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Would it make sense for the Titans to pursue former Bucs DT Gerald McCoy?

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Jon Robinson is very familiar with the disruptive defensive tackle, but would a reunion in Tennessee make sense for both sides?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In a move that had been rumored all offseason, the Buccaneers released six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy on Monday.

The Bucs had run themselves into cap issues and were left with little choice but to let McCoy and his $13M cap hit go. At 31 years old, the third overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft isn’t quite the unstoppable force that he once was, but he’s still a bonified difference maker as an interior pass rusher, managing to register at least six sacks in every NFL season since 2013. McCoy was seventh among interior pass rushers in quarterback hits with 12 per PFF which shows that he was still consistently around the passer even when he didn’t get home.

Considering the fact that the Titans interior pass rushers not named Jurrell Casey combined for just one sack all season in 2018, it’s safe to say that McCoy would be a massive lift for a team that struggled to get after the quarterback with a four man rush last year.

Off the field and in the locker room McCoy is extremely respected. If you watched the Bucs season of Hard Knocks you got a little bit of a glimpse into his personality as a kind-hearted comic book nerd who just happens to be a 6’-4”, 300 pound destroyer of men on Sundays. The piece linked in the tweet below is a great read on McCoy’s presence in Tampa Bay.

Jon Robinson spent three years in Tampa as Director of Player Personnel so we know that he’s very familiar with McCoy both on and off the field and we’ve seen Robinson gravitate towards “his guys” in free agency in the past. From that perspective, this union would make a lot of sense.

However, there are a few potential speed bumps that make chasing McCoy somewhat less than a slam dunk proposition though. First, while McCoy would certainly be a boost for the pass rush, he’s not an elite run defender at this point in his career. In his defense, he hasn’t generally had a ton of help on the Buccaneers front recently and this could partially be a reflection of his teammates inadequacies as much as his own, but it’s worth pointing out either way.

McCoy is also very similar to Jurrell Casey in a lot of ways. Both excel in the 3-technique role along the defensive line. I recently collaborated with my podcast co-host Zach Lyons and fellow MCM writer Justin Graver to create a video that explains what the 3-technique is and why McCoy would be a bit of an awkward fit in a defense that already features Jurrell Casey.

It’s not that those two couldn’t co-exist — they certainly could and getting more good football players on the field is always a good thing — but both of those players excel in a role that allows them to be playmakers on the defensive line. They need to be one-gap defenders who are free to penetrate and cause havoc behind the line of scrimmage to reach their maximum potential as players. Neither of these guys are built to be stay at home controllers of the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to build a gap sound defense comprised entirely of one gap, penetrating defensive linemen. Every good defense needs a guy or two who will do the dirty work of taking on double teams and keeping linebackers clean to make plays. That’s why guys like DaQuan Jones and Austin Johnson often make a bigger impact on the field than on the stat sheet. Obviously, McCoy is a much more talented football player than those two and would be an upgrade no matter what role he was asked to play, but the gap between Jones and McCoy playing an aggressive, penetrating 3-technique is much larger than the gap between them playing a stay at home, two-gapping 4-technique.

So if the Titans signed McCoy, that would mean that either McCoy or Casey will be asked to play a position that inherently limits their ability to disrupt. That’s not likely the most attractive situation for a guy like McCoy, and while I think Casey is a team player first and foremost, I don’t believe he’d be thrilled to cede the 3-technique spot to another player.

Then we have the money factor. McCoy isn’t likely to get a huge, long term deal because of his age, but he will get paid handsomely for the 2019 season and could get a two or three year deal if that’s what he would like. If Ndamukong Suh could attract a one year, $14M deal last offseason, I would think McCoy would land somewhere in the $12M to $14M range (I’ll take the high end of that range for discussion purposes, but obviously it could end up being slightly less than what Suh got in LA last year) for a one year deal. If you make it a multiple season contract maybe you can spread some of that money out a little bit, but I really have a hard time seeing him signing for a deal with a cap hit lower than about $10M per season.

The Titans currently have a little over $33M in cap space per Spotrac before signing any of their rookies. After those deals are complete, that number will dip down to about $30M. That’s more than enough room for any deal that McCoy wants, but you have to keep in mind that the Titans can roll any unused cap space over to the 2020 season. That means that paying McCoy $14M for 2019 effectively costs them $14M in cap space in 2020 as well in the form of lost rollover cap space.

The $14M this season isn’t a huge deal. Jon Robinson would still be comfortably under the cap with room to maneuver if a major injury happens in training camp or if he wants to make a trade deadline deal during the season. However, losing $14M in rollover space could be a big deal in 2020.

As things stand today, the Titans are roughly $44M under the 2020 salary cap assuming the cap rises at about the same rate that it has been the past few years (an increase of roughly $10M to $12M). Once you add in the $30M-ish of unused cap from 2019, you have a real available space of about $74M assuming the Titans stand pat with the current roster.

That sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t in reality. That $74M doesn’t include contracts for Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Austin Johnson, Wesley Woodyard, Logan Ryan, Kevin Byard, and LeShaun Sims among a host of other backups and role players. If the Titans decide to franchise tag or extend Mariota, that’s a $25M per year (or more) type price tag. When you factor in Byard at $13M or more per year and potential deals to bring back some of the others, it starts to add up pretty quickly. However, the Titans should be able to afford to bring back whoever they want out of that group or replace them with quality free agent veterans without having to get too creative with the cap.

Signing McCoy changes that because of the rollover cap. That $74M of space suddenly becomes $60M and after Byard and Mariota you might be looking at just $20M of space to work with and roster holes to fill at expensive positions like center, right tackle, and corner. Could it be done? Sure, but it probably costs you a chance to re-sign a Henry or Ryan or Conklin at the very least.

So is that boost to the interior pass rush worth the long term ripple effect of committing that cap space to what realistically is a short term fix? After all, 2019 first round pick Jeffery Simmons will be back from his ACL injury in 2020 at the very latest and there’s a good chance that he’s getting in the rotation if the Titans are still in the hunt during the back half of 2019. The Titans played in nickel packages with just two defensive linemen on the field — with outside linebackers functioning as defensive ends in a four man front — on close to 70% of snaps last season. That leaves an odd man out among Casey, McCoy, and Simmons for over two-thirds of all snaps once the 19th overall pick makes his debut. That’s a good problem to have, but is the return worth the eight figure investment if that’s the result?

I think it’s a tough question and ultimately my guess is that another team will offer a better fit and possibly more money to land McCoy’s services. The Browns and Patriots have already reportedly reached out and showed interest to some degree.

The Saints, Chargers, Seahawks, and Colts have also been linked to McCoy to some degree. After spending nine seasons in Tampa without a single playoff appearance to show for it, I’d expect McCoy to be pretty interested in chasing a title with his next team. Even squinting through two-toned glasses, you’d be hard pressed to make a case for the Titans being closer to a Super Bowl than any of the six teams mentioned above — besides maybe the Browns if you’re not a believer in the NFL’s favorite runaway hype train — so I’m not sure that box checks in Tennessee’s favor either.

McCoy certainly has some connections to the Titans through Jon Robinson and he has some former teammates here in Kevin Pamphile and Adam Humphries so I wouldn’t rule it out altogether, but I’d be pretty surprised if Tennessee ended up being his first choice. There are teams with a bigger need, better fit, more cap space, and a better shot at a quick Super Bowl run in the picture for McCoy so despite his relationship, this may be a tough sell for Jon Robinson.

[UPDATE — May 24, 2019]: It seems that McCoy has found a huge market for his services waiting in free agency with Bucs beat writer Rick Stroud reporting that the former Tampa Bay defensive tackle has 10 teams involved with offers up to $11M per year.

The Browns still appear to be the team to beat and have secured the first meeting with McCoy. Based on the reports I’ve seen from credible sources, these are the teams that have been connected to McCoy:

  1. Browns
  2. Ravens
  3. Patriots
  4. Bengals
  5. Saints
  6. Colts
  7. Falcons
  8. Panthers
  9. Chargers

That leaves the possibility of a mystery team there (I’ve seen some rumblings of the Seahawks being interested, but nothing confirmed), but it is looking highly unlikely that the Titans are involved in the chase. Most likely because of some of the reasons laid out above.