Prior to the start of the 2020 season, I was pretty sure that it would be Malcolm Butler’s final season in Tennessee. His five-year, $61.25-million deal signed in 2018 always felt like it was really going to be a three-year, $36.4-million deal based on the way the contract was structured with zero guaranteed money left beyond the 2020 season.
However, his play last year gave me some pause. Butler led the Titans with five interceptions (including his pick of Lamar Jackson in the playoffs) and was arguably the best player on a very very bad defense. Could Tennessee really afford to part with one of their few above-average defenders?
We got the team’s answer to that question this afternoon as Ian Rapoport reported that Butler was informed of his release.
The move saves the Titans a whopping $10.2-million in 2021 cap space, more than doubling their previous projected total, which now stands somewhere around $18-million after the Isaiah Wilson trade and the Butler release. However, it also creates a hole at cornerback that must be filled via either free agency or the draft.
A healthy Adoree’ Jackson and a second-year Kristian Fulton seem likely poised to fill two of the three starters spots at corner this fall, but the third starter probably isn’t on the roster right now. Guys like Chris Jackson, Breon Borders, and Kareem Orr could provide some depth, but none of them are ready to be counted on as full time starters. Even Jackson and Fulton might give some pause after their respective injury issues in 2020.
So how could they address this new gap in the roster? A trade for 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore is one interesting option. Gilmore’s contract is structured oddly, carrying a base salary of just $7-million, and it’s ripe for a restructure/extension that could be set up to minimize the 2021 cap impact for his new team.
The downside to pursuing Gilmore is that the Patriots will certainly want some significant draft capital in return for him and he’s a 30-year old corner coming off a down season. Is that a blip in a bad year overall for the Pats defense or a sign of his skill set deteriorating? If he’s still capable of playing close to his 2019 level, Gilmore would represent a huge upgrade and a perfect scheme fit in the Titans man-heavy defense.
There are, of course, some free agent options available as well. William Jackson III is probably the best of the bunch after the Bengals passed on giving him the franchise tag today. He’s a good man coverage corner and is still relatively young at 28 years old. However, I’d expect his price tag to be relatively high on the open market. The Titans could manipulate his cap hits to make it work if they really wanted to, but they’ll have stiff competition.
Some other free agents that I’d have at least some interest in at a much lower price point include Ronald Darby, A.J. Bouye, Patrick Peterson, and Gareon Conley. Those are all guys that I would view as one-year, low risk type signings that I would pair with a high draft pick.
One guy that I don’t think ends up being a particularly appealing option is Desmond King. While King played reasonably well after the Titans traded a sixth-round pick for him at the trade deadline, he’s a pure zone slot corner and Tennessee wants to live in man coverage more often than not. I think his acquisition at the deadline was more of function of him being better than guys like Chris Jackson for a team trying to make a playoff push. However, with more options on the table now, I think both parties will find better fits.
Maybe the best approach is to target corner early in the draft. Jaycee Horn was one of my biggest draft crushes before this news and now my interest in the South Carolina corner is through the roof. He’d be a tremendous fit and brings the same dog mentality that endeared Butler to Titans fans in recent years.
The Titans are justified in being leery of keeping a 31-year old corner at the price tag Butler was carrying, but they now have some big shoes to fill in an already ailing defense.