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Backup Plans: What are the best available options if the Titans don’t re-sign their top free agents?

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You can’t have a discussion about re-signing free agents without knowing what the alternatives are.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

This Titans offseason is unique in a lot of ways. For one, it’s starting a little later than usual, which is nice, but the bigger distinction is the situation that we find the roster in heading into 2020. Instead of looking to rob other rosters for talent to help the team improve, Jon Robinson is worried about how he can keep the talent he’s accumulated over the last four years in Nashville for years to come.

That’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. Picking the right players and the right contracts to build around this offseason will be critical to the team’s success for the next few years.

I don’t think there are many who would argue that the team shouldn’t bring back Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Jack Conklin, and Logan Ryan at the right price, but whether the market will push the value of those players above and beyond what Jon Robinson is comfortable paying is impossible to know at this point in time. So let’s take a moment and check in on what life without those players might look like at their respective positions. I’ll give a high end option, a mid level option, and a rookie option for each spot.


If the Titans don’t re-sign Ryan Tannehill...

High End: Tom Brady

This horse has been beat to death already so I won’t belabor the point here, but even if you have doubts about Brady’s ability to continue to play at a high level at 43 years old — I certainly do — you have to at least be somewhat intrigued by the idea of seeing the GOAT in two tone blue with the kind of weapons around him that just helped Tannehill produce a career year. It’s hard to argue that Brady wouldn’t be the best non-Tannehill option on the open market this year.

Mid Level: Teddy Bridgewater

The Saints seem poised to give the backup job to Taysom Hill in 2020, so if Drew Brees returns for another year that will leave Bridgewater without a role in New Orleans. After going 5-0 as a starter in 2019, the Vikings former first round pick seems poised to finally get another shot at being a full time starter in the NFL somewhere.

There is a lot to like about Bridgewater. He’s 22-12 as a starter in his career (though it’s fair to point out that he’s played for two of the most successful franchises of the last decade when citing those stats) and he’s known to be a fantastic leader in the locker room. Bridgewater isn’t quite as athletic as Tannehill, but he’s mobile enough to maintain some of those boot elements that the Titans offense featured heavily under Arthur Smith last year. However, his arm strength leaves a little to be desired and he’s never been known as an aggressive downfield passer.

Rookie: Jordan Love

There are three quarterbacks that appear to be poised to go in the top half of the first round during the draft in April: Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert. The fourth QB on most boards is Utah State’s Jordan Love. He’s going to be a polarizing prospect due to a junior season that saw his yards per attempt and touchdowns nosedive from 8.6 and 32 to 7.2 and 20, respectively, while his interceptions soared from 6 to 17. However, scouts love him due to his elite arm talent, ability to create big plays outside of structure, and his fearlessness as a passer.

The Patrick Mahomes comparisons are lofty, but he really does have a lot of similarities to the reigning Super Bowl MVP when you study his game. That’s not to say that he will be Mahomes, but he has that kind of team-changing potential if he lands in the right situation.

The Titans have been rumored to like Love going all the way back to the regular season and those rumors continue to be popular among draft media members like Matt Miller (who correctly linked the team to Jeffery Simmons throughout the pre-draft process last year). The Colts are another team that has long been rumored to have interest in Love so if the Titans want him, they might have to make a move to jump ahead of the 13th overall pick similar to the moves that the Chiefs and Texans made three years ago for Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, but if Love turns out to be anything like those two guys, it’ll be well worth the price.

Other Options: Philip Rivers, Cam Newton (trade), Andy Dalton (trade), Jameis Winston, Case Keenum, Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm.


If the Titans don’t re-sign Derrick Henry...

High End: Kenyan Drake

The Titans reportedly kicked the tires on trading for Drake before the trade deadline this season so we know there is at least some interest in Henry’s former Alabama teammate. Instead of landing in Tennessee, he got shipped to Arizona where he quickly ascended to the top of the running back depth chart and put together a red hot close to the season, rushing for 643 yards and 8 touchdowns at a 5.2 yards per carry clip over the 8 games he played for the Cardinals and adding another 171 yards as a pass catcher.

Drake is a particularly intriguing free agent back. He’s got the size to be a feature back at 6’-1” and 211 pounds, but he’s never really been asked to handle that kind of load over a full season at the NFL level. In Miami, Drake split carries with Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams, and Frank Gore, never tallying more than 133 totes in a single season. The Cardinals more than doubled his workload and he responded with his best stretch of play as a pro. Drake also brings a dynamic threat in the passing game, contributing 822 yards and 5 touchdowns through the air over the past two years combined.

His Spotrac market value contract projection of four years, $22.3 million (a $5.5M AAV) seems like a bargain, but my guess is that he ends up fetching more than that as a 26-year old versatile back with a 4.8 yards per carry career average.

Mid Level: Jordan Howard

There is nothing exciting about Jordan Howard, and his career has steadily regressed since a Pro Bowl debut as a rookie in 2016, but he’s the definition of a replacement level back. Truly a two down plodder, Howard has averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry during his time in Chicago and Philadelphia. He doesn’t do much of anything for you in the passing game and spent much of 2019 banged up with a shoulder injury so I wouldn’t expect for him to get big money on the open market.

That being said, he’s a solid veteran back that’s still in the prime of his career at 25 years old. The Titans could do a lot worse than pairing Howard with a rookie if they choose not to re-sign Henry.

Rookie: D’Andre Swift

This is a very nice running back draft coming up and I think there is a good chance that the Titans end up selecting one of them before the weekend is over. How high of a pick they use will largely depend on which veteran they give a contract to between now and then.

Swift is the guy that rates as the best of the class in my opinion and if the Titans decide to bring someone like Hyde in, they might choose to spend the 29th overall pick on the best running back in the draft. He excelled on outside zone runs in college and would be a natural fit for the Titans offense, adding a dynamic third down skill set as well. Swift is a plug and play starter for his entire rookie contract.

Other Options: Melvin Gordon, Lamar Miller, Damien Williams, Carlos Hyde, DeAndre Washington, Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire.


If the Titans don’t re-sign Jack Conklin...

High End: Bryan Bulaga

The 10-year veteran has been protecting Aaron Rodgers for a decade and is among the most consistent right tackles in the game. It’s actually uncanny how similar Bulaga is to Conklin when it comes to their 2019 PFF grades. Conklin and Bulaga ranked 12th and 13th among qualifying tackles with the Titans right tackle grading out slightly better in the run game and the Packers veteran checking in as the slightly better pass protector.

At 31 years old, Bulaga is unlikely to command the contract that the 25 year old Conklin will so if the Titans are looking for savings and Bulaga hits the market, he could be a suitable alternative. Spotrac projects a Bulaga deal to land around 3 years, $30.4 million ($10.1M AAV) which is almost $5 million per year less than Conklin’s projected contract.

Given the fact that Bulaga is coming off a year where he had success blocking in Matt LaFleur’s outside zone based offense in Green Bay, it doesn’t require a lot of projection to see how he would fare in the Titans attack. In fact, the terminology that LaFleur used with the Packers is likely identical to the language that Arthur Smith carried over when he took over for LaFleur in 2019.

Mid Level: Dennis Kelly

I don’t have to tell you much about Kelly. We’ve seen him play well as a backup/swing tackle over the last four years, accumulating 16 starts in place of either Taylor Lewan or Jack Conklin since being acquired via trade.

While I firmly believe the Titans should re-sign Conklin — letting good 25 year old offensive linemen walk is simply bad business — the best argument for not re-signing him is the fact that Kelly has proven he can step in and play at a reasonable level when called upon. He’s not as good as Conklin, but he’s also going to cost a fraction of what the former first round pick would.

Kelly already knows the system and is familiar with his fellow linemates. Pairing the 30-year old veteran with a draft pick would give the Titans a reasonable path forward at the critical right tackle spot.

Rookie: Josh Jones

This is a rare really strong rookie class at offensive tackle with as many as six players qualifying as potential first round picks at the position. The Titans are unlikely to get a chance at taking Jedrick Wills or Tristan Wirfs given where they are projected to go in the draft. Mekhi Becton and Andrew Thomas probably are gone by 29 as well. However, there are still some attractive options at tackle that should fall somewhere between 29 and 61 in Josh Jones, Austin Jackson, Prince Tega Wanogho, and Lucas Niang.

Jones is my favorite of this bunch. I highlighted some of his impressive work at the Senior Bowl here and it seems like his stock is on the rise across the scouting landscape right now. His skill set is ideal for the Titans system.

I’m not crazy about the idea of starting a rookie right tackle next to Nate Davis in 2020 so I’d like to see Kelly retained if the team is planning to draft the right tackle of the future in April.

Other Options: Germain Ifedi, D.J. Humphries, Greg Robinson, Austin Jackson, Prince Tega Wanogho, Lucas Niang.


If the Titans don’t re-sign Logan Ryan...

High End: Chris Harris

I’m generally in favor of the Titans getting younger at corner. With Malcolm Butler (29) getting outside of his prime at a position that doesn’t typically age that gracefully, the next generation of MMCNB needs to be identified and developed.

However, I’d make an exception for Harris. The four time Pro Bowler remains one of the NFL’s best slot corners, even heading into his age 31 season. He allowed just 23 catches on 36 targets for 217 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions over 291 coverage snaps in the slot in 2018 according to PFF charting. In 2019, Vic Fangio moved him almost exclusively outside and he struggled, allowing 47 catches on 68 targets for 672 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception.

You’ve gotta be careful when you go about giving out a contract to an older corner though. Are the Titans sure that his struggles last season were primarily due to playing out of position or were they due to being a 30 year old corner in a league that punishes any drop off in speed? Harris’ projected contract on Spotrac is three years, $33.3 million (11.1M AAV) and that’s a big number and long term to give out for his age. Besides, if the point is to save money by letting Ryan walk, this isn’t really accomplishing that. However, if the Titans feel like he’d be an upgrade, they might decide to pursue something with the long time Bronco.

Mid Level: Kendall Fuller

I get the feeling that Fuller is the type of player that Jon Robinson would love to have. He’s lined up all over the secondary over the last four years for the Redskins and Chiefs, starting at corner, slot corner, and safety at different points in his career.

At just 25 years old, Fuller helps the Titans secondary get younger and he could step right into Logan Ryan’s spot on the field as slot corner is really his best position. The younger brother of former Titans defensive back Vinny Fuller also brings a mature, veteran approach to football that would help him fit in among the Tennessee secondary.

Rookie: Jeff Gladney

If the Chiefs game taught us anything, it’s that the Titans will need to get younger and faster at corner if they want to compete with teams like Kansas City and Houston who love to stretch the field with athletes. Drafting a corner at 29 — even if the team does add a piece like Fuller — would go a long way towards helping the secondary remain a strength for years to come.

Gladney is part of a draft class that should offer some very strong options throughout the first three rounds in Las Vegas. The TCU standout led the Big 12 in passes defensed in 2019 with 14, routinely punishing the few offenses that chose to challenge him.

Other Options: Nickell Robey-Coleman, Mackensie Alexander, Darqueze Dennard, Damon Arnette, Darnay Holmes, Cameron Dantzler, Bryce Hall, Noah Igbinoghene, Troy Pride, Amik Robertson.