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How should the Titans handle Jack Conklin’s upcoming free agency?

There are a few ways Jon Robinson could play this as teams line up to pay big bucks to the 25-year old right tackle.

NFL: OCT 27 Buccaneers at Titans Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There has been plenty of talk about Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry this offseason — mostly because both play high profile positions and are coming off Pro Bowl seasons — but right tackle Jack Conklin probably hasn’t been discussed enough given his pedigree as a former top ten pick, his importance to the team, and the reported line of suitors that has formed for his services if he does hit free agency.

To some degree, Jack Conklin has been a victim of his own success among Titans fans. When you get named First-Team All-Pro as a rookie, you set the expectations of the fan base pretty high. Based on his debut, it wouldn’t have been crazy to expect that he might be the best right tackle in the NFL by this point in his career.

Four years in, he’s not that. I think pretty much any analyst that studies offensive line play — there aren’t many — would have Lane Johnson (Eagles), Mitchell Schwartz (Chiefs), and Ryan Ramczyk (Saints) as the top three in some order. However, Conklin enters the conversation shortly after those three. I’d lump him into a class with Bryan Bulaga (Packers), Orlando Brown (Ravens), Trent Brown (Raiders), La’el Collins (Cowboys) and Mike McGlinchey (49ers) to make up spots four through nine. Your mileage may vary based on preference when it comes to the order of those six, but he’s in that group.

Conklin, even by the harshest standards, certainly qualifies as a top ten player at his position in the NFL right now — a position that is extremely difficult to fill — and at just 25 years old, he’s about to enter his prime. That’s a formula for a big payday and it sounds like the former 8th overall pick is going to get it.

Reports are beginning to trickle in from Indianapolis (where rampant tampering definitely isn’t happening wink wink) that Conklin has a chance to leap frog Lane Johnson’s recently signed contract and become the highest paid offensive lineman in the league when he hits free agency, putting him north of $18 million per year in average value.

So what should the Titans do with their right tackle’s contract situation over the next couple weeks? I think there are three options in play here.

Pay Him

Look, I get that $18 million a year is a tough pill to swallow for Conklin. He’s mostly been a good, but not elite right tackle during his four years in Tennessee and he’s not as good a player as his counterpart Taylor Lewan, who is getting paid $15 million a year on the extension he just signed less than 20 months ago.

It’s also hard to invest $18 million a year in your right tackle when your left tackle makes $15 million, your left guard makes $11 million, and your center makes almost $7 million. Combined, that would be almost a quarter of the 2020 salary cap tied up in four players within the same unit.

BUT... there is an argument to be made for swallowing hard, understanding that it’s an overpay, and still doing it if you’re the Titans.

First, we know that Conklin is A) a top ten player at his position and B) a fit for the Titans offense as it is currently constituted. That offense blew away expectations down the stretch in 2019, finishing the year as a top ten unit in the league (top five if you isolate just the Tannehill games). Bringing that group back intact should be priority number one for the team this offseason.

There is little doubt as to whether the Titans could bring back Tannehill, Henry, and Conklin if they wanted to. Tennessee can clear up to $66 million in 2020 cap space with relative ease if needed, which is more than enough to fit their top three free agents into.

That’s especially true when you consider how the team has backloaded contracts in recent years and how they might be even more incentivized to do that this offseason with a new CBA appearing to be imminent. In recent years, the Titans, like many teams, have made a habit of suppressing the first year cap hit for free agent signings in order to take advantage of the rollover cap rule (I explained how this works here in the “Can they afford all their own guys?” section) and the fact that the salary cap rises every year.

If the new CBA is ratified, it would increase the percentage of the NFL’s revenue that goes to the players, add two additional playoff games per year, and give the league the option to add a 17th regular season game along with an additional bump to the players’ share of the revenue. Then you throw in new TV rights contracts for the league as soon as this offseason, but definitely in place by 2022 and you have a formula for some big spikes in the salary cap over the next two years.

So getting back to Jack Conklin... yes, $18 million a year sounds like a lot for him right now, but it’s not likely to be a crippling number in 2021 or 2022 with the cap set to skyrocket. In fact, chances are that Conklin’s deal won’t look that bad by the 2022 offseason, just like Lewan’s deal — which set a record for offensive linemen at the time — looks like an absolute bargain less than two years later.

The other argument against re-signing Conklin that I see frequently is that fans would rather use that money to spend on a pass rusher. To some degree, I can understand that argument. The last image that we saw of the Titans was a team that struggled to get pressure on Patrick Mahomes. The pass rush has been a problem for at least two years now and people want it fixed.

However, there are some reasons to believe that the money might be better spent on Conklin than chasing the pass rusher of your choice in free agency.

For one, offensive lineman age better than most positions in the NFL, including pass rushers.

Aging curve for tackles in the NFL.

Conklin, at just 25 years old, is just now entering his peak. If he signs a five or six year contract this offseason, that will cover what should be his three best years of his career as well as two or three years at or near his current level of play. The odds of him hitting a wall during that deal are very small, though admittedly, the knee injuries could shorten his window relative to his peers if they continue to give him trouble.

If you take Conklin’s money and invest it in Jadeveon Clowney, for example, you’re getting a player who is two years older, has similar — if not worse — injury history, and plays a position that more heavily relies on elite athleticism which can be hard to maintain into your late 20’s.

Then you have the evidence that pass blocking matters more than pass rushing. It’s fair to point out that Conklin’s truly elite skill is his run blocking, but it’s not like he’s a slouch in pass protection. Over 1,905 pass block snaps since 2016, Conklin has allowed just 12 sacks by PFF charting. For some perspective, Falcons first round pick Kaleb McGary allowed 13 sacks in his rookie season this year.

Conklin is, at worst, above average when it comes to pass pro and you get the added benefit of his mauling presence in the run game. The Titans averaged 5.61 Adjusted Line Yards per carry when running around the right end in 2019 per Football Outsiders, the highest average of any run direction for the team. For a team that wants to run the football, that’s valuable.

Then you have the question of how to replace him if he’s not back. Dennis Kelly is the obvious choice from a veteran standpoint. He’s a guy who knows the offense, fits with the team, and has played well enough in spot duty to make you confident that right tackle won’t turn into a disaster in 2020. Kelly is a clear downgrade, but he gives you a floor. However, he’s also going to be a free agent, and if Conklin is set to get $18 million a year, Kelly might not be quite as cheap as some may think.

This isn’t necessarily a fair comparison since Kelly has played both left and right tackle during his time here and coming off the bench isn’t the same as being a full time starter, but Kelly’s sack per pass pro snap rate is 1.02% since coming to the Titans in 2016. Conklin’s is 0.63% over the same time period per PFF charting. That means that Kelly allows sacks over 1.6 times as often as Conklin does.

Kelly is 30 years old so re-signing him likely requires a near immediate investment in the position via the draft. It’s an excellent draft for tackles, but it’s top heavy. We know that Jedrick Wills, Tristan Wirfs, and Mekhi Becton are likely to go in the top ten picks. There is a good chance that Andrew Thomas is long gone before pick 29 as well. So the Titans are far more likely to be shopping in the Josh Jones-Austin Jackson-Isaiah Wilson-Lucas Niang-Prince Tega Wanogho-Ezra Cleveland-Matt Peart tier. Could one of those guys turn out to be great for this offense? Sure, but offensive line prospects are far from sure things, even in a good class.

The chances of a tackle that you pick at 29 stepping in and immediately being as good or better than Jack Conklin was in 2019 is slim to none so passing on Conklin means virtually guaranteeing a downgrade on the offensive line for next season. It also means that you’re investing a high draft pick in a right tackle to try and plug a hole rather than drafting someone who can help the 2020 Titans be better than the team that fell short in the AFC Championship last year.

Let Him Walk

Obviously, the flip side here is that you let Conklin walk, re-sign Kelly for roughly a third of the price and then draft a long term option in the early rounds. This option gives you plenty of cap flexibility to sign a quarterback, bring back Derrick Henry, and maybe even retain Logan Ryan while also chasing an edge rusher of your choosing.

The bet here is that your upgrade at pass rusher going from Cameron Wake/Kamalei Correa to whoever you can find on the open market helps you more than your downgrade going from Conklin to Kelly hurts you. If you take the sack rate allowed by Conklin and Kelly noted above and extrapolate it out over a 16 game season, the Titans would theoretically give up just over 2 extra sacks per season by going from Conklin to Kelly. Wake and Correa combined for 7.5 sacks last year so you’d need your replacement for those two to net at least 9.5 sacks in 2020 to make it a wash (and that’s if you believe that sacks allowed and sacks made are worth the same amount for both the offense and the defense, but that’s an argument for another day).

Among the pass rushers expected to hit the market, Matthew Judon (9.5), Mario Addison (9.5), Markus Golden (10), Bud Dupree (11.5), Dante Fowler (11.5), Robert Quinn (11.5), and Shaquil Barrett (19.5) hit that number last season. High priced guys like Yannick Ngakoue (8) and Jadeveon Clowney (3) fell short. Among the six that did clear this semi-arbitrary threshold, just three are expected to actually reach free agency without getting franchise tagged (Golden, Quinn, and Addison). The tag and trade scenarios are certainly available for guys like Fowler, Judon, and Ngakoue, but now you’re throwing draft capital at the problem in addition to a massive chunk of cap space.

All that being said, if you were to take the $18 million that would have gone to Conklin and split it between Dennis Kelly and a pass rusher that ends up producing 10-plus sacks next year, you’re probably a better football team in 2020, right?

The downside to using the extra space to sign a big name pass rusher is that you likely cancel out the 2021 third round compensatory pick that you would have gotten for Conklin. You could still theoretically net out on the positive side of the formula they use to calculate those “bonus” picks, but the valuable third rounder is almost certainly out the window. However, if you settle for a guy that isn’t quite in the Ngakoue/Clowney tier — maybe a Robert Quinn or a Jason Pierre-Paul — and Marcus Mariota gets good money elsewhere, maybe those contracts cancel out and give you a third back for Conklin. However, that’s a big if and you certainly shouldn’t bank on that being the case.

Tag and Trade

That brings us to our third, and possibly most intriguing scenario... the tag and trade. There have been a few examples of tag and trades working out over the last couple years with Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, and Frank Clark all being moved in deals after getting hit with the franchise tag. Here are how those deals played out:

  • Houston traded Clowney (and paid $7M of his 2019 salary) for a third round pick, Jacob Martin, and Barkevious Mingo.
  • Kansas City traded Ford for a 2020 second round pick.
  • Seattle traded Clark for 2019 first round pick, a 2020 second round pick, and a swap of third round picks in 2019.

If Conklin’s market is as hot as it’s reported to be, it certainly stands to reason that he’d be valuable enough to coax a team into parting with some draft capital to secure his services and exclusive rights to negotiate a long term deal. I don’t expect them to get anywhere near the return that Clark fetched (while their Super Bowl rings certainly don’t care, that still seems like a massive overpay), but if the Titans could get a 2019 third round pick or a 2020 second round pick, I would imagine that would be worth the trouble of using the tag and holding the $16 million cap hit that comes with it on the books for a few days.

There are three reasons that this might not be possible though. First, the team would need to have it’s ducks in a row with regards to both the quarterback position and Derrick Henry prior to the franchise tag deadline of March 12th. You certainly wouldn’t want to risk losing Tannehill or Henry just to take a pass at trading Conklin.

Second, there has to be a market for Conklin that would give up significant value to get him. Remember, it’s not like the team trading for him is getting a great deal on the contract. They’d be getting him for $16 million in year one and would have to negotiate a very expensive extension with him right away. That’s what makes this different from the Laremy Tunsil situation. The Texans gave up two firsts for Tunsil, in part, because they had two years of control with him having the fourth year of his rookie contract and the fifth year option (the other part is that they had a head coach pretending to be a GM).

The third reason is that the $16 million cap hold hits the books as soon as the Titans use the tag. That means that the team would immediately be down to about $32 million in cap space for 2020 on March 12th, assuming that they hadn’t already made cuts to clear more room. That would be cutting it extremely close to get deals done for Tannehill and Henry, much less adding additional talent like a big time pass rusher.

They could certainly work things out if they had buy in from another team quickly, but it would probably need to happen in that March 12th-18th window. This is a great result if the team could make it work. An extra top 100 pick in either this year’s draft or the next would help offset the opportunity cost that drafting a tackle to replace Conklin would create.

I still lean towards the idea of the team doing everything they can to work out long term deals with Tannehill, Henry, and Conklin to keep the core of this offense intact for years to come. If that means the Titans can’t add an impact pass rusher or retain Logan Ryan, so be it. Address those positions early in the draft (the odds of a pass rusher or corner being good right away is significantly higher than the odds of a tackle being good right away).

However, the tag and trade option isn’t a terrible idea either. This is a fascinating offseason because there are viable arguments to be made on both sides of pretty much every decision that faces Jon Robinson and each of those choices he has to make are absolutely critical to the future success of this franchise. To call this a pivotal offseason is somehow underselling it.

How would you handle the Jack Conklin situation if you were Jon Robinson?