Seeing the news “Jurrell Casey traded for a 7th round pick” scroll across a TV screen is jarring. Titans fans have enjoyed watching the oddy-body defensive tackle wreck opposing offenses for nine seasons now, and then suddenly with one Dianna Russini tweet, he’s gone.
Fans who were still licking their wounds from the release of Delanie Walker less than a week ago were understandably shocked and saddened to see Case follow him out the door. For about 4 or 5 years in a row those two were the best offensive and defensive player on the roster. If it wasn’t clear before, it is now... this is a brand new era of Tennessee Titans football.
So let’s get into the trade, what it might mean, how much cap space Jon Robinson now has, and a few other notes from another busy day of NFL news.
Why the heck did the Titans trade Jurrell Casey for a 7th round pick?
It’s simple really... this was a pure salary dump. The Titans wanted to clear space for something — don’t worry, we will recklessly speculate about that in a moment — and sending their 30 year old defensive tackle packing for the mountains was the best way to clear lots of money.
From a team standpoint, once you take the emotion out of the equation, you can see some of the logic behind the move. Casey isn’t washed by any means, but he did post his lowest totals since 2012 in the following categories last year: sacks (5), tackles for loss (5), tackles (44), and QB hits (10). Those are perfectly adequate numbers for an interior defensive lineman, but they aren’t what we were used to seeing from Casey during his peak.
The Titans already have his replacement on the roster as well and that informs some of the thinking behind this decision. Yes, Jeffery Simmons did play alongside Casey effectively last year, but his best position is the 3-technique spot that 99 had held down for years here. Lining up between the guard and tackle makes it a tougher position to double team and gives the defensive lineman more freedom to attack upfield since he’s almost always responsible for just the B gap in the run game when lined up there. Despite having played as a nose tackle in college and then mostly working as a 4-tech or 5-tech end for the Titans last year, Simmons’ blend of power and quickness make him an ideal 3-tech and this move will put him in that role moving forward.
The Titans didn’t make the trade just to free up Simmons to take that spot though, they also cleared up almost $10.2 million in 2020 cap space plus more than $12 million from the ledger in both 2021 and 2022. The Broncos got a discount on the compensation in return for taking on the entire contract and not asking the Titans to pay part of it, making it clear — if it wasn’t already — that this was cap space motivated on Tennessee’s end of things.
Is it disappointing that they couldn’t get a better draft pick in return? Sure, but when you consider that Calais Campbell — objectively a better interior defender than Casey — netted just a 5th round pick from the Ravens in a similar salary dump trade earlier in the week, it seems to stand that this is simply what the market bore for his services. Focusing on the pick is missing the point though. This was about the cap space.
For all the “Patriots of the South” talk from the national media, Jon Robinson hasn’t always behaved similar to Bill Belichick when it comes to contracts and personnel moves. He’s been more willing to spend in free agency (maybe, in part, out of necessity created by the horrific roster he inherited) and has held onto his older guys a year too long in some cases. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan jump to mind, and as much as it pains me to say it, Delanie Walker’s latest extension was a bust from the Titans perspective. However, this move feels like a vintage Belichick “get rid of a guy a year too early instead of a year too late” type of move by Robinson.
Still, this hurts for Titans fans to see. Casey was the best player on some bad defenses in Tennessee and his leadership is a big part of the reason that this team turned the corner. He was a good example both on and off the field, becoming the first player of the Titans era of the franchise to make four Pro Bowl appearances and also getting selected as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year twice during his nine years in Nashville.
Even if he wasn’t a game wrecking force anymore, I don’t think anyone really expected that the end to come this suddenly for Casey in Tennessee. However, that’s the business of football. Players come and players go. Casey, like Walker, will always be fondly remembered here and I hope his example continues to be carried forward by the young players in the locker room that got to work with one of the best to ever do it in a Titans uniform.
How much cap space do the Titans have now?
We did get an exact breakdown of Dennis Kelly’s new contract courtesy of Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle and its even more team friendly than I initially thought:
Dennis Kelly (Titans), three years, $17.25M, $8.75M gtd, $4.75M signing bonus; salaries $1.5M (gtd), $4.5M ($2.5M gtd for inj at signing, skill-cap if on roster 5th day 2021; $5M; annual per game roster bonus up to $400:, $750K incentive 2021-22; $1M base escalator 2021-22— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) March 19, 2020
Dennis Kelly’s 2020 cap hit? Just $3.08 million. The team also has flexibility to bail on the deal after this first year if they find a young tackle they like better or if it just doesn’t work out for whatever reason.
That leaves Tennessee with $25.2 million in available cap space based on my calculations with the help of Spotrac after factoring in all current signings and trades as well as removing the cap space that needs to be set aside for the rookie draft class.
Who gets that money that they just freed up?
Even if you think Casey was beginning to decline, you don’t make this deal unless you have someone else you’re planning on spending the cap space on. The Titans aren’t in rebuild mode, they’re trying to win now. Moving Casey off the roster doesn’t help that cause unless it allows you to bring in someone you think can help the team more.
The obvious name is Jadeveon Clowney. His connection with Vrabel made Tennessee one of the popular destinations for him before free agency opened, then the Vic Beasley signing cooled that idea a bit, but Casey’s trade has reopened this possibility.
When considering Clowney, you can’t look at him as an edge rusher. He’s not a traditional edge rusher, though he can have success out there.
Double team rate as an edge rusher (x) by pass rush win rate as an edge rusher (y) in 2019 for players who were in the last season of their contract.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) March 6, 2020
Lower qualifying threshold than usual to get a few more players in. pic.twitter.com/xH1SZc72CM
In the Titans defense you could see him used as an edge setter on early downs — he’s an outstanding run defender — before bumping inside to rush against guards and centers on passing downs with Vic Beasley taking his spot outside. You could also see him get some snaps as a 4-tech or 5-tech defensive end as part of a three man front with DaQuan Jones and Jeffery Simmons in a 3-4 base set. He’s unorthodox for that role, but he has enough size/power to hold up there if needed.
A pass rush front of Harold Landry, Jeffery Simmons, Jadeveon Clowney, and Vic Beasley would present some major problems for opposing offenses.
There are some major concerns with Clowney, of course. The injury issues and the fact that he’s never broken through with a double digit sack season are the biggest two, but there is an argument for Clowney here that makes some sense. His best season as a pro was 2017 when Vrabel was the Texans defensive coordinator. Not a lot went right that year for Houston, but Vrabel unlocked Clowney.
The rumors are that he was looking for $20 million or more per year at the outset of free agency, but has been disappointed with the market he’s seen to this point and may be willing to take a short term deal to get back to free agency quickly.
As Jadeveon Clowney continues to wait, I'm told he's considering options, including a potential shorter term deal w/ a chance to re-enter market in a year or two. Many people around league expect him back in Seattle. A $20M price tag has been steep for teams, per @diannaESPN— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) March 19, 2020
A short term makes some sense from the team’s standpoint. Clowney is talented — that’s never been in question — but he’s also dealt with a ton of injuries during his career, including a core muscle injury that required surgery to repair after last season ended. He’s played through a lot of these injuries, missing just six games total over the past four years, but a short term deal could protect the team against a major injury taking him down for good and leaving the Titans on the hook for a bunch of guaranteed money for years to come.
On the other hand, a short term deal hurts the flexibility of the contract structure from a cap management perspective. If the Titans were to sign Clowney for four years, $75 million for example, he’d likely carry a 2020 cap charge of about $13 million, leaving the Titans with another $12.2 million left over to work in some smaller depth contracts before the draft. However, a one year, $18 million deal is obviously an $18 million cap charge in 2020. Leaving the Titans much tighter against the cap.
If it’s not Clowney that they’re clearing money for, who else could it be? Maybe it’s Logan Ryan plus Markus Golden, two guys that are mid-level type free agents that could likely be had for something in that $8 to $12 million range per year. Maybe they replace Casey with someone like Shelby Harris or grab a younger Ryan replacement like Ronald Darby or Mackensie Alexander.
None of those options are very eye catching, but there are some big fish on the trade market that the Titans could be investigating. The most intriguing is Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones. The 25-year old Super Bowl champion has turned into the league’s most dominant young defensive lineman, compiling 31 sacks over the last three seasons. He’s a ridiculously long freak of nature type interior presence that would pair with his fellow Mississippi State Bulldog Jeffery Simmons to give the Titans the best defensive tackle combination in the NFL.
Jones would be incredibly expensive though. Currently on the franchise tag for the Chiefs, the Titans would need to work out compensation for both a long term deal with Jones and what the Chiefs would need back to part with their star pass rusher. I think the price tag starts at a first round pick. Kansas City gave up a first for Frank Clark in a similar situation last year and Jones is a better player. Then you’re going to have to turn around and give Jones something like a five year, $110 million contract on top of that. That’s a massive investment, but if anyone is worth it on the market right now, it’s Jones.
The Titans could also target other franchise tagged players like Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, or Bud Dupree. However, I don’t think I’d part with a first round pick for any of those guys, and if you were going to make that move, why sign Beasley?
I have also seen some people suggesting that the Titans traded Casey so they could pay Henry and that’s simply not true. They could have paid Henry and kept Casey with ease. Henry’s franchise tag number of $10.2 million is currently factored into the salary numbers above and a long term contract — if they are able to reach one over the next few months — will likely carry a similar or lower cap charge for the 2020 season than the one he’s currently holding.
So I think there are three realistic scenarios for how the Titans will spend this money:
- Clowney + depth signings
- Trade for Chris Jones + depth signings
- Combo of corner + defensive lineman + depth signings
Maybe there is another surprise trade coming that’s not on anyone’s radar yet, but I think those three are the most likely options at this moment.
A changing of the guard in Titans leadership
The Titans elected five captains at the start of the 2019 season: Marcus Mariota, Kevin Byard, Ben Jones, Wesley Woodyard, and Jurrell Casey. Two of those five play in the AFC West now and one — Woodyard — is currently a free agent. Throw in Walker and possibly Logan Ryan, and you have a handful of the teams most outspoken long-standing leaders possibly leaving the locker room this offseason.
So who fills the void? Obviously you’d expect the team’s new highly paid quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, to take a big leadership role moving forward. He has experience and the security of a big contract behind him, and by all reports, he stepped up as a leader immediately upon being elevated to the starting role last year.
Derrick Henry — surprisingly — became the most vocal leader on the team towards the end of last season, often being seen breaking down the team after games. Mike Vrabel has frequently praised his growth as a leader during this offseason as well.
Kevin Byard has already stepped up as a leader on defense and there is no mistaking it now... this is his unit. Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Butler will carry a lot of weight in the locker room given their experience and standing on the team as well, but the Titans will need young guys like Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, and Harold Landry to step up on what has become a very youthful defense.
If I’m guessing at 2020 captains for the Titans today, I’ll put my money on Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Ben Jones, Kevin Byard, and a special teamer to be named later (likely Wesley Woodyard or Daren Bates if one of them is re-signed).
Things are certainly going to look different in 2020 and beyond for this team, but there are still some strong personalities in place to help build on what Casey and his crew started.
Where are the current holes in the Titans roster and how can they be filled?
These are the roles that stand out as currently being in question for the Titans as things stand today:
- Backup QB
- RB2/Third Down Back
- Blocking TE
- Swing Tackle
- 4-Tech/5-Tech DL
- Slot Corner
The Titans could also use some more depth at various spots across the roster, but those are the seven most important holes as things stand at the moment.
The Titans currently have Ryan Tannehill and Logan Woodside as the only quarterbacks on the roster. At least one more will be added between now and camp. My guess is that QB comes through the later rounds of the draft to compete with Woodside for the backup job, but it wouldn’t totally shock me if a cheap veteran were brought in as well. Guys like Colt McCoy, Brett Hundley, or Trevor Siemian are viable options.
RB2/Third Down Back
The current RB2 on the roster is Dalyn Dawkins. No disrespect to Dawkins, who I love watching run, but that’s not going to be the case when the season kicks off. The Titans will be looking to spend very little money here with Derrick Henry’s cost being so high. There are veterans like Devonta Freeman, Chris Thompson, and Theo Riddick that could make some sense, but again, the most likely source for this spot feels like the draft. There is a strong running back class coming in and it’s not crazy to think you could find a suitable RB2 as late as round five.
Tajae Sharpe could end up being re-signed to fill this role, but I still think he ends up getting more money/opportunity elsewhere. If that happens, this is another spot that you can draft with a historically great wide receiver class incoming. Finding a potential replacement for Corey Davis in case he leaves after next season would be a bonus.
MyCole Pruitt’s role could be filled by MyCole Pruitt himself (I think that ends up happening), but if he finds a better deal elsewhere, the Titans should find a veteran who can step in. Maybe a Geoff Swaim or Lance Kendricks. Not exciting, but relying on a rookie tight end to fill a blocking role is asking for disaster.
This is almost certainly a draft pick. With Jack Conklin moving on and Dennis Kelly stepping up from his backup role to the starting right tackle spot, Tennessee needs to fill in behind their starters. It makes sense to draft one from a rare strong class of tackles to groom behind Kelly for a year or two before they’re ready to take over.
The Titans used Jeff Simmons in this role last year in their base defense, but with him almost certainly kicking over to the 3-technique that Jurrell Casey occupied, they’ll need to fill his spot. The roster has a few options that could be considered. Matt Dickerson and Amani Bledsoe both have the frame to fill this role, but neither has shown enough to be handed a starting job without competition. Joey Ivie and Isaiah Mack lack the length you’d want in this spot. Derek Wolfe is a guy that makes a ton of sense for this role. He’s played it at a high level in Denver for years, and at 30, he can probably be signed for a relatively cheap deal.
The Logan Ryan role could still be filled by Logan Ryan as he remains unsigned at the moment. However, if the team ends up moving on, they do have an in-house replacement option available in Amani Hooker. Hooker played as their third safety last season, but really excelled in a slot corner role at Iowa during the 2018 season, posting the highest slot coverage grade for PFF since 2016. It is unclear whether the Titans view him as a slot corner at the NFL level, but it’s possible they could make that move with him. There are a few options remaining in free agency (I mentioned a couple above), but the draft is also loaded with corners, including my personal favorite slot corner option Amik Robertson.