16 under the radar players who could provide value for the Titans in free agency

When the NFL’s legal tampering window opens at 3:00 PM CT on Monday, March 15th, all eyes will be on the big names. Where will Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, and Jayon Brown end up? Will the Titans be in the mix for star pass rushers like Yannick Ngakoue, Bud Dupree, or Carl Lawson?

Those questions will certainly be interesting to track and could have a large bearing on the Titans ultimate success or failure on the field this fall, but big dollar signings aren’t always the home runs that they’re celebrated as during the offseason. Here are the top 10 non-quarterback contracts by average annual value that were given out to free agents last offseason:

  1. Byron Jones – $16.5M/yr
  2. Dante Fowler Jr. – $15M/yr
  3. James Bradberry – $14.5M/yr
  4. Robert Quinn – $14M/yr
  5. Trae Waynes – $14M/yr
  6. Jack Conklin – $14M/yr
  7. D.J. Reader – $13.3M/yr
  8. Javon Hargrave – $13M/yr
  9. Jadeveon Clowney – $13M/yr
  10. Kyle Van Noy – $12.8M/yr

Out of that group, I think you can safely say that Conklin and Bradberry were clear successes. I’d probably call Jones a success as well given the impact he had on the Dolphins overall defense, but the other seven? Woof. The three true edge defenders listed here — Fowler, Quinn, and Clowney — combined for five sacks in 2020.

The 2019 list is about the same:

  1. Trey Flowers – $18M/yr
  2. C.J. Mosley – $17M/yr
  3. Za’Darius Smith – $16.5M/yr
  4. Trent Brown – $16.5M/yr
  5. Tyrann Mathieu – $14M/yr
  6. Earl Thomas – $13.8M/yr
  7. Anthony Barr – $13.5M/yr
  8. Kwon Alexander – $13.5M/yr
  9. Le’Veon Bell – $13.1M/yr
  10. Preston Smith – $13M/yr

Smith and Mathieu were smashing successes for their respective teams, but four of these guys have already been released or traded less than two years later and the vast majority have not come close to living up to their contract values.

I’m not pointing this out to dump cold water on the opening of free agency, but I do want to point out that signing the “it” free agent is often a recipe for regret. Just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars… offseason champs every spring, cellar dwellers every fall.

Teams do get better through free agency, but it often comes from value signings. The deals that fans often turn their noses up at when they’re announced. Think Bucs fans were planning their Super Bowl parade when they signed Shaq Barrett to a one-year, $4-million deal in the same offseason that the Lions gave Trey Flowers $56-million guaranteed? Probably not, but one of those guys was a key figure in bringing a Lombardi to Florida just over a month ago.

Since let’s take a look at some guys that I think could be great value signings for the Titans in that second and third wave of free agency after the big names are off the board.

Ryan Kerrigan | EDGE | Washington

Kerrigan has had a massively successful career in Washington, tallying 95.5 sacks in 10 years as a pro. However, he’s unlikely to command a big contract given the fact that he’s going to be 33 years old next season and is coming off back-to-back 5.5-sack seasons.

I won’t suggest that the Titans should sign him as the answer at outside linebacker, but as a situational pass rusher, you could do a lot worse than Kerrigan. His 5.5 sacks in 2020 came on just a 38% snap count as he took a back seat to Washington’s two young first round picks in Chase Young and Montez Sweat. That’s the same number of total sacks that Harold Landry had on a 94% snap rate.

The Titans were rumored to be sniffing around Kerrigan’s availability at the trade deadline so it shouldn’t be surprising if they do pursue him on a cheaper veteran deal to go alongside another signing at outside linebacker. He might like the opportunity to go against his old Boilermaker teammate Dennis Kelly in practice everyday.

Kerrigan doesn’t have a projected contract on either Spotrac or PFF, but I would imagine he’d be a one or two year deal for around $5-7 million per year.

Melvin Ingram | EDGE | Chargers

Ingram, like Kerrigan, is no longer in his prime. He’ll be 32 before the start of next season and had zero sacks in just seven games with the Chargers last fall. However, he was still getting a lot of pressure, tallying 28 total pressures on just 217 pass rush snaps, one of the better rates in the NFL.

Ingram is a guy that the Titans could sign as a bridge to an early draft pick at the outside linebacker position. You probably don’t want him to have to play a full complement of snaps at this point in his career, but I wouldn’t balk at him as a starter with a more dynamic, high upside rookie playing behind him.

I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes and muttering “another Cam Wake” under your breath right now, but I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that the best sack stretch of Harold Landry’s young career came when he had Wake lined up across from him in 2019. Landry had seven sacks in the nine games Wake played with the Titans, a rate of 0.78 sacks per game. In games without Wake since 2019 his sacks per game rate is 0.33, less than half of what he did with Wake across from him.

PFF projects a two-year, $20-million deal for Ingram.

Tyus Bowser | EDGE | Ravens

Okay, here is a guy that I absolutely love. I was in on him coming out of college thanks, in large part, to his absolutely incredible athletic profile.

However, he’s grown into more than just an athlete during his four seasons in Baltimore. Bowser’s role has grown each year, going from 162 snaps in 2017 as a rookie to 178 in 2018 to 398 in 2019 to 582 this past season.

His production has also been on the rise. In 2020 he produced just two sacks in a backup role behind Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue (with some Pernell McPhee mixed in as well), but he racked up 33 total pressures. His pass rush productivity rate ranked 29th among 122 qualifying edge rushers according to PFF.

Bowser also offers tremendous versatility, able to go from rushing the passer to dropping into coverage effortlessly on a snap to snap basis. In addition to creating 33 pressures in 2020, he also impacted the passing game by breaking up five passes and intercepting another three. That kind of skill set would fit beautifully within the scheme that the Titans have wanted to run under Mike Vrabel over the last three years.

He’ll be just 26 years old to start next season and it’s not hard to see him making a leap when given a bigger role wherever he ends up. This is the kind of guy that can pay off big in free agency.

PFF projects a three-year, $21-million deal for Bowser.

Justin Houston | EDGE | Colts

When the Chiefs released Houston just ahead of free agency a couple years ago, he was the guy I was banging on the table for the Titans to sign. He ended up in Indy and put up 19 sacks over two seasons with the Colts.

At 32 years old, he’s back on the market again, and I still think he’s got enough in the tank to be the A part of an A-B rotation at one edge spot. After all, he did just put up nine sacks in 2020, and after injury concerns helped lead him out of KC, he impressively strung together 33 straight starts during his time in Indy.

Like Kerrigan and Ingram, Houston would also provide the Titans defense with some much needed leadership and experience.

PFF projects a two-year, $18-million deal for Houston.

Kendrick Bourne | WR | 49ers

Bourne — like several of the other guys on this list — is someone who simply pops off the screen every time I watched him play in recent years. A former undrafted free agent out of East Washington, Bourne has gone from an intriguing rookie to an important role player for the Niners over the course of the last four years.

He’s relatively average size at 6-1, 203 pounds and he’s not a blazer, but he is a smooth route runner with reliable hands who can operate both outside and in the slot. Coming from a Kyle Shanahan offense, Bourne would also have at least some familiarity with the concepts and language used in Tennessee.

In 2020, he produced a career high 667 yards on 74 targets at a robust 9.0 yards per target rate and converted 35 first downs for San Francisco while playing 63% of offensive snaps. That’s some excellent efficiency and it’s not hard to imagine him being an effective top-three option in a good passing game moving forward.

PFF projects a two-year, $12.5-million deal for Bourne.

Rashard Higgins | WR | Browns

Higgins is a lot like Bourne. He’s an average size (6-1, 198), average speed (4.64 40 at the 2016 combine) type guy, but he’s been productive in an offensive system similar to the one the Titans run. In Cleveland last year, he produced career high numbers with 599 yards and four touchdowns on just 52 targets, making him one of the most effective receivers in the NFL on a per-target basis.

Higgins is never going to be a WR1, but the Titans aren’t in the market for that with A.J. Brown in town. What he can be is a solid third — maybe even second — option in a balanced offense like Tennessee’s.

PFF projects a two-year, $10-million deal for Higgins.

Emmanuel Sanders | WR | Saints

Sanders was released by the cap-strapped Saints after a year in New Orleans. He’ll turn 34 this week so his best days are clearly behind him, but he continued to produce as a solid numbers with 726 yards and five touchdowns on 82 targets.

Sanders’ age is not reflected in his tape, at least not to the extent that you’d expect for a 34 year old. He’s still an incredible route runner — one of the best in the NFL — and has plenty of quickness to create separation. Sanders is also as tough as they get when it comes to being fearless over the middle despite his 5-11, 180 pound frame.

If you’re looking for a receiver who can play some Z as well as some slot for you — like the Titans will be if they can’t re-sign Corey Davis — Sanders is among the best options out there.

There are no contract projections available for Sanders, but he signed a two-year, $16-million deal last year and you’d think his price tag will be lower at age 34 with a reduced salary cap.

David Moore | WR | Seahawks

Moore is a former seventh round pick by the Seahawks who managed to carve out a role as a rotational receiver in Seattle over the last three years. In 2020, he notched 417 yards and six touchdowns on 46 targets while turning in some truly spectacular catches.

Like many Seahawks draft picks, Moore is a SPARQ score freak, reportedly turning in a 4.43 40 time at his pro day despite measuring 6-1, 219 pounds.

Last season, Moore led all receivers who received at least 32 targets in passer rating when targeted at a blistering 142.8. With just four career drops, he also offers reliable hands.

At 26, Moore still offers some upside after playing behind target hogs Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf. He’s one of my favorite value signings available.

PFF projects a two-year, $7.5-million deal for Moore.

Mike Hilton | CB | Steelers

With Malcolm Butler out, the Titans will need to make some additions at corner. While I think they should absolutely have their eyes on a very nice cornerback class in the draft, they probably need a veteran in this room as well.

Since Adoree’ Jackson and Kristian Fulton are both probably better fits outside, it makes some sense for the Titans to target a true slot corner like Hilton, who has played almost exclusively inside during his four years with the Steelers. At 5-9, 184 pounds, he plays far above his weight class, emerging as one of the best blitzing corners in the league with 9.5 career sacks including three last season.

Hilton brings a lot of the same things that Logan Ryan did for the Titans and he is better in man coverage than either Ryan or Desmond King, and at 27, he’s still young enough that age won’t really be a concern on his next contract.

PFF projects a three-year, $12-million deal for Hilton.

Gareon Conley | CB | Texans

Conley is more of an outside corner, but he’s intriguing for several reasons. A former first round pick for the Raiders just four years ago, he’ll be 26 when the 2021 season kicks off and has flashed the talent that made him a top prospect frequently.

Conley is particularly good in man coverage and the Titans are among the heaviest man coverage teams in the league. That alone makes the 6-0, 190 pound corner interesting. His connections with former Titans secondary coach Kerry Coombs (from his college career at Ohio State) and current Titans secondary coach Anthony Midget give Tennessee two solid references to get direct info on Conley’s work habits. Obviously, that street can go both ways, but the Titans should be positioned to know what they’d be buying with Conley more than any other team.

The big question with him is health. Conley missed the entire 2020 season after having complications related to an arthroscopic ankle procedure that he’d had during the offseason. How healthy he is and what that ankle looks like a year later will be scrutinized by any team looking to make an investment. However, if he is healthy and ready to make a full return, Conley could be a massive steal for a team looking for a corner.

PFF projects a one-year, $2.5-million deal for Conley.

Cameron Sutton | CB | Steelers

Yes, another Steelers corner. Local fans are probably familiar with Sutton, who starred at the University of Tennessee not too long ago.

Since being selected in the third round of the 2017 draft, Sutton has served as something of a utility corner for Pittsburgh, playing all over the defense and filling spots when other players went down with injuries. While he never carved out a permanent role with the Steelers, his play has been very good when he’s been on the field and he is widely praised for his study habits that allow him to play all over.

Sutton can play outside or in the slot and at just 26 years old with limited wear and tear over his first four years, he really stands out as a potential bargain at corner. In 2020, he allowed 37 catches on 59 targets (62.7%) for 416 yards while breaking up eight passes, intercepting another, and contributing three forced fumbles.

PFF projects a one-year, $2.75-million deal for Sutton.

Roy Robertson-Harris | DL | Bears

Every time I watch a Bears game, this guy shows up. A former undrafted free agent out of UTEP, Robertson-Harris is a long 6-5, 292 pound defensive lineman who has been stuck behind Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, and Bilal Nichols in Chicago for far too long.

RRH would be an ideal fit as a 5-tech defensive end in the Titans base front, effectively taking over the Jack Crawford role from a year ago while offering a little more upside as a pass rusher. He’s ranked within the top-third of qualifying interior defenders in PFF’s pass rush productivity metric each of the last three seasons. Combine that with flashes like this one and you have my attention as a potential bargain shopping option.

The Titans would still have a need at nose tackle because RRH certainly isn’t that, but he can give you snaps at 5-tech and backup Jeffery Simmons at the 3-tech spot while offering some upside as a soon-to-be 28 year old getting his first real opportunity to start.

PFF projects a three-year, $18-million deal for Robertson-Harris.

Tyson Alualu | DL | Steelers

What a weird career it’s been for the former 10th overall pick by the Jags in the 2010 draft. He toiled in Jacksonville for seven years and was widely considered a massive bust when he signed in Pittsburgh in 2017. Even his first couple years in the Steel City were rough before the light finally clicked on in 2019, his 10th year in the league.

Over the last two years, Alualu has been a dominant run stuffer in the interior of the tough Steelers defense and given enough of a pocket push to make him at least somewhat useful as a pass rusher as well. A sprained MCL that he played through towards the end of 2020 slowed what had been looking like a potential Pro Bowl season for the soon-to-be 34 year old, but he’s otherwise been remarkably healthy for a big guy playing such a violent position on the field.

His age and lack of sack production will limit him to a minimal contract, but if the Titans have to replace DaQuan Jones, this is a great place to start.

PFF projects a one-year, $6-million deal for Alualu.

Eric Wilson | LB | Vikings

The Titans could be looking for a linebacker in free agency if Jayon Brown walks and Wilson would be an interesting option to me. He could platoon with either David Long or Rashaan Evans to handle some of the coverage responsibilities those two are less suited for.

Wilson stuffed the box score in his only full season as a starter in 2020, posting 122 tackles, three sacks, eight pass breakups, and three interceptions. Impressive numbers from the 26 year old, even if the tackle totals are misleading with regards to his chops as a run defender.

Wilson would be a premium nickel linebacker for passing downs and could help mitigate some of the concerns with the Titans current starting duo inside.

PFF projects a two-year, $6-million deal for Wilson.

Kevin Pierre-Louis | LB | Washington

Like Wilson, Pierre-Louis is an athletic linebacker who has spent much of his career as a backup and special teams contributor. However, he finally got a chance at a significant role on defense in 2020 and he showed some real ability as a nickel linebacker in coverage.

Playing 48% of defensive snaps for Washington last season, Pierre-Louis contributed 56 tackles, a pair of pass breakups, and a forced fumble during his action on defense and received the fifth highest coverage grade of any inside linebacker from PFF.

At 29 years old, he’s probably not a potential full-time starter on a good defense, but like Wilson, he could certainly offer a platoon role to help hide some of the weaknesses of Evans and Long while also contributing on special teams.

PFF projects a one-year, $2-million deal for Pierre-Louis.

Richard Rodgers | TE | Eagles

Part of the reason that I’ve been so adamant that the Titans should bring back Jonnu Smith is the selection of replacement options on the market. You have one-dimensional pass catchers like Gerald Everett and Jared Cook out there, but neither of those guys are interested in being an inline blocker, something the Titans require of their starting tight end frequently. You also have one-dimensional blockers like veteran Marcedes Lewis, but his best pass catching days are behind him. Kyle Rudolph is a name that makes some sense, but again, he’s been on the decline in recent years and is not the blocker you’d expect him to be at 6-6, 265 pounds.

Rodgers isn’t a Jonnu replacement by any stretch of the imagination, but he is an adequate blocker, has starting experience, and is coming off a big time bounce back season as one of the very few bright spots in a horrid Eagles offense. He tallied 345 yards and two touchdowns on 31 targets in 2020 and would come at a fraction of the cost of the guys listed above (besides maybe Lewis).

At 29 years old with plenty of injuries in his past, Rodgers is nothing more than a bridge to a young tight end of the future, but he could provide some short term value for the Titans on a cheap deal.

PFF projects a two-year, $3.5-million deal for Rodgers.

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