Way back in December, we previewed the Titans upcoming offseason and listed three players that were likely to be cap casualties prior to the opening of free agency: Malcolm Butler, Adam Humphries, and Kenny Vaccaro. Well, we are now three for three on that checklist as Vaccaro joined Humphries and Butler as new free agents.
Vaccaro’s time with the Titans was a smashing success. Signed halfway through training camp in 2018 when Johnathan Cyprien went down with a torn ACL, the former first round pick seemed to fit in immediately within the Titans culture. He started 46 of a possible 52 games, including all four Titans playoff games during his tenure with the franchise.
His 225 tackles rank fourth on the team since 2018 and Vaccaro’s physical presence always brought a little extra energy to the Tennessee defense.
Vaccaro was one of the better blitzers on the roster and really served as a quality partner for Kevin Byard in the back end of the Titans defense.
However, the NFL can be a tough place for defensive backs on the wrong side of 30 years old, a threshold Vaccaro crossed just last month, and that’s a big part of the reason for this move. It was pretty clear that the veteran safety — who has frequently dealt with injury issues throughout his eight years in the league — had lost a step towards the end of 2020. For a guy playing in the secondary who ran a 4.63 back at age 22, that’s a problem.
The other reason for Vaccaro’s release is the presence of Amani Hooker. The Titans 2019 fourth round pick played 42% of defensive snaps in 2020 and started three games when Vaccaro was out of the lineup. Despite playing in a smaller role, he tied for the team lead in interceptions with four and regularly graded out as one of the best coverage players on the Tennessee defense.
Hooker doesn’t bring the same kind of physicality or blitzing ability that Vaccaro does, but he is a much better coverage player, and for a defense that struggled tremendously against the pass in 2020, that’s a trade off the Titans are willing to make.
How Hooker and Byard mesh together remains to be seen, but my guess would be that we see more of Byard around the box moving forward. Byard is a good blitzer himself and playing in the box will give him more opportunities to matchup with tight ends in man coverage — a task that I consider to be his strongest skill.
It also gives Byard the chance to be a little more aggressive and use his instincts to his advantage. While he was — and still is — very good at playing centerfield, that’s a spot that puts him furthest from the action and limits how aggressive he can be on a play to play basis. I think this move might actually free up Byard to be more of a wildcard in the Titans secondary, popping up all over the field and making it tougher for offenses to avoid running into him.
The other safety that plays into this equation is Dane Cruikshank. A 2017 fifth round pick out of Arizona, Cruikshank is an incredible athlete and has been a plus special teams player for his entire tenure with the Titans. While he’s rarely gotten the opportunity to play on defense, he’s shown well in the very limited reps that he has seen. I’d like to see him get the chance to step into that third safety role that Hooker has occupied for the last two years.
The Titans are now up to $17.6-million in available cap space according to Spotrac. There are no more obvious cuts on the roster at this point, but Jon Robinson does have a few more paths to creating cap space.
A Ben Jones extension could reduce his 2021 cap number from $7.25-million to something closer to the $3-million range if structured correctly. The same goes for Dennis Kelly’s $8.33-million cap hit.
They could also approach Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, and Rodger Saffold for restructures that would leave their total earnings alone, but move some of the big cap hits from 2021 to 2022 and 2023. Tannehill and Henry are both particularly attractive candidates for that since their 2021 salaries are both fully guaranteed anyway.
While the results haven’t panned out to this point — to put it way too nicely — it’s clear that Jon Robinson believed that the Titans defense needed to get younger and faster. Moving on from guys like Jurrell Casey, Logan Ryan, Wesley Woodyard, Malcolm Butler, and Kenny Vaccaro is painful, but so is fielding a defense filled with old, slow players. I’d expect Tennessee to be active in free agency and the draft to try and build a version of the defense that can match the wide open offenses they’ll be battling with in the AFC next season.