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Trevor’s Back: A Look At Free Agent Fits for the Titans

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Exploring some of the team’s options.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

I’m back! It’s been a while since I have written on the site, but things are about to change. Since we last spoke, Mike Vrabel has been hired as Head Coach, and had a very promising season. All of the positives that we’d envisioned have come true. Vrabel is innovative, makes connections with players, and has already won some big games. It is very difficult for a coach to take over for someone who took the team to the Divisional round, but Vrabel was so impressive that it’s almost an afterthought at this point. The fact that this is true despite not making the playoffs following a season in which the team won its first playoff game in 15 years speaks volumes. At this moment, the future of the team looks bright. For all intensive purposes, last season was a “down year” in the Jon Robinson era. After the 2016 season, I remember thinking that Titans fans should be cautious when it comes to expectations. Any successful organization has its up and down years; success in the NFL is not linear, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting linearity. The team had gone 9-7 for 2 straight years, so logically, the next step should’ve been 10-6 or 11-5. However, starting from the first game of the season, nearly everything that could’ve gone wrong, did go wrong. The fact that this happened and the outlook remains positive is highly encouraging. While some significant decisions loom, this off-season feels like the one in which Jon Robinson must take the necessary steps to, as Mike Vrabel recently put it, “get out of the middle.” However, despite the fact that the future is bright and the team has put together 3 straight winning seasons for the first time in Titans history, there are plenty of areas on the roster that need to be addressed. In a way, the team is set to undergo somewhat of a retooling. Compare the current roster to the beginning of the Jon Robinson era, and you may be relatively surprised at the turnover. In order to get out of the middle, the bulk of the retooling must be done efficiently, effectively, and creatively this off-season, which leads us to free agency. As previously mentioned, despite recent success, this team has quite a few needs that must be addressed. In some form or fashion, I expect Jon Robinson to address each need in free agency. With legal tampering quickly approaching, I feel that it is important to explore every option, and determine which steps would be best moving forward.

First, we will look at each of the primary areas of need. I have ranked the areas of need and attached free agents to the area. In each area, I have included high-level, mid-level, and low-level options. As previously mentioned, I expect Jon Robinson to address each need in some form or fashion. That does not necessarily mean that he has found the starter of 2019 for the position, but that he has added a viable option and increased his flexibility for the draft next month. This means that there will be both mid-level and low-level free agents that will be signed.

  1. EDGE Rusher: If nothing else, from a pure numbers standpoint, this has to be the biggest position of need. Brian Orakpo is retired, and Derrick Morgan is a 30 year old free agent coming off of a down year that included injuries. At the moment, the only EDGE rushers under contract are Harold Landry, Shariff Finch,Kamali Correa, and Latroy Lewis. While some of these players will serve as good depth, the team needs someone capable of starting opposite Harold Landry. Even if the team were to sign a high-level free agent at this position, I would not be surprised if they double dip and take another early in the draft. Landry has a history with injuries, and in today’s league, having 3 or even 4 guys capable of starting has almost turned into a necessity for contenders. As Brian Orakpo stated last summer, ideally, someone in his position should not be playing tons of snaps each game, because it allows a number of fresh pass rushers to get after the quarterback the entire game. I recall this being a significant issue when Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan were the starters and the team had absolutely nothing behind them. Both played about 60 snaps a game, and the defense struggled to get any sort of pass rush, causing teams to shred them. It forces the defensive coordinator bring extra guys in order to generate pressure, and we have seen what quarterbacks like Andrew Luck can do with that. You’re in a no win position at that point. Dean Pees has expressed a desire to be able to generate consistent pressure when only rushing 4, because it allows him to do so much more on defense. We saw it with the 2017 Jaguars, and more relevantly, Pees’ defenses in Baltimore. So, while guys like Finch and Correa are solid, the team should not be afraid to hit this position hard both in March an April. I am expecting both a high-level free agent and either a mid or lower level free agent to be added in the coming weeks.
  • High-Level Options: ZaDarius Smith, Trey Flowers, Preston Smith.

I would not be surprised if the Titans were interested in all 3 of these guys. Smith has a history with Dean Pees, and Flowers fits because of his versatility. That being said, I am always cautious of defensive players that leave Baltimore. The popular thought is that players who leave New England don’t have much success, but I have trouble finding players on the defensive side of the ball who leave Baltimore and grow. Recent stories include Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones, and Tim Jernigan. That being said, Smith has earned his upcoming contract, and staying in Pees’ system may add a level of comfort. While the next option, Trey Flowers, is not viewed as a traditional EDGE Rusher that just pins his ears back and gets after the quarterback every snap, his versatility will definitely intrigue Vrabel and Pees. He’s also been good for about 7 sacks per season on top of being a player that the team can place in a number of positions. I view Flowers as the top target, but reports that he may earn $17 million per year concern me, as that may be too rich for the team. That being said, Flowers would be a great fit. Finally, Preston Smith has placed himself in this tier due to his entire body of work, but I would be cautious. He had just 4 sacks last season, and despite seasons with good numbers, he has lacked consistency. For example, in 2015, he had 8 sacks on the season, but 5 of them came in a 3 game span. The Titans need a consistent difference maker, and Smith has not established himself in that regard. He would improve the team if added, but of the high-level options, I rank him third, especially given the fact that he will be expecting a contract in the same range as Flowers and Smith.

  • Mid-Level Options: Terrell Suggs, Derrick Morgan, Alex Okafor.

Terrell Suggs is 36 years old, so I understand any concerns. That being said, he still has some juice, and would be a good veteran with a past of playoff success to add to a team that is trying to “get out of the middle.” He also obviously has a past with Dean Pees. Suggs had 7 sacks last year with the Ravens, and could be a 3rd or 4th pass rusher that puts in quality snaps for the team, while guys like Harold Landry and possibly Brian Burns or Montez Sweat play with one of the all-time greats at the position. Personally, I would much rather have the team sign Suggs to a 1 or 2 year contract than pouring money into Preston Smith. Of the mid-level options, Suggs is my personal favorite. In terms of Derrick Morgan, we know what we are getting. The question is how much money he wants, and how the team views him. He is no longer the starter opposite Landry, but if Morgan is open to a smaller contract and much less snaps, he would be worth re-signing. Finally, Alex Okafor has had some success throughout his career as a secondary player, and things looked promising in New Orleans before an achilles tear in 2017. If he can return to his pre-injury form, he would be a decent option behind the starters.

  • Lower Level Options: John Simon, Markus Golden,Shaq Barrett.

John Simon has a past with Mike Vrabel. A lot of us thought he would be signed at the beginning of the season after roster cuts, but he had issues with an injury. After a season, maybe the team will explore this option, as he would provide decent depth. Markus Golden had a double-digit sack season in 2016, tore his ACL in 2017, and wasn’t himself this past season. We saw firsthand with Jack Conklin how the year after a significant injury can go, and this is especially true for a pass rusher that needs to be explosive each snap. 2 years removed from the injury, I think that Golden would be worth taking a flier on. If nothing else, he will provide depth. Finally, Barrett is another “flier” player, who was always behind high-level pass rushers. He has shown flashes in his limited opportunities, but I would not be surprised if another team views him as more than a lower-level flier guy.

2. Wide Receiver: I think most Titans fans will argue that this position should be ranked 3rd, behind EDGE rusher and interior offensive linemen. That being said, I think that as time has passed, a lot of people have forgotten how low the Titans were at the position in 2018. The Nick Williams and Corey Davis drops all but solidified 2 losses in a 9 win season. Corey Davis was taken away as the only threat in the passing game. Marcus Mariota did not have complete trust in his revolving door of targets, especially as attrition set in. The lack of threats in the passing game is an absolutely significant factor in terms of lack of production, and until the team figures it out, nothing will change. Not a single player in the room has shown consistency on any level, and teams do not fear them. While some will point to teams like the Patriots that have historically won without top-tier wide receivers, I argue that they are an outlier. We can simply go back in time by just a few months when Titans fans watched the Rams play the Chiefs on Monday Night Football and wonder, “Why can’t our team play offense like this?” There is not a single answer, but it is a fact that the teams had 3 high level pass catchers that put defenses on their heels (Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce) (Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods). Both teams spent a fair amount of capital on these weapons, too. Due to the Patriots’ success, wide receiver has become relatively overlooked, but if you look any top-tier offense, you will find that they have either 2 high-end receivers or essentially 3 starters. At this point, the Titans have just 1 starter. Again, until the team beefs up here, things will not change dramatically on the offensive side of the ball. It is imperative that they fully consider each of the high-level options as free agency opens, and after seeing the performance of players behind Corey Davis in 2018, I would highly recommend double, or even triple-dipping this off-season. Solving the problems at wide receiver is an absolute must.

  • High-Level Options: Tyrell Williams, Adam Humphries, Jamison Crowder, Golden Tate, John Brown

I like all of the options here. Tyrell Williams is a big vertical threat that could take some pressure off of Corey Davis. That being said, he is likely going to command the most money, and has disappeared at times. He has not been consistent throughout his career, and stepping into a top role in an offense that is not as talented as the Chargers will be a huge change. I’m not all in on Williams, especially given the price. Adam Humphries will command a good amount of money, but could be worth it. He is young and on the rise, and was Jameis Winston’s most reliable target. We have seen how positive having a truly reliable go-to guy can be for Marcus Mariota in Delanie Walker, and in small flashes Tajae Sharpe on third downs, so someone with Julian Edelman comparisons who is young could be a very good addition to the offense. It also helps that Jon Robinson obviously has a past with Tampa Bay. Jamison Crowder is another intriguing option. He was a legitimate vertical threat in Sean McVay’s offense, while also serving as a reliable target for Kirk Cousins. He may not be as expensive as Humphries, but could bring some things to the table that we’d all hoped Taywan Taylor would. Golden Tate seems to be a fan favorite, but I’m curious how the Titans view him. He was not great with Philadelphia, is 30 years old, and will command a good amount of money. He would definitely improve Titans at wide receiver, but I’m not sure the production will match the contract. However, there is something to be said for adding a Demarco Murray-esque veteran to a position of need. His situation will be interesting. Finally, though it may be argued otherwise, I view John Brown as a high-level option. Before Lamar Jackson started and the Ravens barely threw the football, Brown was the biggest threat on the offense. He is a great deep threat that would put pressure on defenses, and is a good route runner, as well. I remember when the Titans played Baltimore in October, Mike Keith was gushing about Brown, talking about how much the Titans respect him and worry about him. I would not be surprised if that is remembered during free agency. He will not be expensive as some of these other options, either.

  • Mid Level Options: Chris Hogan, Randall Cobb, Devin Funchess

I will start by saying none of these options particularly excite me. Chris Hogan has issues with drops, Cobb has an injury history, and Funchess is inconsistent. Out of the options, Cobb may be the best. At the very least, his lack of production and injuries may allow the team to sign him to a cheap deal and see how he fits during training camp. Funchess may develop on a different team, but likely views himself at the top of the free agent class.

  • Lower-Level Options: Breshad Perriman, Pierre Garcon, Chris Conley, Malcolm Mitchell

Perriman was an absolute bust in Baltimore. He had a lot of issues with drops. That being said, the fanbase, and in some ways, the organization started to turn on him a little bit after a few years, which could have hurt his confidence. When he came to Cleveland last season, he played really well and was a legitimate threat in the passing game. He may have regained his confidence, and as a former first round pick, the talent is there. He might be worth a flier. Pierre Garcon is a veteran that a lot of fans wanted to trade for in October. While his best years are behind him, he would still be a legitimate 3rd or 4th option, ideally, while providing a veteran presence in the room. That being said, there is a a lot of unknown that comes with him between his age and injuries. It is likely that a team will pay more than the Titans are willing. Chris Conley may serve as a Rishard Matthews-level signing, in the sense that he is a young player with decent production as a secondary option on his former team, who could sign with the Titans and develop. He is physically gifted and has talent. If he is cheap, he would be worth a flier. Finally, I’m not entirely sure what Malcolm Mitchell is up to at the moment due to injuries, but at the very least he’s worth a check-in. As I was typing about Chris Conley, I thought about Mitchell who is another physically gifted and talented player. He would certainly still be in New England if not for injuries. It would be wise for the team to check in.

3. Interior Offensive Linemen: Protecting Marcus Mariota is absolutely critical this season. There have been issues at guard and center, and Quinton Spain looks to be on the way out. Despite a contract extension, there have been a few murmurs among the media about whether Josh Kline will be back, as well. Given the number of needs, the Titans may need to get creative if they are looking to make big changes here. This could include signing a center and moving Ben Jones to guard, which is what happened in the Jets game. Dennis Kelly is viewed as a tackle, according to Jon Robinson, but at the very least provides a little wiggle room because we know he is capable of moving inside. Nothing would surprise me in free agency.

  • High Level Options: John Sullivan, Mitch Morse, Matt Paradis, Roger Saffold, DJ Fluker

John Sullivan is regarded as one of the smarter centers in the league, and he has years of experience in the Rams’ offense, which will likely have some similarities to what the Titans will try to run under Arthur Smith. He is older, but as a veteran with years of experience in calling out protections, he may be worth signing. Thinking back to the Ravens game, a lot of the sacks can be attributed to confusion among the line, and someone like Sullivan can help tremendously in that regard. Morse and Paradis are also regarded as top options at center, but are coming off of injuries. Roger Saffold is very talented with experience in the Rams offense, but is 30 years old and will likely be the highest paid of the group. Finally, DJ Fluker is a road grader, and could help the Titans establish themselves as a running offense if they are all-in on Derrick Henry.

  • Mid-Level Options: Quinton Spain, Nick Easton

We know what we are getting in Quinton Spain. He is a fine option, but it appears that the team is looking to move in a different direction. Nick Easton is regarded as a solid offensive lineman, but appears to have an injury history.

  • Lower-Level Options: Jamon Brown, James Carpenter

Mike Herndon pointed out on Twitter that the Titans put in a waiver claim for Brown in the past. He could provide depth in the same way that Kevin Pamphile did in 2018. James Carpenter has played well in the past, and could compete for a starting job. He had a rough 2018, but his body of work could allow teams to look past that, and give him a chance.

4. Defensive Linemen: This is an area that Jon Robinson has struggled with since he came to Tennessee. While Al Woods was not a top-tier player, he was replaced by Sylvester Williams, who did not perform well and was released after just 1 season. The team also let Antwaun Woods walk, and he has played very well in a starting role with Dallas. He could have been much more of a contributor than someone like Bennie Logan was last season. Jurrell Casey has never had someone that plays at a high level to help him along the defensive line, and if Dean Pees wants to rush only 4, impact players on the defensive line will go a long way towards achieving that. There are more pressing needs, but I sincerely hope that this is not overlooked this off-season.

  • High-Level Options: Malik Jackson, Ndamukong Suh

Malik Jackson is still a very productive defensive lineman, despite being released by the Jaguars. Pairing him with Jurrell Casey would be legitimately dangerous. The Titans should have a good read on him, based on planning for him twice a year. Suh is a top option expected to leave the Rams, but I think the ship has sailed with him in terms of Tennessee adding him. He is a year older, and his regular season production was not great, despite playing next to Aaron Donald. He will also likely command a big contract.

  • Mid-Level Options: Christian Covington, Tim Jernigan

Covington would be a solid signing. He would not be the high impact player that Malik Jackson is, but he is a young, productive defensive lineman that would serve as an upgrade over what the Titans currently have. Mike Vrabel has a past with him, as well. If the Titans don’t want to spend a ton of money here but want to solidify the position in the short term at the very least, Covington may be the guy. Jernigan has a past with Dean Pees and is very talented, when healthy. That being said, there are maturity questions that will come with him, and Mike Vrabel is not one to overlook that. If Pees can vouch for him, it would something worth exploring.

  • Lower-Level Options: Malcolm Brown, Brent Urban

There is not much to say here. Brown was a talented prospect coming out of Texas, and the Titans like former Patriots. Urban has a history with Pees. Both would just provide depth.

5. Backup Quarterback: We all know that this position is of high importance. Blaine Gabbert was not the worst backup that we’ve seen, and won some important games in tough spots for this team, which is all you can ask of a backup. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Titans looked to upgrade. With backup quarterbacks, I’m not sure how much they can be ranked in tiers. That being said, Ryan Tannehill, Tyrod Taylor, and Robert Griffin III could be upgrades with a similar skillset to Marcus Mariota. If the Titans can bring one of those 3 players in for a contract similar to Gabbert’s it would be an upgrade. I would not be surprised if they keep Gabbert and look at quarterbacks in the draft.

Trade Options:

  • Dee Ford and Justin Houston: Both would be big time additions. Ford might cost too much, but Houston could be a perfect fit. He is still productive, and an established veteran, whereas Ford has had consistency issues throughout his career.
  • Antonio Brown: I’m sure this has been discussed at length. After the Bills “trade,” I’m not even sure what to make of the situation at this point. The Titans are probably out, but reported interest tells me they may be in on a high-level free agent receiver.
  • AJ Green: Okay, the Titans are not trading for AJ Green, and he’s probably not available for trade. That being said, I included his name as part of a larger point: The Titans could and should be looking around the league for receivers in unique situations, like Brandin Cooks was when the Rams traded for him last season, or when they traded for Sammy Watkins. This could be another avenue to explore for “Trader Jon.”
  • Gerald McCoy: There have been rumors about Tampa Bay moving on from McCoy and Desean Jackson because of their big contracts. Since then, reports have come out saying that Bruce Arians has met with Jackson and has big plans for him, while McCoy is “expected” to stay with the team. I’m not sure what his availability is and how much he would cost, but if the Titans were in on Suh last year, I’m sure Jon Robinson, who has a history with McCoy will at least explore. There’s probably nothing there, but Casey and McCoy would be a dream come true for all of us.

Overall, things will come down to how the Titans rank their needs, and how much each player costs. The Titans have the 9th most cap space in the league, and evidenced by the Brett Kern contract yesterday, they still have an eye on keeping their current players with contracts that need to be renewed soon, like Kevin Byard, Jack Conklin, and possibly Marcus Mariota. They will also need to re-sign Kenny Vacarro or add someone of his caliber at safety. So while it appears they have money to spend, it is slightly more complicated. As much as I’d love for the team to add high-level players across the board and have the ultimate flexibility during the draft, they will likely need to get creative this off-season in order to retool, while simultaneously working towards “getting out of the middle.” How Jon Robinson goes about it will determine a lot moving forward.