he earns in exchange for having a real chance to continue winning football games.

There is no way Tannehill would have been able to be signed for $2M per year plus incentives if he’d been on the open market so the Titans are effectively trading a pick to A) make sure they get the player they liked and B) save a boatload of cap space by getting $5M from the Dolphins and avoiding a potential bidding war. The kicker here is that the Titans might have a chance to recoup that 2020 4th round pick down the road. If Tannehill plays and plays well, he could sign elsewhere for significant money next offseason and yield a compensatory 3rd or 4th round pick in the 2021 draft (depending on how active the Titans are in free agency next offseason).

So the Dolphins get a 2020 4th to help with their rebuild and the Titans get a highly competent backup quarterback for their injury prone starter for an outrageous bargain against the cap and the chance to recoup that pick down the road. It’s a win-win deal if I’ve ever seen one.

Subtractions

Johnathan Cyprien, S

2019 Cap Savings: $4.75M

2019 Dead Cap Hit: $1.5M

The Titans wiped 4.75M off the cap by releasing Cyprien. The 2017 free agent addition was healthy for just 10 of a possible 32 regular season games over the past two years for Tennessee. A torn ACL suffered in training camp last season led to the team plucking Kenny Vaccaro out of free agency and after a season that saw Vaccaro become a key cog of the Titans defense, Cyprien was suddenly expendable.

It will be interesting to see what the market bears for the veteran safety. The Titans might have some interest in bringing him back on a cheaper deal if he doesn’t find a better opportunity elsewhere.

Josh Kline, G

2019 Cap Savings: $3.25M

2019 Dead Cap Hit: $3.5M

Kline carried the biggest cap hit of the three players that have been released so far at $3.5M. The timing of the move was due to the fact that Kline was due a roster bonus of $500K on March 17th if he was still on the team AND the remaining $2.75M of his 2019 salary would have become guaranteed. That means the Titans would have saved nothing against the cap if they’d cut him later on. Instead, they get $3.25M back for 2019 and save $6.75M in 2020.

Kline was the worst of the Titans struggling interior offensive linemen last season, allowing 38 total pressures per PFF charting, 17 more than the next team’s second worst pass blocker (Ben Jones). The four year, $26M deal that he signed last offseason was probably Robinson’s worst free agent misstep to date, but the GM should get credit for quickly admitting it and moving on (also for structuring the deal in a way that allowed him to move on without a cap crippling penalty).

Blaine Gabbert, QB

2019 Cap Savings: $1.5M

2019 Dead Cap Hit: $500K

As discussed above, releasing Gabbert saved the team $1.5M of the $2M they’re paying Ryan Tannehill in 2019. While Gabbert represented a clear step up from Matt Cassel, the Titans needed better at the backup quarterback position. They found it in Tannehill and that made Gabbert expendable.

Cap Calculations

First, a quick note about how the offseason salary cap works. Teams carry 90-man rosters during the offseason, but only the 51 most expensive players on the roster actually count against the cap. So when a new player is signed, that 51st salary drops off the cap. For example, let’s say a team currently has their 51st highest salary at $570K and they sign a veteran to a deal that carries a $2M 2019 cap charge. That $2M is added to their cap number and the $570K drops off, leaving a net add of $1.43M.

The Titans entered free agency with roughly $39.4M in cap space for 2019 after Brett Kern’s four year, $12.5M contract extension. The additions of Saffold ($6.375M), Humphries ($5M), Wake ($5.24M), and Tannehill ($2M) added a net of $16.34M after removing the cap charges for players that they pushed out of the top 51.

Re-signing Vaccaro ($4M), Pamphile ($1.4M), Fluellen ($720K), and Smith ($1M) would add $4.84M net if my assumed cap hits for Vaccaro and Smith are correct.

Releasing Cyprien ($4.75M), Kline ($3.25M), and Gabbert ($1.5) wipe a net of $7.8M off the cap.

So starting from that $39.4M number and then taking out $16.34M for the outside additions, $4.84M for the in-house re-signings, and then adding back $7.8M for the players released, you end up with almost exactly $26M in space remaining for 2019. The Titans draft class will eat about $2.4M of that space, leaving them with about $23.6M in space as things stand today (again, depending on how accurate those contract projections for Vaccaro and Smith are).

The Titans probably aren’t done signing free agents. While Jon Robinson said he “doesn’t have anyone in the hopper right now” during his press conference on Friday, it stands to reason that they might like to add some depth on the defensive line, maybe grab a blocking tight end to replace Luke Stocker, add depth at safety, and possibly grab another option along the interior offensive line prior to the draft.

I wouldn’t necessarily expect another splashy move — after all, the Titans still have to consider handing out a massive extension for Kevin Byard and others in the near future — but I wouldn’t completely rule it out either. Ndamukong Suh is probably the best fit left on the market if the Titans still want to go big one more time. He’d give Jurrell Casey the disruptive interior counterpart he’s lacked his entire career in Tennessee. Suh reportedly wants to stay on the west coast, but he seriously considered the Titans last offseason so maybe he could be tempted to join his former position coach Terrell Williams, former Dolphin teammates Wake and Tannehill, and former Rams teammate Saffold in Nashville.

Looking ahead to the 2020 offseason, the Titans are currently projected to have roughly $52M to work with plus whatever unused cap space they end up rolling over from the 2019 season. That sounds like a lot until you realize that number doesn’t include contracts for Marcus Mariota, Kevin Byard, Derrick Henry, Logan Ryan, Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Austin Johnson, LeShaun Sims, Ryan Tannehill, or a handful of other players who are scheduled to be 2020 free agents as things stand today. If Mariota plays well enough to earn a new contract or plays on the franchise tag and the team exercises Conklin’s fifth year option — a decision they have to make in the next couple months — those two combined are going to eat up over half of that space. Assuming they pay Byard top safety type money, you’re looking at a really tight cap situation heading into the offseason.

However, that’s all further down the road (and there are seemingly endless things teams can do to create more space when needed). For right now I’m just looking forward to seeing what — if anything — Jon Robinson does with the rest of his $23.6M for 2019.