Reviewing the state of the Titans roster one week before free agency officially opens

The Titans roster turnover has already begun as Adam Humphries, Isaiah Wilson, Malcolm Butler, and Kenny Vaccaro have been jettisoned in recent days and there certainly could be more casualties to come over the next week.

We also got news that the team will not use their franchise or transition tag in 2021 and passed on the chance to tender Kalif Raymond with a qualifying offer making him an unrestricted free agent when the new league year starts and free agency officially opens on March 17th at 3:00 PM CT.

The team has also been making minor additions via futures contracts for guys who finished the season on the practice squad as some other familiar faces from last year. As of today — after factoring in the recent trade of Wilson and release of Butler and Vaccaro as well as the recently announced official 2021 salary cap of $182.5-million — the Titans have close to $17-million in salary cap space. As we’ve mentioned here before, there are plenty of avenues for them to create more room if they choose to do so, but that’s what they’ve cleared with their moves to this point.

So let’s take a quick spin around the roster and look at who is under contract, who is set to hit the market, and where Jon Robinson needs to focus his resources.

Quarterback

Under Contract: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside, DeShone Kizer
Pending Free Agents: None

The Titans could look to upgrade their backup spot, but if they were comfortable enough to roll with Woodside last year, I can’t imagine they’re suddenly going to put a big priority on replacing him this offseason with an even tighter salary cap situation. Do you feel great about it if he has to start a game or two? Probably not, but the coaching staff likes him, he knows the offense, and he’s cheap.

Level of Need: Low

Running Back

Under Contract: Derrick Henry, Darrynton Evans, Khari Blasingame, Jeremy McNichols
Pending Free Agents: D’Onta Foreman, Senorise Perry (RFA)

Darrynton Evans had his rookie year cut short by injuries, but he flashed the elite burst that made him such an intriguing pick in the third round last year. Before the injury bug bit him, Evans was getting some serious buzz as a potential difference maker in a Titans offense loaded with weapons.

Heading into year two, I’d fully expect Evans role to expand into third down work in addition to a series or two of relief work for Derrick Henry. The real question heading into camp here will be whether or not the Titans feel the need to keep four backs or if they just roll with Henry, Evans, and the recently tendered Khari Blasingame. I wouldn’t expect any major additions here.

Level of Need: Low

Wide Receiver

Under Contract: A.J. Brown, Cameron Batson, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Chester Rogers, Marcus Johnson, Cody Hollister, Rashard Davis, Mason Kinsey
Pending Free Agents: Corey Davis, Kalif Raymond, Adam Humphries (released)

Obviously, there is a ton of uncertainty here behind A.J. Brown. The Titans still have until March 15th to negotiate exclusively with Corey Davis so I don’t think we should completely close the door on a return for CD84 just yet, but he’s going to be among the top free agent wide receivers available when the market opens for business. Keeping Davis will be difficult and expensive.

However, even if the Titans do find a number that works for both them and their top pick from the 2017 draft, they still need to do some major work at this position. Cam Batson is a nice rotational receiver who brings some special teams value, but he should not be any higher than a WR4 in the pecking order. Guys like Marcus Johnson and Chester Rogers have real NFL experience and could fill a depth role if needed, but they need a minimum of two additions to the receiver room via either free agency or the draft.

Level of Need: High

Tight End

Under Contract: Parker Hesse, Tommy Hudson, Jared Pinkney
Pending Free Agents: Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser (RFA), MyCole Pruitt, Geoff Swaim

The Titans tight end group is completely up in the air as all four players who played for them at this position in 2020 are set to be free agents.

Anthony Firkser is the most likely out of this bunch to return. He’s a restricted free agent, which means that the Titans can tender him a qualifying offer and protect his rights. The lowest level tender amount is $2.1-million and it would give Tennessee the right of first refusal on any contract that Firkser was offered from a competing team. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Titans looked to get him locked into a small multi-year deal though. He’s effectively a jumbo slot receiver and with Adam Humphries’ release, Firkser’s role is more critical than ever.

Jonnu Smith was not franchise tagged, but could still be re-signed to a long term deal over the next week. He’s going to be the best free agent tight end on the market in my opinion and will have no shortage of suitors on March 15th. I think he should be the clear 1B priority to Corey Davis’ 1A among the Titans pending free agents.

Pruitt and Swaim are solid blocking tight ends that have performed pretty well in limited work with the Titans. Pruitt is the slightly better player — and I believe more likely to return for another year — but this is a role that should be able to be filled with a small contract in free agency.

Level of Need: Very High

Offensive Line

Under Contract: Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, Dennis Kelly, Aaron Brewer, David Quessenberry, Daniel Munyer, Brandon Kemp, Paul Adams, Anthony McKinney,
Pending Free Agents: Ty Sambrailo, Jamil Douglas (RFA), Marshall Newhouse

Now that the Panda is gone, we have some clarity about what this group looks like moving forward. The starting five in 2021 will be the same as the starting five for most of 2020: Lewan, Saffold, Jones, Davis, and Kelly. Aaron Brewer and David Quessenberry seem like good bets to be competing for backup spots after decent showings as spot starters last year. The starting five is solid and it’s highly unlikely that any of them are pushed out of a job before the start of next season.

However, five of those seven players will be over 30 years old when next season kicks off — Lewan (30), Saffold (33), Jones (32), Kelly (31), and Quessenberry (31) — and that’s a problem for the Titans long term. I would assume that they will sign at least a player or two in free agency to come in and compete with Brewer and Quessenberry for backup spots, but I think they absolutely spend at least one pick here in the draft to serve as backups in the short term and refill the pipeline with future starters that can help as these guys age out of their prime. The wasted Isaiah Wilson pick hurts more for 2022 and beyond than it does for 2021 right now.

Level of Need: Medium

Defensive Line

Under Contract: Jeffery Simmons, Teair Tart, Larrell Murchison, Daylon Mack, Jullian Taylor
Pending Free Agents: DaQuan Jones, Jack Crawford, Matt Dickerson (RFA)

Now that we’ve arrived at the defense, all hell breaks loose. The Titans have one proven starter under contract in Jeffery Simmons on the defensive line. He didn’t quite have the break out that many — including myself — expected in 2020, but there were certainly more flashes of the guy that many thought was a top-five talent in the 2019 draft class. I still expect big things from him moving forward.

After that… it’s anyone’s guess. Titans 2020 fifth round pick Larrell Murchison played in 10 games last season, but recorded just five tackles, one for a loss, and never recorded a sack or QB hit. There weren’t enough flashes to confidently project him into a roster spot, much less a starting role.

Arguably the most impressive rookie from last season — a low bar, but still — was undrafted defensive lineman Teair Tart, who flashed big-time talent late in the year before a one-game suspension and a trip to the COVID list derailed his ascension.

I could see Tart pushing for a starting job in 2021, but he should absolutely have legit competition brought in.

I actually liked the two other defensive linemen the Titans brought in since the end of the season when they came out in their respective drafts. Daylon Mack is a prototypical nose tackle type, built heavy and low to the ground at 6-1, 340, while Jullian Taylor is a long, lean 5-tech type at 6-5, 280. Both should compete for rotational backup spots.

However, there is still work to be done here. The Titans need at least one –probably two — pretty significant additions on the defensive line. That could mean a return for DaQuan Jones and a draft pick or a free agent add or two (though this is a pretty weak overall DL free agent class).

Level of Need: High

Outside Linebacker

Under Contract: Harold Landry, Derick Roberson, Tuzar Skipper, Wyatt Ray, Nate Orchard, Davin Bellamy
Pending Free Agents: Jadeveon Clowney, Brooks Reed

Obviously, this has been the position that Titans fans have been laser-focused on ever since about the middle of last season (and rightfully so). Tennessee got just two sacks from edge rushers not named Harold Landry in 2020 — one each for Wyatt Ray and Brooks Reed — and their inability to pressure the passer stood out consistently as the primary problem on their bottom-five defense.

After swinging for the fences and striking out with Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney last offseason, where will Jon Robinson turn to fix the position that has given him the most trouble during his tenure as Titans GM? It’s obvious that they’ll be signing at least one edge rusher when free agency opens and I’d imagine a relatively high draft pick will be used here as well. This is the issue that absolutely must be addressed with the most urgency this offseason.

Level of Need: Extremely High

Inside Linebacker

Under Contract: Rashaan Evans, David Long Jr., Jan Johnson
Pending Free Agents: Jayon Brown, Will Compton, Daren Bates, Nick Dzubnar

Another position in flux… sensing a theme? The Titans have a decision to make on Jayon Brown. His skills as a coverage linebacker are coveted in the modern NFL, but he’s not a great run defender and then you had the comments late last week from Buck Reising on his new radio show on 104.5 The Zone about Brown being viewed internally as part of the reason behind the oft-cited “communication issues” with the Titans defense in 2020.

If that’s the coaching staff’s view of Brown, it’s hard to see them giving him a new contract in the $10-million per year range that he’s expected to command on the open market. And if Brown isn’t back, where do the Titans go at linebacker? Rashaan Evans figures to hold down one starting job by default, but he continues to have major issues in coverage and his occasional contributions around the goal line don’t offset those concerns for me.

David Long picked up five valuable starts after Brown went down with a season-ending elbow injury, but he still has his own concerns in coverage. I don’t think it’s a doomsday scenario if Evans and Long are your opening day starters, but I don’t think you’d feel particularly great about it either.

Then you have the non-existent depth issue. The Titans are sure to sign at least one or two linebackers in free agency and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them draft this position aggressively as well.

Level of Need: High

Cornerback

Under Contract: Adoree’ Jackson, Kristian Fulton, Chris Jackson, Breon Borders, Kareem Orr,
Pending Free Agents: Malcolm Butler (released), Desmond King, Tye Smith

Butler’s release wasn’t particularly surprising because of his high cap hit ($14.2-million), but it still creates another hole in the Titans defense. Your mileage may vary on your faith remaining in Adoree’ Jackson after his rough, injury-plagued 2020, but he was this team’s best cornerback the last time we saw him healthy and I fully expect him to hold down one of the starting jobs at corner when the 2021 season kicks off.

Opposite Jackson will likely be Fulton, who the Titans selected in the second round last year. He appeared in just six games last year due to injury issues of his own, but the limited reps that he did get showed the sticky man coverage skills that made him an intriguing fit for the man-heavy Titans defense last spring. With something closer to a regular offseason likely coming to the NFL this summer, I’d expect his game to elevate and be ready to play a big role on the defense.

Given how little those two guys played last year, it’s hard to feel too confident about that as a starting point, but I believe in the talent in both cases. However, modern NFL defenses realistically have three starting corners and I certainly wouldn’t feel great about Chris Jackson, Kareem Orr, or Breon Borders entering 2021 as the third starter in the Titans secondary so there will be additions made to this group as well.

I would expect either a free agent or an early draft pick to be coming to the cornerback room in the next couple months.

Level of Need: High

Safety

Under Contract: Kevin Byard, Amani Hooker, Dane Cruikshank, Maurice Smith
Pending Free Agents: Kenny Vaccaro (released), Joshua Kalu (ERFA)

Vaccaro’s release adds a level of intrigue to what had been the roster’s steadiest position over the last two seasons. It seems extremely likely that Amani Hooker will elevate into a starting role next to Kevin Byard. Hooker has played really well as the third safety in the Titans “big dime” packages over the past two seasons and seems primed for a bigger role.

Cruikshank missed most of 2020 with an injury, but he’ll return to action for the final year of his rookie contract in 2021 and should get a crack at filling Hooker’s shoes in those same subpackages. He’s been a special teams ace for the better part of three years now.

Tennessee probably adds a body or two here to compete for depth spots behind those three, but there isn’t an urgent need for someone who can take snaps right away so this spot remains the least needy position on the defense despite Vaccaro’s release.

Level of Need: Low

Specialists

Under Contract: Brett Kern, Matt Orzech, Tucker McCann
Pending Free Agents: Stephen Gostkowski, Matt Overton

Kern seems set to return for a 13th season in Tennessee, though his performance did dip just a bit in 2020 after an All-Pro season in 2019. There is at least a very small part of me that wonders whether he could be a surprise cut if Jon Robinson decided that the $2.1-million cap savings is too valuable to pass up for a 35-year old punter, but my guess is that he opts to keep his MVPunter after seeing the Trevor Daniel debacle play out last season.

The real intrigue is at the longsnapper and kicker spots. After serving as the Titans snapper for nine seasons without missing a game, Beau Brinkley ended up getting cut in 2020 after struggling with some bad snaps after returning from the COVID list midseason. He was replaced by veteran longsnapper Matt Overton, who performed admirably down the stretch.

I’d imagine Overton and Brinkley — who didn’t sign on elsewhere after being released — could be brought back to compete with Orzech, who signed a futures contract after ending the season on the Titans practice squad as Overton’s backup.

Kicker is a big question mark. Stephen Gostkowski settled in nicely after a disastrous start, making eight of his last nine field goal attempts as well as his last 42 extra point tries. While this might sound nuts after his first couple months… I wouldn’t hate the idea of a second year with Gostkowski. He’s still got a big leg, and once things settled down, he looked very much like the fifth-most accurate kicker of all time that he was coming into 2020.

The Titans do have 2020 UDFA Tucker McCann back on a futures contract to compete with whoever they do decide to bring in as well.

Level of Need: Medium


So how do you prioritize the positional needs for the Titans heading into free agency? I’d go with something like this:

  1. EDGE1
  2. WR2
  3. TE1
  4. CB1/2
  5. DL2
  6. ILB2/3
  7. WR3
  8. EDGE3

That’s a lot of holes to fill, but the Titans are going to have a decent amount of cap space to work with and they now officially have nine total draft picks, including four in the top-100 after receiving a third-round compensatory pick in return for Jack Conklin walking in free agency last spring.

Some of the depth pieces mentioned above are going to need to be filled by picks on day three of the draft, and some may have to be filled by guys stepping up from the bottom of the roster. Can guys like Tommy Hudson, Mason Kinsey, and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine push for roster spots at the back of the 53? Can Chris Jackson, Teair Tart, and Larrell Murchison build on their limited roles in 2020 and make a bigger impact in 2021? Those types of jumps may be very important as Jon Robinson tries to navigate the salary cap decrease.

Comments

  1. Top notch. You are my favorite writer. I think an interesting follow-up article would be how much money to give to each position listed. What I do know is $17 million isnt going to do it.

  2. In the QB room, I wonder if Kizer would actually be the man in the game behind Tannehill if an injury were to occur. Especially after he works through a full offseason in our system. Perhaps we are subtly hiding him in that 3-spot behind Woodside for now.

  3. Is that compensatory pick about what we thought we would get for Jack Conklin?

    We would have only gotten one for Mariota if he had actually played some significant game time in Oakland, right?

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