[UPDATE 3:15 PM]: Since this article was originally published, OverTheCap.com has updated their Titans salary cap calculations. They now show Tennessee with just under $55M worth of space instead of the $60M they had shown at the time of the original run. That doesn’t change much in the analysis below since we are all still working under assumed 2020 cap numbers until the league finalizes their revenue for the 2019 season, but it’s a little less wiggle room than projected. The Titans will still have more than enough space to bring back whoever they want from the current roster.
I was hoping to be writing Super Bowl preview articles for the next two weeks, but alas, the NFL offseason is suddenly upon us. It’s never easy to see a football season end, especially one as fun as the 2019 Titans.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the emotion of a playoff loss in the moment, but 31 of 32 teams are going to ultimately come up short every year. These Titans made meaningful progress in Mike Vrabel’s second season. They had their best offense in 16 years and made it all the way to the AFC Championship before finally falling short.
The disappointing end doesn’t take away the monumental wins at New England and Baltimore in the playoffs. It also doesn’t take away what continues to look more and more like a bright future in Tennessee under Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel.
There is going to be a ton to discuss over the next few months, but let’s start by taking a quick overview of the decisions that this franchise will have to make and how they can improve heading into the 2020 season.
How much cap space do the Titans have?
The two primary sites for gathering this sort of information — Spotrac.com and OverTheCap.com — differ slightly with regards to the Titans cap space. Spotrac has Tennessee set to start 2020 with just over $57M while OTC has them with a little more than $60M. That $3M difference isn’t huge in the grand scheme of things, but it looks like the difference in the two sites comes down to OTC projecting a $200M league cap for 2020 while Spotrac comes in at $199M and OTC projecting a higher number of rollover dollars for the Titans based on their unused 2019 cap space.
There is no real point in getting too worked up over the gap right now. Teams have been given guidance by the league that the 2020 cap will fall somewhere in between $196.8M and $201.2M with the exact figure to be determined later based on where the league’s total revenue numbers end up falling so we are still dealing with inexact figures either way.
However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll just use the $60M figure for the sake of round numbers and recognize that the Titans could end up a couple million short of that space when it’s all said and done.
How can they create more cap space?
The Titans are in a spot where they can pretty easily create some additional cap room if they want it this offseason. There are four older veteran players that can be released that would free up a combined $18.6M in additional space:
- TE Delanie Walker: Cap savings of $6.7M
- EDGE Cameron Wake: Cap savings of $5.9M
- RB Dion Lewis: Cap savings of $4.0M
- K Ryan Succop: Cap savings of $2.0M
Cutting Walker would be emotionally painful, but given the way Jonnu Smith and this offense played down the stretch when he was out, it’s really hard to justify a cap hit of over $8M next year for a tight end that will be 36 next season.
Lewis and Succop seem like no-brainers to me. Both are getting up there in age and their effectiveness this season was clearly lacking. That’s an easy $6M bump to the bottom line.
Wake is the guy that I might think hardest about bringing back out of this group. The Titans pass rush wasn’t the same without him late in the season, and despite his low sack totals, he was among the most efficient pass rushers in the league (again) when it comes to creating pressure. I think the Titans will be in the market for pass rush help regardless of whether Wake comes back, but he can still be an effective piece of that group in 2020.
There are also a few other players that could be candidates for restructuring of deals that could free up some space. Malcolm Butler, Jurrell Casey, and DaQuan Jones are all prime restructure candidates if the Titans wanted to squeeze a few million out of their 2020 cap hits. This could be a possibility for Wake as well if the Titans choose to keep him.
At the end of the day, Jon Robinson can pretty easily get his cap number up to $80M in available space without gutting his roster of effective players. It is not going to be a question of if the Titans can afford to re-sign all their big upcoming free agents, it will be a question whether they want to at the prices those players are demanding.
Which of their own players will be re-signed?
The Titans have 22 players that are free agents of some sort when the 2019 league year ends on March 18th at 3:00 PM CST according to Spotrac.com:
- QB Ryan Tannehill
- QB Marcus Mariota
- RB Derrick Henry
- RB David Fluellen
- WR Tajae Sharpe
- WR Darius Jennings
- WR Cameron Batson (ERFA)
- TE Anthony Firkser (ERFA)
- TE MyCole Pruitt
- RT Jack Conklin
- RT Dennis Kelly
- G Kevin Pamphile
- DL Austin Johnson
- EDGE Kamalei Correa
- EDGE Reggie Gilbert (ERFA)
- ILB Wesley Woodyard
- ILB Daren Bates
- CB Logan Ryan
- CB LeShaun Sims
- CB Tramaine Brock
- CB Tye Smith (RFA)
- CB Chris Milton
*ERFA = Exclusive Rights Free Agent, which means that the team can bring this player back as long as they offer a qualifying veteran minimum one year contract. These guys are all likely to be back on one year contracts around $550,000 to $750,000 unless the Titans decide to make a long term offer.
**RFA = Restricted Free Agent, which means that the Titans can earn the right to match (or be compensated with draft picks) if another team were to offer them a contract.
That’s a lot of potential turnover, including several key spots, but the Titans have a lot of cap space to work with and also have both the franchise tag and transition tag at their disposal this offseason thanks to a special clause in the final year of the current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The franchise tag is the more powerful of the two tags. It binds a player with an expiring contract to a team with what is effectively a one year contract paying a salary that is equivalent to the average of the five highest paid players at that position. Other teams can still offer a contract to the player, but the incumbent team gets the opportunity to either match or get compensated with two first round picks if the player does leave.
The transition tag is slightly less expensive — paying the player an average of the ten highest paid players at their position — and it still comes with the opportunity to match any offer another team makes, but it doesn’t come with the two first round picks if the team chooses not to match.
The Titans have three players that are candidates for either the franchise tag or the transition tag with Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and Jack Conklin.
2020 Projected Franchise and Transition Tag Values
|Position||Franchise Tag||Transition Tag|
|Position||Franchise Tag||Transition Tag|
While two tags are currently expected to be available to all 32 teams, banking on them being there might not be the best offseason strategy for the Titans. If the NFL and NFLPA are able to come to an agreement on a new CBA between now and the March 10th deadline for designating franchise and transition tags, the new agreement would likely eliminate the loophole that would allow teams to use both this year.
At the end of the day, the tags are more of a safety net for teams than a plan anyway. The use of the tag can strain relationships between a player and the organization and put both sides in a bad spot. We’ve seen guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Le’Veon Bell refuse to report under a franchise tag in recent years, and while that might not be how Tannehill, Henry, or Conklin would handle things, it’s never a positive development when that fall back plan is deployed.
So which of these free agents will the Titans try to bring back? Let’s run through them quickly:
Ryan Tannehill: This will be one of the more fascinating developments of the offseason. It’s been reported for months now that the team and Tannehill have already started talks surrounding a multiple year contract extension that would keep him in Tennessee as the starter in 2020 and beyond. Despite a relatively pedestrian playoff performance, nothing that has happened since those initial reports should give the Titans cold feet.
The fact is that the Titans offense went from dreadful to among the tops in the league once Tannehill took the controls. They went 13 straight weeks without scoring fewer than 20 points in a game, averaged almost 30 per game, and finished the year in the top ten of virtually every conceivable offensive metric. Did the offensive line and Derrick Henry have something to do with that? No doubt, but Tannehill didn’t lead the league in passer rating and yards per attempt by accident. He played outstanding football here and showed the toughness and leadership that you want out of your starting quarterback.
Spotrac’s Market Value feature projects a four-year, $122M contract for Tannehill, but I tend to think the Titans could get him for less than that. The appropriate comps for a player of his age, pedigree, and performance would be guys like Nick Foles (four years, $88M), Alex Smith (four years, $94M), and Kirk Cousins (three years, $84M).
Would a four-year, $100M deal with $60M guaranteed get the job done? That lands him right in the middle between the transition and franchise tag values. That contract probably sells his 2019 performance short, but it bakes in some of the risk of statistical regression and/or injury that has to be considered in all this. If Tannehill continues to play like he did in 2019 over the course of this deal, it would be one of the best bargains in football.
The Titans aren’t going to find a better quarterback option on the open market and any rookie you find hanging around at pick 29 is highly unlikely to be able to sustain a top ten offense in their first year.
Before you say it... no, I don’t think a 43-year old Tom Brady is the right answer here. The Titans have an offense that works and is built around their personnel for the first time in ages right now. Bringing in Brady would require Arthur Smith to scrap big chunks of the current offense. Brady isn’t running all these boots to hold the backside end honest against the outside zone runs and he certainly isn’t running any of the zone read stuff that the Titans like to incorporate.
We know that Tannehill works in this offense with this personnel. In fact, we know that he works really well. I get that Tom Brady is Tom Brady, but is he going to make this offense as a whole better than what we saw with Tannehill in 2019? The Titans had ascended to the top spot in Football Outsiders weighted offensive DVOA prior to last week’s game against the Chiefs. It’s hard to do much better than that.
The decision here is easy to me. Re-sign Tannehill and draft a backup/developmental quarterback to groom as a fall back plan and/or successor.
Marcus Mariota: I know that some are still holding out hope that Mariota remains here as a backup for some reason, but there is a 0.0% chance of that happening. Mariota is a competitor and he’s going to want to go somewhere where he’ll have a chance to compete for a starting job. That’s not going to be here.
Even if Mariota did want to return and play second fiddle to Tannehill — again, he won’t — the Titans certainly aren’t going to be willing to pay him what he’ll find on the open market. Despite the bad ending, Mariota showed enough flashes that some team will pay him decent money to come in and compete for a starting spot or be a high end backup plan for their shaky starter. Paying Tannehill starter money and then paying Mariota somewhere in the $5-10M range to sit behind him is not a good use of resources.
Derrick Henry: Another fascinating case here. Henry was the NFL’s best running back down the stretch and won the rushing title. In the playoffs, he dominated the Patriots and Ravens to the point that the Titans barely had to bother with passing. Henry also developed into one of the team’s most outspoken leaders.
However... paying running backs big money almost never works out well for the team. The list of cautionary tales is long and filled with few exceptions. David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Devonta Freeman, Saquon Barkley, Jerick McKinnon, and Leonard Fournette are the eight highest paid backs in the league and every single one of them were watching the playoffs at home this year (technically McKinnon is on the 49ers roster, but he’s currently on IR and hasn’t suited up for them once since signing his big deal in 2018).
Then you have guys like Raheem Mostert, who just rushed for 220 yards and 4 touchdowns to propel the 49ers to the Super Bowl. He went undrafted out of Purdue back in 2015 and then bounced around six different practice squad before finally landing with the Niners. He signed a three-year, $8.7M extension during the offseason (that’s $8.7M total).
There is an argument to be made that Henry is different though. He was the centerpiece of the Titans offense to a large degree. The threat of him on the ground opened up much of what Tennessee did in the passing game through play action. Henry is also unique in that he’s among the best conditioned athletes in the NFL. At 6’-3” and almost 250 pounds, few backs are built like him and he simply doesn’t wear down over the course of games or seasons. He’s also emerged as a leader of this offense and a tonesetter for the entire team.
I don’t think the Titans should make him the highest paid back in the league, but I also don’t think they can afford to let him walk. Spotrac projects him for a four-year, $55.3M deal that would land him as the third highest paid back in the league behind Elliott and Gurley. That seems like a gross overpay to me, despite Henry’s incredible ability. If that’s the market, I would probably try to use the franchise or transition tag to keep him for one more year.
David Fluellen: Fluellen’s run with the Titans is almost certainly over. He was replaced by Khari Blasingame and the rookie is a cheaper, younger (and probably more talented) version of the veteran running back/fullback.
Tajae Sharpe: This probably depends on how much money he’s looking for and what kind of role he wants to play. Sharpe was solid as the Titans fourth option this season, but with A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries all under contract for next year, he might have a chance to find a larger role (and a larger payday) elsewhere. I’m guessing that he’s probably going to be able to command something in the $2-3M range.
If I was the Titans, I’d have my eyes set on a different type of receiver to fill this rotational fourth spot though. They could use an upgrade in speed among the pass catchers and Sharpe doesn’t bring that.
Darius Jennings: Unlikely to be back. Jennings is a special teams only contributor and he’ll be 28 years old next season. The Titans have younger, cheaper options here.
Cameron Batson: As an ERFA, Batson will be available to the Titans at a league minimum contract. I suspect they will opt to bring him back. Before getting injured in training camp and being placed on IR, Batson appeared likely to take the roster spot that Kalif Raymond eventually filled. He’s a young speedy receiver with special teams ability and he’s an inexpensive option to bring back to compete with Raymond and other receivers for a rotational spot.
Anthony Firkser: Another ERFA, Firkser will almost certainly be back. He’s developed into a trusted option in the Titans passing attack. He’s not a great blocker, but he brings enough value as a “third down tight end” that he is certainly worth the league minimum tender that Tennessee would need to offer to bring him back.
MyCole Pruitt: Pruitt is an interesting figure in this offseason. He was a solid-but-unspectacular blocking tight end for the Titans over the past two seasons and that is a role that sometimes gets underappreciated on a team that runs the ball as much as Tennessee. Pruitt isn’t much of a threat as a pass catcher, but if the team can bring him back for a low cost ($1.5M or less), it probably makes sense to retain his services, even if they add some competition for his roster spot.
Jack Conklin: Conklin is one of the four highest priority free agents coming up for the Titans and I think he’s a guy that should absolutely be back. Since being selected in the first round of the 2016 draft, Conklin has been a top ten right tackle in the league in three of his four NFL seasons. The one down year was his injury-riddled 2018 season when he clearly wasn’t right physically.
Conklin will be 26 next season and I don’t think good teams should be in the business of letting high end offensive linemen walk in their primes. NFL aging curve studies have indicated that, unlike skill positions, tackles peak around age 28 and have a prime that runs from age 25 to 31. That means the Titans would be paying for Conklin’s best years and locking in a great pair of bookend tackles for the next few years.
Yes, the amount of investment in the offensive line would be high with Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold both making top of the market money at their positions, but if you’re going to overspend somewhere, I’d say that offensive line is a great place to do it. Conklin’s Spotrac Market Value projection is a six-year, $90M deal that would put him behind just Lane Johnson and Trent Brown among right tackles. That deal is a little on the long end, but most of the back half would be unlikely to be guaranteed anyway.
If the Titans can get Conklin back on a deal like that, they should. The thought of rebooting with another right tackle next to Nate Davis — the current weak link in this group — is very concerning to me.
Dennis Kelly: The Titans are almost certainly in an either/or situation between Conklin and Kelly. If you’re going to pay Conklin, you probably can’t afford to pay Kelly to come back as a swing tackle again. He’s played well in spot duty over the past two years and could probably get both a chance to start and good money elsewhere if he wants it. My guess is that he ends up commanding somewhere close to $5M a year from whichever team he ends up playing for.
If the Titans decide not to bring Conklin back for whatever reason, then signing Kelly becomes an absolute must for Jon Robinson. He’s not as good as Jack, but he gives the team an acceptable baseline performance at the position and keeps them from relying on another rookie starter on the offensive line in 2020.
Kevin Pamphile: He’s very unlikely to be back. It was a weird year for the veteran utility lineman. He entered the year as the odds on favorite to start at right guard — at least early in the year — but a knee injury that popped up during the week of preparation for the season opener led to him getting passed up by both Jamil Douglas and Nate Davis in the guard pecking order. He never played a snap all season.
Austin Johnson: Johnson is one of Jon Robinson’s few misses at the top end of the draft. He wasn’t a total disaster — he was at least still getting snaps in a rotation through all four years — but that’s not the production the Titans were hoping to get out of a 43rd overall pick. With Jurrell Casey, Jeffery Simmons, Isaiah Mack, and Matt Dickerson all under contract for 2020, it seems unlikely that the Titans would spend significant money to keep Johnson on the roster. If he’s back, it’s on a very cheap, league minimum type contract.
Kamalei Correa: Correa might have played himself into a decent contract down the stretch. He posted 6 sacks over the Titans final eight games despite coming off the field for most obvious pass rush situations. I think it’s fools gold to believe that Correa is going to be able to replicate that stretch of production over a full season or multiple seasons, but he’s proven that he can be a productive part of an edge rotation.
That being said, this is a group that the Titans will want to address this offseason. They didn’t get enough from the pass rush all season. Harold Landry still needs a worthy partner to work with, and while Derick Roberson showed some promising flashes late in the year, it seems likely that the team looks to add a dynamic player here in either free agency or the draft. With 2019 fifth round pick D’Andre Walker expected to be healthy heading into this offseason, it’s hard to see where Correa would fit in this Titans rotation next year. My guess is he signs elsewhere for decent money.
Reggie Gilbert: Gilbert ended up getting buried in the edge rotation as the year wore on, getting 30% of defensive snaps or fewer in every game since Week 8. He’s an ERFA, so like Batson and Firkser, the Titans can bring him back for cheap. I would think they probably will end up doing that. If nothing else, Gilbert is a player that has NFL experience, knows the defense, and can be brought in to compete for a roster spot at very little cost.
Wesley Woodyard: Woodyard has said that he’s not retiring so the question is whether he will be returning to Nashville for 7th straight year or heading elsewhere to continue his impressive NFL career. My guess is that Woodyard — who will be 34 next season — might actually be back here on a cheap deal.
We know how well respected he is by both Vrabel and his teammates and he’s still got enough juice to contribute on special teams and as a backup linebacker. David Long is probably ready to step into the ILB3 role this year behind Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown, but the Titans will still need at least one or two more depth pieces here.
Daren Bates: The Titans will need to do something at inside linebacker this offseason. While the top three are set with Evans, Brown, and Long, they will need one or two more bodies here to fill out the roster and help play key special teams roles. Bates has been one of those players for the last three years. At 29, will the team want to get younger here or will they try to bring back Bates?
Logan Ryan: The other big free agent for the Titans, Ryan had another good season in the Tennessee secondary and his three-year, $30M deal that he signed in 2017 turned out to be a bargain. However, the question about his next contract is a complicated one. Is Ryan a good football player who helped this team win? Absolutely. Is he also about to turn 29 years old with limited athleticism at a position where players often rapidly decline when their athleticism starts to go? Yes.
So what do you do with Ryan if you’re Jon Robinson? Spotrac doesn’t have a Market Value projection for him, but looking at other contracts for similar players at corner — like Pierre Desir and Bryce Callahan — I think a three-year, $22-23M deal is going to be around his market. That’s a small pay decrease, but I honestly can’t see the market paying much more than that for a corner his age. If that’s the deal — and you keep the guaranteed money in the $10-12M range like those two contracts — I think you do it. One of the smartest players in the NFL, Ryan brings value both on and off the field for the Titans.
LeShaun Sims: The Titans got pretty good value out of Sims for a sixth round pick, but it’s hard to see him being retained on a second contract. He’s a backup level player who can contribute on special teams, but never was able to hold up consistently in a starting role. I would suspect that he gets signed elsewhere.
Tramaine Brock: If you’d asked me a week ago, my answer might have been different, but Brock got eaten alive by the Chiefs and it’s hard to see him coming back. He’ll be 32 next year and there is a pretty good chance that he ends up retiring.
Tye Smith: Smith is an RFA so the Titans have some opportunity to limit his market if they want him back, but my guess is this is another guy that would have to be pretty cheap to return. Given the ages of Malcolm Butler (30) and Logan Ryan (29) next season, it’s time for the Titans to get some young corners in the pipeline to eventually replace those guys. If Ryan doesn’t come back, that need becomes that much more urgent. Smith probably doesn’t fit in here in 2020.
Chris Milton: Milton was signed to be a special teams ace when Joshua Kalu went down with an injury early in the season, but he suffered injury issues himself and eventually ended the season on IR. At 27, he might have a chance to come back for a special teams heavy role.
Can they afford all their own guys?
The short answer? Yes.
The NFL salary cap is relatively easily manipulated and the Titans have been doing it well for years. They routinely suppress the first year cap hit in any long term deal which, in turn, maximizes the amount of rollover cap that they can apply to next season’s bottom line.
Here’s how this works... say you have a budget of $100 for this year and you’ll have a budget of $100 next year as well. If you don’t spend your entire $100 this year, you can use the leftover amount next year. You want to buy an item that costs $160, but you can pay for it over two years however you want. If you pay $80 in year one and $80 in year two, you’ll have $20 of extra space in year one and then $40 of extra space in year two (your leftover $20 plus your new $100 minus the $80). However, if you want to maximize the amount of available space per year, you can pay $60 in year one and $100 in year two. That leaves you with $40 extra in year one and $40 extra in year two. You’ve effectively “created” $20 extra in year one without penalizing yourself in year two.
That’s exactly how NFL GM’s manipulate the cap with contracts. Last year, the Titans signed four relatively substantial free agents: Rodger Saffold (four years, $44M), Adam Humphries (four years, $36M), Kenny Vaccaro (four years, $24M), and Cameron Wake (three years, $23M). If you simply take the average annual value of those contracts and add them all up, you get a total of just under $34M a year that the Titans added to their roster. However, the actual 2019 cap hits for those four players combined to be just $19.5M because of the way the contracts were structured to maximize the usage of rollover cap space.
This is important to keep in mind when we are discussing contracts and available cap space. If the Titans sign Ryan Tannehill to a four year, $100M contract, for example, he’s not likely going to count $25M against the cap in 2020. He’s probably going to check in closer to a $15M cap hit if they structure deals the same way they have been in recent years (and there is no reason not to unless the new CBA comes in and changes everything between now and then).
So let’s be wildly conservative and say Tannehill gets $28M a year, Henry gets $15M a year, Conklin gets $15M a year, and Ryan gets $10M a year. That’s $68M per year combined. However, in 2020 dollars, we’re probably talking about a total cap hit in the range of $39M for this upcoming season, well below the potential $75-80M in space the Titans can free up if they want to, and that’s using wildly conservative contract numbers for every player. My guess is that those four can probably be retained for a 2020 cap hit of $35M combined if the team can reach agreement on long term deals. That would leave more than enough space for them to bring back a few role players and maybe even add an impact pass rusher if they want to.
Who could they pursue in free agency?
It’s still really early on and we don’t know which teams might re-sign or tag pending free agents, but my guess is that the Titans are looking at one spot, and one spot only, for impact free agent help: pass rusher.
There are several big names slated to hit the market, including 2019 sack king Shaquil Barrett, former Mike Vrabel pupil Jadeveon Clowney, and several other productive veterans like Matthew Judon, Bud Dupree, Yannick Ngakoue, and Dante Fowler. Clowney is the obvious player to connect here because of his relationship with Vrabel from their time together in Houston, but we are talking about upwards of $20M a year according to Spotrac for a guy who has never hit double digit sacks and is coming off five year lows in tackles (31), tackles for loss (7), and sacks (3). He’s also got an injury history that makes you wonder how long his freakish athleticism will last. I think I’d pass.
Ngakoue is more interesting to me. He’s a little younger — he still hasn’t turned 25 yet — doesn’t have the injury history that Clowney does, and has been a far more consistently productive pass rusher to this point in his career. Ngakoue has reached 8 sacks in all four seasons as a pro and routinely ranks among the top of the NFL in PFF’s pass rush productivity metric (which combines sacks, hits, and hurries on a per pass rush snap basis).
I’d also have some interest in Judon and Fowler, though neither of those guys is quite the force that Ngakoue is.
That is really the one spot where I could see Tennessee taking a big swing at a high-priced free agent. Of course that could change if the Titans decide not to bring back Tannehill, Henry, Conklin, or Ryan. That could push them into the market for a Tom Brady, a Kenyan Drake, a Bryan Bulaga, or a Chris Harris to replace those guys. However, if I’m Tennessee, I’m trying to keep my guys in house this offseason rather than chasing players from other teams.
It’s a bit of a different mindset than we are used to around here this time of year, but it’s a sign that things are changing for the better. This is what good teams do. They fill their roster with good players and then have to prioritize which ones to bring back and which ones to let walk. The guys that do walk earn the team compensatory picks in the next draft and lets the good GM start filling the pipeline back up with young, cheap talent.
It’s a virtuous cycle that the NFL has created to reward teams that draft and develop well and the Titans might finally be entering it thanks to the foundation that Jon Robinson started to lay back in 2016. Tennessee probably only brings back maybe 10 or 11 of the 22 pending free agents they have currently set to hit the market, but fans should be rooting for guys like Mariota, Sharpe, Johnson, Kelly, and Sims to get big money elsewhere to help boost their odds of getting good compensatory picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.
(Here is a good read on how compensatory picks work if you’re unfamiliar or need a refresher)
It will be strange to be more of a supplier than a consumer in the free agent market this year, but that’s a good thing for Titans fans.
Will the Titans pick up the fifth year options for Corey Davis and Adoree’ Jackson?
The Titans will have both of these guys under contract for the 2020 season, but they have to decide whether or not to pick up the fifth year option on their rookie contracts for the 2021 season by May 30th of this year.
The salaries for the fifth year option are mandated based on position and draft slot by the NFL. Top ten picks get paid the average of the top ten salaries at their position. Picks 11 through 32 get paid the average of the 3rd through 25th top salaries from the prior year.
The options are guaranteed for injury only at the time they are exercised, meaning that if the player is hurt when the 2021 league year begins in March, the team is on the hook for the entirety of their salary for that season. However, if the player is healthy and the team decides that they no longer want to keep them at the price of the option year, they are free to release them with no cap hold before the new league year begins.
With Davis being the fifth overall pick, he would be paid the average of the top ten wide receiver salaries for 2019, a value that should likely fall somewhere around $16M. I think it’s pretty obvious that Davis has not produced at a level that would justify a $16M salary to this point. With A.J. Brown emerging as the Titans top pass catcher this year, I’d fully expect Robinson to turn down Davis’ option. If he finally breaks out next season, Tennessee can try to re-sign him then, but for now, you cannot commit that kind of money based on the production he’s had.
Jackson, to me, is a no-brainer to pick up the option. The projected value for a cornerback picked outside the top ten is currently around $10M. That’s still a lot of money, but Jackson is still just 24 years old and he’s continuing to ascend as a corner. He graded out as PFF’s 8th best cornerback in the league in 2019, allowing just one touchdown into his coverage all season.
The ages of his counterparts — Ryan and Butler — also influence this decision to me. The Titans are going to likely need to replace those two guys within the next couple seasons. That’s already a tall task, but it becomes monumental if you start talking about replacing all three starting corners. We saw the struggles that this secondary had when Jackson was out this year. If you can lock him in for 2021 at $10M, I think you do it and don’t think twice about it.
We will be talking about the draft here for months to come so I’m not going to go too deep, but if the Titans bring back Tannehill, Henry, Conklin, and Ryan — as I think they should — that sets them up to have some real flexibility heading into the draft. The only “instant impact” spot that they would need to come away with is a pass rusher (unless they are able to land one in free agency).
Besides that spot, the Titans should look to draft a young quarterback to pair with Tannehill as an inexpensive backup and possible long term succession plan. They should also try to find young developmental backups at running back, wide receiver, center, tackle, and cornerback.
Who those players end up being will make for a fun debate over the next three months, but for now, I’m more interested in seeing which pieces they are able to bring back from the current roster.
Too Long; Didn’t Read
- The Titans have about $60M in cap space to work with.
- They can clear up to about $80M if they want to release Walker, Lewis, Wake, and Succop along with possibly restructuring deals for Casey, Jones, and Butler.
- It’s not a question of if they can afford to bring back Tannehill, Henry, Conklin, and Ryan... it’s a question of whether they see those players as good values at the prices they demand.
- If I was Jon Robinson, I would bring back Tannehill, Henry, Conklin, Ryan, Firkser, Pruitt, Batson, Gilbert, Woodyard, Bates, and Milton. I might bring back Correa and Kelly depending on price.
- The Titans are probably going to lose more free agents than they sign, which could net them some compensatory picks in the 2021 draft.
- I would decline Davis’ fifth year option, but would pick up Jackson’s.