The Titans say that they aren’t panicking after a 31-20 loss to the Bengals on Sunday, but the urgency to do something about their very clear deficiencies should certainly be racheted up after Cincinnati. Eight weeks and seven games into the 2020 season, the Tennessee defense continues to flounder, particularly on third-downs, and there are no real signs of improvement being just around the corner.
To be very clear… at 5-2 and sporting a top-five offense, the Titans are still very much a contender. They are capable of beating any team any given week, but the defense is leaving Ryan Tannehill and company very little wiggle room right now.
So how do you fix a flailing defense that seems to turn every opponent into the early-90’s 49ers every third down?
Well, there is no one move that fixes everything. Right now, the Titans can’t cover, they can’t rush the passer, and they’re very inconsistent at stopping the run. There is no single player or coaching move that’s going to make all of that go away.
However, they don’t need to become the ’85 Bears to have a successful season. They just need to become average. You can win with a top-five offense and an average defense.
When (if) Adoree’ Jackson returns from the knee injury that has held him out of the first seven games, that will be a huge boost. Jackson is not only the Titans best corner, but he’s their best athlete in the back end of the defense. His return should also remove Tennessee’s biggest liability — Johnathan Joseph — from the starting lineup.
That’s great, and it should help tremendously, but let’s not pretend like it fixes the problem entirely. Tennessee will still be relying on seventh-round rookie Chris Jackson in the slot (unless they move Joseph inside which seems unlikely) until Kristian Fulton returns from his own injury. That’s not ideal. Neither is being one injury away from being right back in this nightmare.
Fixing the cornerback problem is not going to make all the others go away, but it does offer the potential for a ripple effect throughout the defense. With a set of corners who can be relied on, the defensive playbook opens up considerably and quarterbacks holding the ball for a split second longer should turn some of the pressures that Harold Landry and Jadeveon Clowney are racking up into sacks (yes, they have to do a better job of finishing as well).
If there was ever a year for Jon Robinson to break his tendencies and become a trade deadline buyer, it’s this year. The Titans are 5-2, tied for the division lead, and have extra draft capital coming in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Jack Conklin’s departure in free agency is expected to net Tennessee a 3rd round compensatory pick and the team already has two extra 6th round picks thanks to previous deals. They are in a spot where they can afford to make a deal from a draft pick standpoint.
Where things get tricky will be figuring out how to make things work with the salary cap. The Titans officially have roughly $7.5-million to work with for the 2020 season.
Given that they will only be on the hook for a prorated portion of a player’s salary (not total cap hit), they will have the ability to fit just about anyone that they want under the cap if they really want to. However, any trade for a big salary would severely damage their ability to retain some of their own talent for 2021 and beyond due to the expected salary cap decrease coming next season.
The balancing act between going for it in 2020 and protecting yourself some sabotaging your near term future is a big part of the backdrop for Jon Robinson’s decision making between now and the 3:00 p.m. CT trade deadline on Tuesday. Here are the cornerbacks that I would be calling about if I was the Titans GM.
William Jackson III | CB | Bengals
Cap Hit if Traded: $5.0-million
The Bengals winning on Sunday doesn’t really change their outlook. They aren’t catching the Steelers in the division and are likely a year or two away from truly competing despite the excellent play from Joe Burrow.
Jackson’s contract expires after this season and he’s reportedly expressed some interest in getting out of Cincinnati. He could be a franchise tag candidate if the Bengals want to keep him in the fold, but trading him for future assets and working to maximize their ability to build around Burrow for the 2021-2024 window of his rookie contract (when Jackson will be 29, 30, 31, and 32) might be in their best interest long term.
He struggled against the Titans on Sunday, pretty regularly getting beat by Corey Davis, but don’t let that fool you. Jackson is a very good cornerback who would help this Tennessee defense tremendously.
That being said, I worry that the cost will be prohibitive on this kind of deal. The Bengals aren’t going to move him for cheap and his cap hit will put a big dent in the Titans rollover money that could be applied to the 2021 cap. I think the probability of this one happening are low.
Brian Poole | CB | Jets
Cap Hit if Traded: $750,000
The Jets make sense as a deadline seller for obvious reasons. They’re 0-8 and will almost certainly be firing their head coach after the season and looking to rebuild again. Selling off useful veterans for picks is smart business for a team in their position.
Poole is one of the better pure slot corners in the NFL. Currently ranked as PFF’s 11th-best cornerback, the 28-year old Poole has been a rare bright spot in the New York secondary for the last two years.
He’s also incredibly cheap, carrying a cap charge of less than a million dollars to whichever team trades for him (thanks to a majority of his one-year, $5-million deal being carried by his $3-million signing bonus).
With Kristian Fulton expected to be out for a few weeks with a knee sprain, the Titans could use some help in the slot. And even when Fulton returns, it would be nice to be able to ease him back in behind a steady veteran.
Poole is a really good player and given his contract status and age, I can’t imagine it would take much to pry him out of New York. A 5th or 6th round pick would probably do it and given the Titans abundance of 6th round picks, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on this one.
Desmond King | CB | Chargers
Cap Hit if Traded: $1.1-million
The Chargers blew yet another lead on Sunday, dropping to 2-5 and likely ending any realistic hope they had of making a playoff push under rookie QB Justin Herbert. Like the Bengals, the Chargers should be all in on maximizing their assets to help Herbert over the next three to four years right now and King is a prime candidate to help with that.
With Adam Schefter reporting that King is, in fact, on the market, this feels like one of the better all around fits for the Titans.
King is young (25), cheap, and has a lot of experience playing in the slot at a high level. In fact, he’s PFF’s highest-graded slot corner in the NFL since 2017. He also provides some special teams value as a punt returner.
It should be pointed out that King had his worst year as a pro in 2019, allowing completions on 87% of passes thrown his way according to PFF, and was effectively benched for Chris Harris Jr. earlier this season. However, even with the recent struggles, I have a hard time believing that King wouldn’t be a significant upgrade over the likes of Chris Jackson and Johnathan Joseph in the Titans secondary.
Stephon Gilmore | CB | Patriots
Cap Hit if Traded: $6.5-million
This is the trade that would be an all-in move for 2020. Gilmore would probably cost a pretty high pick (yes, he’s very expensive and unlikely to be on the Patriots next season, but you don’t trade the reigning Defensive Player of the Year for peanuts) and his contract would take up virtually all of the Titans remaining cap space.
He’s also 30 years old, currently injured, and not playing at the level that he was in 2019. This is a massive risk for the Titans, but it also offers the highest reward. A secondary of Jackson, Butler, and Gilmore can matchup in man coverage with just about anyone, freeing the Titans to get creative in assisting their ailing pass rush.
I think it’s safe to say that Gilmore is definitely available for a trade based on reports as they look to clean up a messy cap situation moving into the post-Brady era. They’re not going to help the Titans with the cap hit part of this.
This would be exciting, but could backfire if Gilmore fails to return to his 2019 form.
Xavien Howard | CB | Dolphins
Cap Hit if Traded: $6.0-million
The Dolphins came out and strongly refuted the initial reports of Howard being made available, but other credible reporters have also confirmed that the team is “listening” on their star corner.
Howard is an interesting option if he is, in fact, available. He’s just 27 years old, under contract through 2024 on a big five-year, $75-million deal he just signed, and is playing the best football of his career in 2020.
This would be a trade that would give the Titans the option to part ways with Malcolm Butler in 2021 and roll with a cornerback trio of Jackson, Howard, and Fulton moving forward.
However, like the Gilmore option, this move comes with considerable risk. The Dolphins are going to want a Godfather offer for an in-his-prime star corner under a reasonable contract and his cap hit takes the Titans rollover money to zero, effectively. Howard also has a history of knee injuries and it’s fair to question how well his body will hold up into his late-20’s.
Kendall Fuller | CB | Football Team
Cap Hit if Traded: $500,000
This is one that I left off my initial list because of the fact that he just signed a four-year, $40-million extension with Washington, but Fuller would be a dream for the Titans. The Football Team clearly isn’t going anywhere in 2020 and probably isn’t going to be ready to compete in 2021 either.
Fuller is flexible, capable of playing both in the slot and out wide as well as taking some snaps at safety from time to time. He’s also under an extremely reasonable contract that is cost-controlled through 2023, but doesn’t knee cap the Titans 2021 rollover money like some of these other options.
He’s been targeted just 17 times in coverage this season allowing 6 catches for 71 yards while grabbing 4 interceptions. Fuller would be a godsend for the Titans secondary.
Bryce Callahan | CB | Broncos
Cap Hit if Traded: $625,000
The Broncos are 3-4 and may have designs on sticking around the playoff race, but if they wanted to pick up some draft assets, Callahan would be a strong candidate. At 29 years old, he’s not a long term piece for Denver, but he’s playing at an extremely high level and is under contract at a decent price $8.7-million in 2021.
Like Fuller, he’s positionally flexible with experience playing both inside and out at corner and he’d be a clear upgrade over what the Titans have available to them right now.