Thoughts on day one of free agency as the Titans make two big additions on the defensive front

Free agency day one is always an adventure, but this one was a particularly violent rollercoaster of emotion for Titans fans. The day started with Dianna Russini tweeting that the team was not going to be bringing back popular offensive starters Corey Davis or Jonnu Smith.

It ended with the Titans making a flurry of signings in the evening to add edge rusher Bud Dupree, defensive lineman Denico Autry, and offensive tackle Kendall Lamm.

It was a day that told us a lot about the type of team the Titans want to be and what they felt was holding them back in 2020. So let’s get into the moves, the impact, and what’s next as free agency rolls into day two.

Bud Dupree signs for five years, $82.5-million

Before you get too carried away with the numbers… the NFL Network reported that just $35-million of that total is guaranteed. When we get the final details reported, we will get into the 2021 cap hit and all that good stuff, but $35-million guaranteed is a key number here. That most likely means that the Titans are committing to fully guaranteed salaries in 2021 and 2022 in addition to the signing bonus, but the final three years will be non-guaranteed, meaning the Titans could walk away relatively painlessly after two seasons of things don’t work out.

Let’s start with this… I would have preferred Carl Lawson and I think $16.5-million per season is a little steep for Dupree. He’s 28 years old, coming off a torn ACL just over three months ago, and has had the luxury of playing in a Steelers defense surrounded by the likes of Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, and others for most of his career. There are very clear risks here and those shouldn’t be ignored.

However… it’s also clear that the Titans got significantly better at the spot that was their biggest glaring weakness today. Dupree has tallied 19.5 sacks over the last two seasons despite missing the final five games of 2020 with his knee injury. That total ranks 8th among NFL pass rushers over that timespan.

Dupree was the 22nd overall pick in 2015 and his career took some time to get going. He didn’t become a full time starter until late in his second season after recovering from a groin tear. His sack totals were middling at best — 4.0 in 2015, 4.5 in 2016, 6.0 in 2017, and 5.5 in 2018 — before his big breakout season in 2019 when he racked up 11.5 sacks to go along with career highs in tackles for loss (16), QB hits (17), and total pressures (51).

After getting franchise tagged last offseason, Dupree largely maintained that breakout pace in 2020. He finished with 8.0 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 15 QB hits, and 43 total pressures in just 11 games. All those numbers — besides tackles for loss — were on pace to beat his previous season’s totals before the injury.

At the risk of triggering Titans fans… Dupree is somewhat similar stylistically to Jadeveon Clowney. Obviously, the production has been more consistent from him than the Titans 2020 attempt at addressing this position, but like Clowney, Dupree is an explosive athlete who packs a ton of power in his 6-4, 269-pound frame.

There are some areas where Dupree has clear advantages over Clowney though. He has an elite get off and is capable of threatening the edge thanks to that skill combined with his explosive athleticism.

Dupree is an extremely high effort player who was beloved in the Steelers locker room. His addition should bring some fire and leadership to a defense that needs an identity.

He fits the mold of the type of player the Titans have typically sought to use across from Harold Landry, balancing Landry’s speed against Dupree’s power. He’s a plus player in run defense, and like Landry, almost never came off the field in Pittsburgh.

As for the injury, it seems as if he’s progressing well in his recovery and reports suggest that participation in training camp is likely.

As I said above, I’m split on Dupree. I don’t love the value and had other players I liked better, but there is zero doubt that he’ll help move the needle for the Tennessee pass rush in 2021 and beyond.

Denico Autry signs for three years, $21.5-million

While I have some hesitation on the Dupree contract from a value standpoint, I have zero hesitation on Autry. He is getting just $9-million guaranteed despite being one of the most underrated pass rushers in the NFL the last couple years.

The 30 year old defensive end posted 20 sacks in his three seasons in Indianapolis, including 7.5 last season (which would have led the Titans roster in 2020). He’s a 6-5, 285-pounder who plays with tremendous length and power.

During his time in Indy, Autry played multiple roles. In 2018, he was largely used as a 3-technique defensive tackle, but moved outside to make room for DeForest Buckner in 2020, but would still kick inside frequently to rush next to Buckner on passing downs. In Tennessee’s base defense, I think he’ll represent a pretty huge upgrade on the Jack Crawford 5-technique/elephant end role from a year ago while also offering the ability to slide inside to rush next to Jeffery Simmons in subpackages.

The really attractive thing about this signing is that the Titans will be able to credibly play in their nickel and big dime packages while being both stout enough to defend the run and offering some real pass rush juice. A front with Harold Landry, Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, and Bud Dupree is a strong run front, but it’s also got some quality pass rushers on the field together. With one dimensional players, as the Titans found last season, that trade off can be hard to manage.

Autry’s pass rush numbers compare favorably to some of the high-dollar free agent signings that we saw today. For example, Matt Judon, who signed with New England for $14-million per year, had 6 sacks and 39 pressures in 2020 while Autry, who signed for half that price, contributed 7.5 sacks and 35 pressures.

Autry has tortured the Titans during the last three seasons in Indy. He has 5.0 sacks in five games against his new employer since 2018.

This feels like a great fit and really good value for the Titans.

Kendall Lamm signs for two years, $8.5-million

With Isaiah Wilson taking his antics to South Beach in the near future, the Titans went out and added Lamm to help secure their backup tackle spot. He’s a 6-5, 310-pound veteran with 27 career starts sprinkled over six NFL seasons.

This is a bit of a familiarity pick for Mike Vrabel as Lamm got his start as an undrafted free agent with the Texans in 2015 and played there as a backup until getting a shot to start in 2018. From there he went to Cleveland, where he started a few games and ended up playing a ton of snaps in the Browns playoff run last season.

Lamm grades out decently on PFF throughout most of his career with grades in the mid-60’s each of the last three years, with higher marks for pass blocking than run blocking.

He’s mostly featured at right tackle, but has at least 300 snaps at left tackle in his career so you can probably go ahead and pencil him in as the Titans swing tackle for the 2021 season behind Taylor Lewan and Dennis Kelly. He also scores big man touchdowns, which seems to be a strange requirement for Titans tackles.

I’m not going to pretend to have studied Kendall Lamm’s game deeply — we will and will report back to you soon here at Broadway Sports — but this is a solid depth signing at an important position.

Corey Davis signs with the Jets for three years, $37.5-million

It wasn’t all good news for the Titans on day one of free agency. They lost two key contributors from their high octane offense that will be tough to replace.

Davis’ deal is worth $12.5-million per year and $27-million of that is fully guaranteed. Would I have balked at the Titans signing him to that sort of contract? Not at all, but Jon Robinson clearly felt that was above the value he placed on Davis and he chose to let him get that money elsewhere.

Davis’ tenure with the Titans was a mixed bag. The 2017 5th overall pick entered with huge expectations and was clearly a disappointment relative to his draft stock. He battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his four seasons in Tennessee and was quickly supplanted as the top wide receiver by a rookie A.J. Brown in 2019.

However, he also produced a lot of good moments with the Titans. His game winner against the Eagles in 2018, toasting Stephon Gilmore, and his 200-yard effort against the Browns this season stand out. Davis’ best season was obviously 2020, when he put up 984 yards and five touchdowns and the Jets are betting on him building off that moving forward.

His departure leaves the Titans replacing both their WR2 and WR3 (Adam Humphries) this offseason and disrupts the continuity that they’d enjoyed the last two years on offense. However, there is still a ton of talent in the receiver market in free agency (more on that in a moment) and the Titans have plenty of options to try and replace Davis’ production.

Jonnu Smith signs with the Patriots for four years, $50-million

I am surprised at the amount that Jonnu got on the open market. I figured he’d be in the $8-million per season range and could maybe creep up to $10-million per if the bidding got crazy. Never did I think $12.5-million per year with $31.25-million guaranteed was in play. That’s a better deal (because of the guaranteed money) than the contract Derrick Henry got last offseason. There is zero doubt who the bigger impact player is on the Titans offense.

That being said, Smith will be very difficult to replace. He was the only tight end on the roster that was both an above average blocker and a threat in the passing game. While he didn’t put up huge numbers as a receiver — his career high is 488 yards set in 2020 — he was great after the catch and in the red zone, contributing eight touchdowns last season.

Anthony Firkser should be back as a restricted free agent and he will likely take a larger role as a pass catcher in the offense, but he’s closer to a jumbo slot receiver than he is a true inline tight end. It will be interesting to see where the Titans go at this position without Jonnu.

Who do the Titans sign next?

We know one more signing thanks to our own John Glennon, who reported this morning that Geoff Swaim has agreed to a one year deal to return to the Titans in 2021.

Swaim is a very solid blocking tight end who contributed nine catches for 83 yards and a touchdown as a pass catcher last year. At 6-4, 260 pounds, he is very much the traditional inline Y tight end type.

It’s certainly possible that the Titans will choose the “tight end by committee” path to replacing Jonnu Smith, using some combination of Swaim, Firkser, and possibly My Cole Pruitt (if he re-signs) to patch together what they’re losing, but the problem is that none of those guys truly gives you the run-pass versatility that Jonnu did.

Let’s take a quick look at the top of the free agent board for the positions that the Titans still need to address heading into day two of free agency:

Wide Receiver

This is the Titans biggest need currently. A.J. Brown is the only receiver on the roster with more than 10 catches in 2020 and obviously that can’t continue to be the case even if guys like Cameron Batson, Marcus Johnson, and Chester Rogers offer at least some relevant NFL experience. Some of the top guys available here are:

  • Kenny Golladay
  • Will Fuller
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • Antonio Brown
  • John Brown
  • Curtis Samuel
  • T.Y. Hilton
  • Marvin Jones
  • Sammy Watkins
  • Emmanuel Sanders
  • Keelan Cole
  • Danny Amendola
  • Breshad Perriman
  • Rashard Higgins
  • A.J. Green
  • David Moore
  • Josh Reynolds
  • DeSean Jackson
  • Demiere Byrd
  • Willie Snead
  • John Ross

There are a ton of quality players on that list that are still available. My guess is that the Titans add at least one. Some of my favorite choices would be Marvin Jones, Emmanuel Sanders, Rashard Higgins, David Moore, and Demiere Byrd. Will Fuller is a name that is easy to connect because of the Vrabel ties and he would fit beautifully across from A.J. Brown in this offense, but his injury history is terrifying and he will start 2021 with a one game suspension left from his PED bust at the end of last year. That is the ride the lightning option at receiver for the Titans.

Tight End

The options here are far less exciting.

  • Gerald Everett
  • Jared Cook
  • Kyle Rudolph
  • Trey Burton
  • Jacob Hollister
  • Marcedes Lewis
  • Richard Rodgers
  • Jesse James

Yikes. If you squint hard enough, you may be able to sell yourself on Everett being a Jonnu Lite type of player, but I’m not at all convinced that he blocks well enough to make him a significant upgrade over Firkser. Kyle Rudolph has connections to Titans OC Todd Downing, but he’s 31 years old and clearly on the downslope of his career.

The draft offers some more exciting options like Pat Freiermuth, Brevin Jordan, and Tommy Tremble — I don’t think the Titans are going to be in a position to trade up for Kyle Pitts — but rookie tight ends almost never come in and contribute right away.

Edge Rusher

The Titans already made their big splash here with Dupree, but they could double dip potentially with another lower level free agent to continue to reinforce the pass rush. Here are some of the guys remaining on the board:

  • Hasson Reddick
  • Melvin Ingram
  • Jadeveon Clowney
  • Aldon Smith
  • Carlos Dunlap
  • Takkarist McKinley
  • Tyus Bowser
  • Justin Houston
  • Olivier Vernon
  • Kerry Hyder
  • Trent Murphy
  • Ryan Kerrigan
  • Charles Harris

I’d love to see them add a veteran like Ingram, Kerrigan, or Houston who could play a reduced snap count and keep Landry and Dupree fresh. Tyus Bowser also remains interesting as a high upside pick who could play off the ball as well (as could Hasson Reddick). I’m not sure they’ll add another piece here, but if they don’t that signals to me that a day one or day two draft pick is going to be used at outside linebacker.

Cornerback

The Titans likely have Adoree’ Jackson and Kristian Fulton penciled in at two of the starting corner spots, but the third spot is vacant after the release of Malcolm Butler. Chris Jackson and Breon Borders are there, but you wouldn’t feel great about either of them being an 80%-plus snap kind of player. Some of the remaining options available at corner include:

  • William Jackson III
  • Richard Sherman
  • Desmond King
  • Mike Hilton
  • Janoris Jenkins
  • Shaquill Griffin
  • Troy Hill
  • Chidobe Awuzie
  • Brian Poole
  • Quinton Dunbar
  • Xavier Rhodes
  • Patrick Peterson
  • Nickell Robey-Coleman
  • Mackensie Alexander
  • K’Waun Williams
  • Gareon Conley
  • Casey Heyward
  • A.J. Bouye
  • Desmond Trufant
  • Justin Coleman
  • Kevin King
  • Corn Elder
  • Ahkello Witherspoon

The corner market was virtually untouched yesterday. Cameron Sutton signed back in Pittsburgh for a modest deal and Ronald Darby landed in Denver for $10-million per year, but that was it. I would expect some movement today and it’ll be interesting to see what — if anything — the Titans do here.

My belief is that both Jackson and Fulton are best suited to play outside so a slot corner would make some sense. Guys like Mike Hilton, Justin Coleman, and K’Waun Williams would fit that bill. However, they also want to play a lot of man coverage so a player like Gareon Conley or Quinton Dunbar could be interesting given their ability to play sticky man coverage. Of course, A.J. Bouye has ties to Vrabel and Titans secondary coach Anthony Midget so he should probably be monitored accordingly.

Inside Linebacker

The Titans only have two inside linebackers of note on the roster in Rashaan Evans and David Long. How aggressively they add at this position will tell us a lot about what they think of Evans and/or Long moving forward. Some of the top options available:

  • Jayon Brown
  • K.J. Wright
  • Denzel Perryman
  • Kyle Van Noy
  • B.J. Goodson
  • Eric Wilson
  • Raekwon McMillan
  • Kwon Alexander
  • Nicholas Morrow

This position is pretty light in free agency and all indications are that Jayon Brown will not be returning to Tennessee. I could get excited about K.J. Wright, Kwon Alexander, or Kyle Van Noy. All three of those guys have some successful seasons in their recent history and could help settle the middle of the Titans defense.

Tennessee will certainly be adding here for both depth and special teams purposes over the next couple weeks.

Nose Tackle

This is the last spot that I’ll mention and I’m not sure the Titans do anything here. DaQuan Jones is likely moving on and a large share of his snaps will likely go to Autry, even though they are very different types of interior defensive linemen. Tennessee could simply choose to roll with Teair Tart at this spot and I think they’d be just fine with him as a 30-40% snap count type of nose tackle with Jeffery Simmons and Autry handling most of the passing down snaps.

  • Ndamukong Suh
  • Tyson Alualu
  • Johnathan Hankins
  • Danny Shelton

There are some high quality players in that list. They’d all offer far more certainty than Tart heading into 2021, but with nose tackle being a smaller role in the defense overall, I don’t think the Titans should be spending premium money to fill this spot. If you could get Alualu or Shelton for a modest price tag, I’d be all for it though.

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