I find it hard to say that this upcoming offseason is the most important of Jon Robinson’s career as general manager of the Tennessee Titans. After all, just one year ago he faced decisions about whether or not to retain the services of Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, the two core pieces of the offensive resurgence in Tennessee over the past two years. Those decisions set the course for where this team was going for the next four years.
However, the 2021 offseason will certainly be critical in its own way. Robinson will be tasked with adding to that core to extend and enhance the Titans Super Bowl window with Tannehill and Henry.
As I broke down here just over a month ago, the Titans certainly can — and probably will — restructure some of the bigger contracts on the team to free up significantly more cap space in the short term. In short, 2021 cap space can be freed up if the team needs it to either retain or add free agents this offseason.
So let’s jump into some of the bigger questions facing the Titans GM as he heads into his sixth offseason in Nashville.
1. What becomes of Isaiah Wilson’s NFL career?
I’m putting this first, not because it is the most important question, but because it feels like one that could influence the answers to others. The Titans 2020 first round pick had an absolute disaster of a rookie season. You know the story by now, but here’s the rundown in case you forgot:
- Received a trespassing citation for attending party at TSU.
- Showed up out of shape to training camp.
- Two separate stints on the reserve/COVID list (one of which lasted a month).
- Arrested for DUI.
- Issued a one-game team suspension for breaking team rules (possibly related to reports that he had been repeatedly late to meetings and/or practices).
- Placed on the rarely used reserve/Non-Football Illness list, removing him from the roster for the final month of the season.
- Continued to be seen out partying even after all of the incidents above.
We still have no idea if Wilson can play at the NFL level, and frankly, it doesn’t seem like he cares enough to find out for himself right now. So what options do the Titans have?
Well, obviously the ideal scenario is that the team uses the offseason to get Wilson focused on football, he stays out of trouble and arrives in shape to training camp to compete with Dennis Kelly for the starting right tackle spot. It should be noted that a league suspension is likely coming at the start of 2021 for the DUI (assuming he is, in fact, convicted) so Kelly is probably your day one starter either way.
However, expecting that to happen feels entirely too optimistic. If all of those incidents above didn’t serve as wake up calls… what will?
The Titans could pursue a trade to get Wilson a fresh start somewhere else and move his salary off of their books. This would cost Tennessee about $1.85 million in additional 2021 cap space because of Wilson’s prorated signing bonus accelerating onto their books for the upcoming year, but they’d be out from under the deal in 2022 and beyond. That being said… I cannot fathom an NFL team looking at the list above and giving up anything to bring that guy in.
The more realistic path to cutting bait on Wilson is to simply cut him, void his guaranteed money, and come after as much of the signing bonus as they can. The Titans likely have cause for voiding the remaining guaranteed money in his contract due to the one-game suspension that he was issued by the team. Most NFL contracts have language that converts salaries from guaranteed to non-guaranteed if a player is suspended by either the team or the league. Wilson will likely have received suspensions from both by the time the 2021 season starts so the Titans certainly should be in the clear there.
The signing bonus question is a tougher one, however. Since that bonus has already been paid, the team would have to pursue repayment from Wilson (which he would obviously contest) and most signing bonus money is protected unless a player either retires or refuses to show up. So if Wilson continues to do the bare minimum of showing up for mandatory events, he probably gets to keep that $5.97 million signing bonus, and more importantly for Tennessee, the remainder of that total would accelerate onto their 2021 books from a cap standpoint if he is released.
The Titans are fortunate to have Dennis Kelly under a reasonable contract for the next two seasons, giving them time to sort out this mess with Wilson. However, Tennessee is reaching a point where restocking the offensive line is going to become a bigger priority. When the 2021 season kicks off, four of the five starters will be on the wrong side of 30. Getting Wilson in the fold would have given them two long term solutions on the roster, but now you’re back to just one — Nate Davis. I would expect offensive line to be high on their draft priority again in 2021, unfortunately.
2. Reshuffling of the coaching staff.
Arthur Smith is interviewing for all six available head coaching positions on the strength of another phenomenal regular season as Titans offensive coordinator. His poor playoff showing doesn’t materially change his prospects of landing one of those jobs. Teams will still be interested in the guy who produced a top-five offense in 2020 and helped revive the career of Ryan Tannehill.
If Smith leaves, he very well may be taking another position coach with him to be offensive coordinator. Unlike previous seasons, the Titans couldn’t block a position coach from leaving for a coordinator job if they choose to follow Smith to his eventual destination. So a Smith hire could cost Tennessee two coaches, not just one.
Who would fill Smith’s shoes? I think you could make a strong argument for promoting from within again. Tennessee’s offensive coaching staff has benefited from great continuity over the last three seasons. Quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara, running backs coach Tony Dews, wide receivers coach Rob Moore, offensive line coach Keith Carter, and assistant offensive line coach Mike Sullivan have all been in their current roles for the entirety of the Mike Vrabel era. Tight ends coach Todd Downing is the only current position coach on offense that hasn’t been on the staff for three years and he has been here for two.
That group has clearly done excellent work. The proof shows up in the numbers as the Titans offense has grown leaps and bounds from where it was in 2018 when this group arrived. We’ve seen tremendous development from players like Tannehill, Henry, A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, Ben Jones, Nate Davis… the list goes on and on.
These coaches will know the Titans personnel and system better than anybody which is a big advantage for a team that will want to largely want to build on the scheme that took them to a top-five finish rather than start from scratch in 2021. Tennessee will return at least nine starters on offense, with Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith the only possible departures. It’s hard to say which coach might be best suited for a promotion, but I would lean towards Keith Carter with Todd Downing as a close second.
Defensively, it’s harder to tell what Tennessee might do. Obviously, nobody on that side of the ball is likely to get a promotion, but could the defensive struggles push Vrabel to hiring a defensive coordinator from outside the organization? Could we see coaches who were in charge of underperforming position groups relieved of their duties?
If I was Vrabel, I’d make a push to hire either Jim Leonhard (Wisconsin’s impressive young defensive coordinator) or Jerod Mayo (a former teammate of Vrabel’s who is considered a rising star in NFL coaching ranks). Leonhard would be my preference there, but it’s clear that Tennessee needs someone to shake things up defensively.
If that coach wants to bring in their own defensive staff — or at least parts of a staff — I would welcome that as well.
3. How does Jon Robinson fix the pass rush?
The five sacks in the playoff game shouldn’t paper over an issue that stuck out all season for Tennessee. The Titans finished with just 19 sacks in 16 games and that number is unacceptable.
Could a new defensive coordinator help? Absolutely, but the best DC on earth wasn’t going to turn Wyatt Ray and Brooks Reed into T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett. The Titans clearly need an infusion of talent in the pass rush.
I think the baseline expectation should be for the Titans to sign a veteran edge rusher who can help right away and spend a high pick on a young one who can at least provide some value as part of a rotation.
Who might those players be? Welcome to the discussion that will probably dominate the offseason (at least after the coaching staff changes are finished). My personal favorite free agent edge rusher is Carl Lawson. Bud Dupree would be my second choice, though the prospect of paying big money to a guy coming off ACL surgery is a little unsettling, especially when you need that player to contribute right away. Melvin Ingram and Ryan Kerrigan represent a couple interesting short term solutions. Both are productive veterans who are on the wrong side of 30, but may come cheaper than a Lawson or Dupree type would.
It also wouldn’t hurt to find someone who can provide more pass rush alongside Jeffery Simmons on the interior of the defensive line. DaQuan Jones is a pending free agent, and while he certainly brings a lot of value as a run stuffer, he’s never been a plus player against the pass.
Could Teair Tart develop into a long term solution next to Simmons? Sure, but this is another spot that needs depth and rotation. Tart can’t be the only answer, and frankly, despite his impressive flashes, it’s hard for me to rely on him as a full-time player moving forward. We’ve seen too many Sharif Finches who flash and then disappear to really project off such a limited sample.
The guy who jumps out at this spot is obviously Leonard Williams. The former 6th overall pick put together a massive season in New York with 11.5 sacks and at just 26 years old, he’s a guy who could give Tennessee a fantastic interior duo for several years. However, it seems more likely that Williams remains in New York either via contract extension or franchise tag.
Fortunately for the Titans, the draft also offers a host of edge rush options that could be there at pick 22. Miami’s Gregory Rousseau and Jaelen Phillips, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, Texas’ Joseph Ossai, Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Penn State’s Jayson Oweh, and Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones are all players who find their way into the range of the Titans pick and have either intriguing traits or production.
The options on the interior of the defensive line are less appealing. Pittsburgh’s Jaylen Twyman, Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon, and Alabama’s Christian Barmore are all possibilities in the back half of the first round and you could see at least one of them slide into day two.
I’m not sure it really matters where the pass rush comes from. The important thing is that the Titans find players who can beat blocks and get to the quarterback consistently. Landry and Simmons each had their moments in 2020, but neither one was a game in, game out problem for opposing offenses and they had zero help behind them.
4. Do the Titans re-sign Corey Davis or look elsewhere for a WR2?
The one thing that we know about the Titans wide receiver group heading into 2021 is that A.J. Brown will be at the top of the depth chart. He continued to develop in year two despite playing through multiple injuries, and is primed to continue his ascent to the top of his craft moving forward.
Beyond Brown, the Titans have some decisions to make and that starts with Corey Davis. Davis had his best season as a pro in year four, catching 65 passes for 984 yards and 5 touchdowns despite missing a couple games due to COVID. The sour ending — just 5 catches for 39 yards in the final three games combined — shouldn’t change much, but it definitely underscores the consistency questions that surround him.
He is set to enter free agency in March alongside some other highly talented receivers in Chris Godwin, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kenny Golladay, and Allen Robinson among others. To me, Davis pretty clearly falls fifth in that pecking order, but if some of those players are retained by their current teams, he could push up the list and would theoretically drive his price tag up.
Davis is a good player who brings a lot to the table for the Titans and I am still of the belief that they should be doing what they can to bring him back next season. That being said, free agency is a two-way street and I don’t see a scenario where the Titans use the franchise tag on Davis, so any scenario where he returns would have to include Davis making the choice to stick in Tennessee.
It’s hard to guess any player’s true priorities, but it’s not hard to imagine Davis harboring some resentment from the Titans not picking up his fifth-year option (still the right decision for the team) and wanting to go play somewhere that will make him the top dog in the receiver room.
Then you have the questions surrounding Adam Humphries future. He missed nine of the final ten games of the season with a concussion and any concussion that lingers for that long is obviously a very serious situation. The Titans would be able to save $4.75 million against the cap if they were to move on from him during the offseason and it’s hard to see a whole lot of reason for them not to do just that. In two seasons with Tennessee, he’s appeared in just 19 games and contributed 602 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s not a whole lot of production for the cost.
Finding a second and third option to go behind A.J. Brown is the top priority on the offensive side of the football for Tennessee. While I’d be happy to have Davis back, it’s hard not to view any of those other four pending free agents mentioned above as clear upgrades.
The Titans could also look to yet another impressive looking incoming class of receivers in the draft to help backfill the roles of either Davis or Humphries. College football is producing NFL-ready receivers at a greater rate than any other position on the field right now and locking in a young, talented player at a cheap rate for the next four years is pretty appealing.
Ultimately, I lean towards bringing Davis back and drafting a receiver relatively early. With the Titans likely to have four picks in the first three rounds thanks to a projected compensatory pick from Jack Conklin, there are opportunities to address multiple needs and wide receiver somewhere on day two feels like a great value based on results from the last couple drafts.
5. What happens with the cornerbacks?
Heading into 2020, I was pretty certain that it was going to be Malcolm Butler’s last year with the Titans and that Adoree’ Jackson was going to be contending for Pro Bowl consideration. Obviously, all that got flipped on it’s head.
Butler turned in his best season as a Titan, leading the team with five interceptions, including one against Lamar Jackson in the playoffs. He’s still probably not worth the $14.2 million cap hit that he’d hold if he remains under the same contract in 2021, but I also don’t know how the Titans enter next season without him on the roster.
Tennessee would save $10.2 million by releasing Butler, a huge chunk of change in a year when the salary cap is set to decrease for just the second time ever. He’ll be 31 years old heading into next season at a position that can see performance fall off a cliff when footspeed starts to wane. Ultimately, I think the ideal situation is to find a happy medium that keeps Butler around, but maybe reduces his cap charge to something more reasonable. Offering a paycut to a guy who just had a really good season is a tough sell though.
Jackson is another interesting case. He obviously had a nightmare season, injuring his knee in practice leading up to the opener in Denver and then missing 13 games before finally coming back. When he did return, he clearly wasn’t himself. He looked tentative and less explosive than normal. His practice schedule down the stretch was that of a guy who was managing an injury, not fully recovered from one.
The Titans exercised his fifth-year option last offseason, so he’s under contract for the 2021 season at a cap charge of $10.2 million, however that salary is guaranteed for injury only, meaning that the Titans could release Jackson and pocket that $10.2 million this offseason as long as he can pass a physical when they do so. Essentially, they can save the same amount of money by releasing Jackson as they could by releasing Butler. Jackson being six years younger makes me think that they choose not to pursue this option — and it may not even be on the table if he requires offseason surgery — but I thought it was at least worth throwing out there as an interesting thought exercise.
Beyond their top two guys, Desmond King is also heading into free agency, adding another layer of intrigue to this position group. King played reasonably well during his short time in Tennessee, but it’s hard to qualify him as a “must” when it comes to prioritizing pending free agents. That’s particularly true if they choose to keep both Butler and Jackson.
I would imagine that the team will expect 2020 second round pick Kristian Fulton to step up as one of their top three corners next season, but whose spot does he take? We should find out over the next couple months.
6. Can Jon Robinson recapture the magic of his 2019 offseason?
It’s hard to imagine two offseasons that went more dramatically different for a general manager. In 2019, Robinson couldn’t miss, trading peanuts for Ryan Tannehill, signing Rodger Saffold, and then drafting Jeffery Simmons, A.J. Brown, Nate Davis, Amani Hooker, and David Long. Sure, there were some small misses — Adam Humphries contract hasn’t worked out due to injury and neither did Cameron Wake’s — but this was an absolute grand slam offseason that helped propel the Titans to the AFC Championship game.
In 2020, Robinson’s fortunes swung hard in the opposite direction. He whiffed on his two biggest outside free agent additions in Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley and completely struck out in the draft (at least for year one production). It’s not his fault that Kristian Fulton and Darrynton Evans spent most of the season hurt, and to some degree, I think the Isaiah Wilson saga has been something that was difficult to forecast (former coaches have expressed shock at Wilson’s behavior since being drafted). However you slice it though, the 2020 offseason was a massive failure outside of his work retaining Tannehill and Henry — which, to be fair, is a pretty big deal.
Robinson’s ability to navigate the reduced salary cap and the unique scouting challenges that will come with a COVID-restricted season will go a long way towards determining the ceiling for this Titans team in 2021. Can he land a superstar or two through free agency and the draft to elevate this group to true Super Bowl contenders or will they backslide towards mediocrity?
Despite the low cap space numbers that you’ll see on sites like Spotrac and Over The Cap, Robinson will have plenty of flexibility to create cap space through restructuring existing deals as well as cutting players like Butler, Humphries, and Kenny Vaccaro if he so chooses. Adding two relatively expensive free agents in addition to keeping some of their own key pieces is not out of the question and with extra draft capital to work with for the first time since 2017, Robinson has the tools needed to get things done in 2021.