One of the most important events on the NFL’s off-season calendar officially began on Tuesday.
The NFL scouting combine opened its doors on Tuesday morning, with general managers and head coaches kicking off their media rounds in Indianapolis.
The Titans are one of the teams that should have plenty of eyes on a multitude of prospects at the combine. But they also have a few matters of precious business elsewhere that need to be handled as well.
Plenty of uncertainty surrounds the Titans’ off-season plans. But with the help of general manager Jon Robinson — by way of his comments at the combine today — we’re starting to get a bit of an idea on how this off-season might work for the Titans.
So let’s address some of the comments Robinson made, and also ponder seven burning questions that the Titans are facing with on field drills at the combine scheduled to kick off tomorrow.
Will Harold Landry return?
The most polarizing question surrounding the Titans right now — at least within the direct realm of plausible knowledge related to the team — is the contract status of EDGE rusher Harold Landry.
Landry is set to become an unrestricted free agent once the new league years begins later this month, and it’s unclear if he’ll return. Why? Simply because Landry’s market could become too expensive for the Titans.
Let’s not forget, the Titans still have an abundance of roster moves that have yet to be made this off-season. They still need help at tight end, either left tackle or left guard (more on that later), and potentially at center (depending on what the Titans and Ben Jones decide to do regarding a new contract).
To make these moves happen, the team is going to need every last possible dollar, even with the league wide cap figure rebounding. That’s why eating into those dollars by breaking the bank for Landry, seems like more of a risk than a top quality investment.
It would hurt to break up the front four that had so much success this past season. But for the sake of roster building, letting Landry test the free agent waters seems like the best possible move at this time.
Now the Titans could free up an abundance of cap room by making a few moves here and there, most of which you can find in this article posted recently by our own Zach Lyons.
If the team makes even a few of these moves, then you could possibly entertain more conversations about the Titans re-signing Landry to a deal that can equate to the value he should demand on the market.
Or the team could slap the franchise tag on him, pay him a guaranteed $18.5M (the projected franchise tag value for linebackers this off-season), and continue negotiating a long term deal with Landry.
The decision is in the hands of Robinson and the Titans’ organization. Robinson himself mentioned his subtle desire to bring Landry back, saying hopefully they can bring him back on a long term deal while speaking at the combine this afternoon.
Whatever the Titans decide to do with Landry, the fallout is going to be massive one way or another.
Is Zach Cunningham a cap casualty?
One of the potential cap saving moves the Titans can make is shedding the rest of Zach Cunningham’s contract.
Cunningham signed a four year $58M extension with the Houston Texans in 2020, setting the talented linebacker up for future financial security through the 2024 season.
What makes that extension so dangerous though, is the fact that Cunningham’s salary in 2022 — if guaranteed — presents a tough challenge for the Titans’ overall cap situation.
Cunningham’s 2022 salary becomes guaranteed on March 20th. With that figure standing at $10.5M, paying Cunningham’s hefty salary while also trying to add talent at key spots might be a scenario the Titans won’t be too keen on playing out.
However, despite the cash the team could save by moving on from Cunningham, it’s likely the team will hold on to him. He played really well after being ushered into the defense through the month of December, so it makes zero sense to move on from him and potentially miss out on a young, controllable young linebacker asset.
Plus with uncertainty surrounding the position — Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown are free agents, Monty Rice doesn’t have enough experience — it’d be wise to hang on to Cunningham and let him thrive alongside David Long Jr. for the foreseeable future.
What’s the plan for the tight end position?
After Jonnu Smith’s departure last off-season, the Titans transitioned into more of a tight end by committee system.
That meant more snaps for players like Anthony Firkser and Geoff Swaim, but less emphasis on the overall targeted impact for the spot offensively.
However, as we stand a mere few weeks away from the start of free agency — and more than a few weeks away from the draft — it’s clear the Titans will do everything in their power to improve upon the total amount of talent at tight end and erase the disaster of a year the position had in 2021.
The first step to do so is obviously identify what you have, how you want to change it, and who you want to bring in to represent those changes.
What the Titans have at the moment is Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim, MyCole Pruitt, and a random assortment of younger options that don’t move the needle much. Those names don’t bring enough value and talent for a win now team like the Titans, so it’s easy to see why they’re so keen on finding new players to round out the tight end group.
Next, you identify how you want to change the group moving forward. Obviously you’d prefer to add more talent to round out the position. But because the team relies so heavily on their tight ends to do more gritty work than the average tight end, you have to resist the urge to engage in a reckless game of “plug and play” with any available tight end that has a serviceable amount of talent.
Or to put it bluntly, be careful who you fall in love with as an option to help bolster the position.
Finally, you have to identify who you want to bring in. Luckily for the Titans, there seems to be an abundance of names they could bring in, while also maintaining what they want out of the tight end spot.
Players like Dalton Schultz of the Dallas Cowboys, David Njoku of the Cleveland Browns, and C.J. Uzomah of the Cincinnati Bengals fit the mold of what the Titans want from their tight ends.
If the Titans want one of those names, it’s going to cost them a pretty penny. But things like expenses rarely matter when you’re trying to bring in premium talent, while also trying to maximize your window to win.
Even if the team doesn’t want to pay a hefty price to acquire one of the premier tight end talents on the market, cheaper veterans exist on the market as well.
However, if the free agent market doesn’t appeal to the Titans, the draft possesses some intriguing talent at tight end as well.
Trey McBride, Cade Otton, Chig Okonkwo (who has great upside due to his athleticism and build), Greg Dulcich, and Jeremy Ruckert are all realistic names the Titans could select once the draft rolls around.
Throughout the remainder of the off-season, the Titans will have a variety of options at tight end to choose from. The team is going to walk away with at least one or two, since the need for multiple fresh faces exists.
The question is who are they going to settle on? How much money will they pay? And how much draft capital will they allocate towards their tight end reclamation project?
Who’ll round out the depth spots at receiver?
Another hard hitting uncertainty for the Titans lies at receiver, particularly the depth spots behind A.J. Brown and Julio Jones (if the team doesn’t move on from him).
Despite it being put to the test, the Titans still felt comfortable with their receiver depth coming through during the 2021 season. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Chester Rogers, and Marcus Johnson —when he wasn’t hurt — all made respectable contributions when called upon last season.
But the Titans could be set to lose two of the names just mentioned, due to the impending free agencies of both Chester Rogers and Marcus Johnson.
Mike Vrabel and the rest of his staff have spoken highly of both Rogers and Johnson in the past. Which could provide some insight as to whether the team wants to bring them back or not. But the Titans might take their time with the situations of both players, and that’s if they want to bring them back.
Not only because they’re depth receivers whose markets might move slowly once free agency begins. But because the draft is going to provide the organization with some young, and potentially more talented receiving options.
Because players like Chris Olave, Jameson Williams (if he slides due to injury), George Pickens, and even John Metchie could be in play as realistic options for the Titans, the team could be inclined to survey the optics of Rogers and Johnson. As well as the rest of the depth receivers currently on the roster.
Who knows if the team brings back Rogers, Johnson, or even both of them. They certainly could, but there’s reason to believe the Titans are dedicated towards putting the best possible amount of talent around Ryan Tannehill.
If they’re dead-set on doing so, Rogers and Johnson don’t quite live up to the standards this team appears to be ready to set for their personnel at skill positions this off-season
However the team decides to handle the depth receiver situation this off-season, it appears clear that they’re prepared to at least invest in the position with a high draft pick or free agent pickup.
What will the Titans do with Taylor Lewan
One veteran offensive lineman who could be hitting the open market is none other than left tackle Taylor Lewan.
Lewan has struggled with injuries over the last two seasons. He tore his ACL during the team’s fourth game of the season in 2020, and struggled to properly return to his former self last season after he returned from the season ending injury.
With questions looming about his level of play and legit injury concerns, there’s been talk surrounding Lewan and the Titans potentially moving on from him.
Lewan’s still a good left tackle in a league that requires one. He’s still a decent run blocker, and although he’s put some embarrassing pass sets on tape, he’s still a good enough pass protector.
The real problem lies within his salary. If a player is making $12.9M with a $14.6M cap hit, you’d expect him to be generating quality play to reflect the hefty sum of money he’s being paid, and the amount of cap space his contract takes up.
But for a player that’s “decent”, struggles with injuries, and has began to show inconsistencies in key parts of his game, paying the $12.9M suddenly becomes more of a hassle than a necessity.
There’s no question Lewan can still play and start in this league. But is it worth it to pay nearly $13M for the level of play Lewan showcased this past season?
The answer is no.
Maybe the Titans work out a pay cut with Lewan, or even restructure his contract (the impending future cap hits wouldn’t be pretty).
A pay cut should be the team’s first step, since finding top quality left tackle play for a good team with cap issues is really…difficult
But if they can’t work out a pay cut, Lewan has a good shot of being cut, which would therefore end Lewan’s longtime tenure with the only team he’s ever known.
How about Rodger Saffold?
Saffold is another veteran that could be on the chopping block.
Him —along with his mate on the left side in Lewan — are the two primary experienced candidates to be sent to the open market. Not because of his play or miscellaneous incidents that warrant this discussion in the first place.
But because his cap hit for the Titans’ all important 2022 season could be high, and not worth the work.
Saffold currently has one year and $9M of base salary remaining on his long term deal, and that’s if he isn’t cut this off-season. He’s still a relatively reliable and consistent option at guard. So much so that his remaining base salary on his contract might not be *too* far off his actual valuation.
However, because the Titans are in need of big moves elsewhere and they need to free up cash to make those moves, Saffold’s contract has become an expendable asset.
Truth be told, there’s no telling how the team is going to approach this situation. They could cut Lewan and keep Saffold, they can cut Saffold and keep Lewan, heck they could cut both and settle for a new set of starters on the left side of the offensive line (unlikely).
Whichever route the Titans elect to choose, each one will undoubtedly involve letting go of either Saffold or Lewan. A development which would lead to more questions for a team that has too many, and would usher in a new era up front along the offensive line.
Will Ben Jones return?
One of the positive attributes associated with Ben Jones is how steady his play has remained throughout his tenure as a Titan.
He hasn’t played like the best center in the league, but he’s remained a rather fine player for a team that’s relied on him heavily since his arrival in 2016.
Jones is set to hit the open market this month, but with rumors swirling around the future of the Titans’ offensive line, talks around his future have gotten lost in the shuffle of conversational priority.
If the Titans were smart, they’d bring Jones back. He’s been a rock for this team for years, and his play has shown zero signs of dropping off. But if the Titans wanted to upgrade at the position (not even worth thinking about since center upgrades are usually hard to find and execute) then the scenario of letting Jones walk is on the table.
However, the Titans are a smart organization, and they’ve usually handled situations like these pretty well in recent years. So it might be safe to assume that Jones will be back to lead the team’s offensive line once again.