Evaluating the pass catchers the Titans could target in the trade market

The NFL Draft has come and gone and the Titans still need help at wide receiver and tight end.

Fourth round pick Dez Fitzpatrick and sixth rounder Racey McMath may turn out to be a quality receivers one day, but it’s highly unlikely that either guy is going to break out in 2021. Over the last 30 years, only 4 of the 427 receivers drafted on day three have produced at least 700 yards receiving as a rookie:

  1. Marques Colston – 1,038 yards in 2006
  2. Mike Williams – 964 yards in 2010
  3. Darius Slayton – 740 yards in 2019
  4. Stefon Diggs – 720 yards in 2015

Among veteran receivers on the Titans roster there are just two players who have ever totaled more than 500 yards receiving in a single season: A.J. Brown and Josh Reynolds. The best season from the other receivers currently on the roster — Cam Batson, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Marcus Johnson, Chester Rogers, Rashard Davis, Cody Hollister, and Mason Kinsey — belongs to Rogers, who put up 485 yards for the Colts back in 2018.

The tight end position is even more bleak, where Anthony Firkser’s 816 career receiving yards pace a group that has just two players who have ever taken an NFL snap in Firkser and blocking tight end Geoff Swaim.

Could a surprise performer emerge from one or both of these position groups in 2021? Sure, but a team with aspirations of making a deep playoff run should not be relying on happy surprises at key spots. It seems clear to me that the Titans still have work to do when it comes to providing Ryan Tannehill with adequate weapons for the upcoming season.

When asked about passing on the tight end position in the draft, Titans GM Jon Robinson mentioned that other GMs around the league had called him about tight ends on their rosters and that the roster building process is “never over”.

Robinson offering up the fact that he’s had trade conversations about tight ends would certainly suggest that reinforcements could be coming at tight end and we probably shouldn’t completely rule out a move for a wide receiver either. So let’s take a look at some players that have been rumored to be available and how they might fit on the Titans roster, starting with the name that everyone is going to be talking about for at least the next month.

Julio Jones | WR | Falcons

Ever since Peter King name dropped the Titans in some Julio Jones trade speculation about a week ago, fans have been going crazy about the thought of pairing A.J. Brown with his long time idol.

I can’t predict any bombshells. But a few things would not surprise me. Most notably, the Falcons putting the framework of a trade together for star wideout Julio Jones, and making the trade effective June 2. That way, Atlanta could split Jones’ cap charge between 2021 and 2022 instead of getting bashed with it all this year. So if such a trade happens, I expect it could involve a future pick or picks, nothing this year. (A future second-round pick as compensation seems fair to me.) Because such a trade wouldn’t be official till June, no picks in this draft could be involved. As for the interested team or teams, I would guess Las Vegas; Jon Gruden couldn’t resist Antonio Brown, and I doubt he could resist Julio Jones. New England too, and a couple of teams with clear receiver needs—Tennessee and Baltimore.

Peter King’s Football Morning in America

In addition to King, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer also reported that the Falcons “are listening to offers” on Jones so this is clearly something that has been making it’s rounds in credible NFL reporting circles.

Before we get too carried away, it’s important to note a few things. First, “listening to offers” is a pretty long step away from “actively shopping” or even “engaged in trade talks”. Additionally, Breer speculates that the price could be a “first round pick, or some equivalent” so the price tag seems to be pretty high. The second big thing is that the Titans connection to this story is completely tied up in King’s speculation based solely on the team’s positional need. There is no report that indicates the Titans have actually talked to Atlanta about Jones. In fact, the only team that has been positively identified as having been in discussions about the Falcons star wide receiver is Baltimore via Jay Glazer and Glazer’s take was that the contract structure would make it hard to move and that he didn’t think a Julio trade happens.

I still have some serious doubts that the Falcons will move Julio Jones. He’s a franchise icon and drafting Kyle Pitts fourth overall seemed to me to be a “let’s try to make one more push with our current core” move, not a “let’s trade assets and rebuild” move. However, new GM Terry Fontenot didn’t exactly throw cold water on the idea of a trade with his answer when asked about the rumors:

“You have to listen if people call — on any player,” Fontenot said when asked about Jones trade reports. “Especially — we are in a difficult cap situation. That’s just the circumstance. … Obviously — that particular player — we hold him in high regard. He’s special in what he’s done and what he continues to do here. But we have to consider any player if it’s right for the team because we have to do what’s best for this organization.”

Yahoo! Sports

If Julio is, in fact, on the market it would be criminal of Jon Robinson to not be involved. Yes, he’s 32 years old and coming off a season that saw him play just nine games due to a nagging hamstring injury, but when he was on the field he was still very productive, averaging over 85 yards per game.

The cap hits for the team trading for Jones would be $15.3-million in 2021, $11.5-million in 2022, and $11.5-million in 2023. Not bad for a player of his caliber, but those salaries are fully guaranteed and cover Jones’ age 32, 33, and 34 seasons. If last year’s balky hamstring was a sign of 10 years worth of NFL wear and tear finally catching up to Jones, being on the hook for over $38-million over the next three years might not look so great. But it’s not as if the Titans couldn’t afford to do it. They’ve only got about $6-million in 2021 cap space as things stand today and they still have to sign their rookie class, but the option to restructure deals for guys like Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and Rodger Saffold as we detailed here earlier this offseason is still there and would more than cover Jones’ 2021 cap hit. They could also re-structure Jones’ deal after acquiring him to push some of his 2021 cap hit into 2022 and 2023.

I think the argument for making this move is simple. The Titans window with this current group on offense is right now. By the start of the 2021 NFL season Ryan Tannehill will be 33, Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, and Ben Jones will be 30, 33, and 32 respectively, and Derrick Henry will be 27 with 827 touches over the past 24 months. Henry is as close to superhuman as you can get in the NFL, but it’s unlikely that he has more than two or three more years left at this level.

If you could land Julio Jones for… let’s just say a third round pick plus Rashaan Evans (reunite Evans with Dean Pees), I’d pull the trigger on that in a heartbeat. Due to the Falcons cap situation, any trade involving Jones likely won’t become official until June 1st, though it could be agreed to before that date so I wouldn’t expect any news tomorrow.

Jamison Crowder | WR | Jets

The drop off from Julio Jones to the rest of this list is… steep, but that doesn’t mean that players like Crowder couldn’t be helpful pieces. With the Jets drafting Elijah Moore at the top of the second round on Friday night — much to the chagrin of Titans fans everywhere — they made Crowder somewhat expendable. GM Joe Douglas had already added Corey Davis and Keelan Cole in free agency and the team’s 2020 second round pick, Denzel Mims, is also expected to push for a big role in the offense. That could crowded receiver room could leave Crowder as surplus to requirements, especially at a cap charge of $10-million for the 2021 season with no guaranteed money remaining on his contract.

It’s not that Crowder hasn’t been good for New York. He put up 833 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2019 and then followed that with 699 yards and 6 touchdowns last season in just 12 games. Those aren’t elite numbers, but they’re solid, especially considering the state of the roster (and coaching staff) around him.

Crowder would instantly give the Titans a reliable option in the slot, something they really don’t have at the moment (though I do think Cameron Batson has shown some flashes at times). He also probably wouldn’t cost a ton of draft capital given his contract situation and the need to re-work a new deal. I’m guessing Crowder may be outright released at some point if they aren’t able to get a late round pick for him (Douglas has publicly denied that Moore would be replacing Crowder when asked, but GMs say things like that all the time before going back on them days or weeks later).

Anthony Miller | WR | Bears

Miller seems to be on the outs in Chicago. After a promising start to his career, he’s fallen out of favor with the Bears coaching staff. Multiple reports this offseason have suggested that the former second round pick is available for trade, but the market for Miller’s services appears quite cold.

Reports out of Chicago indicate that Miller has had issues lining up correctly and running the right routes in recent years, leading to fifth round rookie Darnell Mooney quickly passing him on the depth chart last season. The ejection he earned in the Bears’ playoff loss to the Saints for punching New Orleans cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson only served to push him closer to the exit.

It seems likely that Miller could be had for a late round pick if a team wanted him, but the question seems to be whether teams believe he’s even worth that at this point. The talent is obvious, but the NFL generally doesn’t have much use for guys who can’t line up correctly or run the right route even if they are really talented… just ask Dorial Green-Beckham.

If the Titans could get him for a sixth round pick (remember, they swapped sevenths with Miami in the Isaiah Wilson trade so they don’t have a 2022 seventh rounder), I think it would be worth a look in training camp, but I’m not sure I’d feel a whole lot better about the receiver position with Miller added to the current group than I do right now.

Tim Patrick | WR | Broncos

The Broncos gave Patrick a second round tender as a restricted rights free agent earlier this offseason, locking him into a $3.4-million salary for the 2021 season. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll be suiting up in Denver this fall.

A deep wide receiver room featuring Courtland Sutton, 2020 first round pick Jerry Jeudy, and 2020 second round pick K.J. Hamler could leave Patrick without a big role this fall, and with unrestricted free agency on the horizon for him next offseason, Denver may be willing to listen to offers for their second-leading receiver from 2020.

He would certainly be more expensive than Miller given that he’s coming off a season with 742 yards and 6 touchdowns and doesn’t have the same concerns regarding his ability to learn and execute the offense. At 6-4, 212 pounds with good speed, there is a lot to like about Patrick as a potential Corey Davis replacement.

O.J. Howard | TE | Buccaneers

The Buccaneers continue to appear to be set on keeping all three of their expensive tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard so this could be a non-starter, but out of the players who could potentially be available for trade, Howard probably has the highest upside. The former first round pick has been productive when he’s been on the field, but Howard has yet to play a full 16 games in a season and is coming off a torn Achilles suffered last October.

At 6-6, 251 pounds with unbelievable athleticism, Howard has the potential to be one of the league’s better tight ends. As good as Jonnu Smith was last season, Howard has outproduced Smith’s 448 yard performance in two of the last three seasons despite splitting the role with Cameron Brate and being surrounded by elite receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

Howard is set to play on his fifth year option for $6-million in 2021 so his contract isn’t terrible and it leaves a quick out in case things don’t work out. I’d expect the price tag for any trade for Howard to be pretty high though. The Bucs are loading up to make another run at a Super Bowl with Tom Brady and Howard gives them high quality depth to take some pressure off Gronk at the very least and a potential X-factor to move the ceiling for the Tampa offense even higher at best. Also, both Gronkowski and Brate are going to be on the wrong side of 30 this year and Howard finally realizing his upside to become the Bucs tight end of the future would be an ideal development.

I tend to think Howard stays put, but if the Bucs are listening, Jon Robinson should be calling.

Zach Ertz | TE | Eagles

While Howard might not be available, Ertz definitely is on the market. The Eagles have allowed Ertz to seek a trade after the team declined to give the three-time Pro Bowler a new contract earlier this offseason. Reports indicate that Philly is looking to get a third round pick back for Ertz, but that teams have been unwilling to match that ask to this point.

I don’t blame teams like the Titans for being hesitant about giving up a day two pick for a 30 year old tight end coming off the worst year of his career (336 yards and one touchdown). Ertz has stated that he will not require a new contract from whichever team trades for him. His current contract is set to void at the end of next season and he will carry a cap hit of $8.5-million for his new team.

That’s a manageable situation financially for a team like the Titans, but the question becomes whether Ertz is worth the draft pick at this point in his career. I’d also expect there to be some concern that Ertz has never really been much of a run blocker. For a team with Derrick Henry in the backfield, I think that might be an issue.

I wouldn’t go anywhere near a third round pick for Ertz. Given his age, recent performance, and contract, I think a fifth round pick is probably about right. There are other options on this list that I like better, but even an older Ertz would be an improvement for the Titans tight end room.

It’s worth noting that the Eagles would benefit from trading Ertz after June 1st for cap purposes similar to the situation with Julio Jones.

David Njoku | TE | Browns

Njoku requested a trade out of Cleveland before the start of last season, but didn’t get it. He still wanted to be moved at the trade deadline, but again, stayed put. He has declined to comment about his trade request this offseason, but Albert Breer reported that he was available and that Cleveland was looking for a third round pick in exchange.

Njoku’s desire to get out of Cleveland has everything to do with the Browns additions of Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant last offseason. Hooper came over on a big free agent deal and immediately became the top option at tight end while Bryant took advantage of an opening created by an Njoku injury in Week 1 to pass the former first round pick on the depth chart.

Njoku’s career started off relatively well with what looked like a breakout sophomore campaign with 639 yards and 4 touchdowns with a rookie Baker Mayfield at quarterback. However, a wrist injury cost him most of his third season and a new front office went and added Hooper and Bryant the following offseason. Last season saw Njoku mainly asked to play in a supporting role and spend more time blocking than using his tremendous athleticism in the passing game.

After entering the league as a liability as a blocker, Njoku has quietly become very solid in that facet of the game. Njoku is the player most similar to Jonnu Smith on this list so if the Titans would like to replicate their former tight end’s skill set, this is your guy. He’s also coming from a Cleveland offense under Kevin Stefanski that is stylistically and schematically very similar to the one Tennessee runs so chances are that he could become comfortable pretty quickly.

Like Howard, Njoku is playing on his fifth year option worth $6-million in 2021 and that cap charge would transfer to the team acquiring him in a trade. Both players are also likely to be highly motivated to put together a big season and re-establish their trade value prior to hitting free agency in 2022.

One other bright spot with the Njoku option? He’s still just 24 years old after entering the league as one of the youngest players in his draft class. While Howard’s upside might be slightly higher due to his ridiculous skill set, Njoku isn’t far off an you can argue that his injury concerns are far less troubling than his counterpart’s.

A third round pick is a little rich, but if the Titans wanted to flip a fourth for Njoku I wouldn’t have any issue with that. Remember, they’re likely going to get a fourth round compensatory pick back for losing Jonnu Smith in free agency next year so they still enter the 2022 draft with one pick in each of the first six rounds.

Other Options

I’ve seen some mention of Hayden Hurst as a potential target after the Falcons took Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick last Thursday, but Hurst is only set to count less than $2-million against the cap this year and we are well aware of how much Arthur Smith loves to run 12 personnel sets. I’m not sure sufficient motivation to get something done will be there on Atlanta’s side, though every million counts with their cap situation.

Evan Engram has been rumored to be available in New York, but again, he’s a non-blocking tight end and the Titans are a run-heavy offense. He’s also coming off the worst year of his career — yeah, yeah I know he made the Pro Bowl, but he generated just 6.0 yards per target, scored just one touchdown, and had a ridiculous 11 drops. You could argue that he’s a buy low candidate I suppose, but I’d rather have Njoku or Howard.

There are also a few options remaining in free agency at both spots, though none of them qualify as major impact type additions. At tight end, a couple former Titans in Delanie Walker and MyCole Pruitt could help this team in some capacity. Walker is 37 and expectations should be adjusted accordingly, but after a year off to get his body right I’m still of the opinion that he could help this roster in a 40-50% snap count type role.

Wide receivers like Dede Westbrook, Golden Tate, Damiere Byrd, Danny Amendola, Alex Erickson, Trent Taylor, Marquise Goodwin, and Marqise Lee are available and could probably be added for cheap. None of those guys move the needle substantially, but they’ve all at least been semi-productive NFL receivers at some point in recent years.

Ultimately, if the Titans are really interested in pushing their chips in and going for it in 2021 and 2022, they need to make a trade for an impact pass catcher who can complement A.J. Brown and keep their offense near the top of the league while the re-tooled defense improves. My preference would be Julio Jones and/or David Njoku out of this list, but any of them would help this Titans offense as they’re currently constructed.

Comments

  1. I like Njoku the best out of your options. A productive guy in a system where he is bumping against newer, shinier options. Here he would be our primary catching tight end with Firkser and Swain handling run support. Firkser does really well at the position he is in; second pass catcher and blocker. We need someone to help give Tannehill more options to throw the ball to, and I think Njoku could benefit from Tannehill.

    O.J. Howard would be great, but he’s too expensive and might have yet another injury. Only Crowder interests me for WR (Tanny and he would connect on the “we survived Adam Gase” vibes alone).

    The real question is if the Titans feel the urgency to take big risks now or feel they need to continue to build towards a SB run. Me personally, with the loss of Smith as OC and the uncertainty of the DC performance (was it the coaching or the players?), I’m feeling another good year in the AFC South but not a deep run with the current team. Hope I’m wrong, but I’m mentally prepared for struggles.

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