What are the Titans options moving forward with Isaiah Wilson?

To say that Isaiah Wilson’s NFL career has gone off the rails would suggest that it was ever on a rail to begin with. The Titans 2020 first round pick has provided a bottomless buffet of self-destructive actions during his rookie season including citation for trespassing at a college party, multiple trips to the COVID/reserve list, a DUI, a team suspension for violation of team rules, and multiple social media posts that continue to highlight his poor judgement.

The latest incident falls into the latter category as Wilson tweeted Monday night that he is “done with football as a Titan”.

What drove Wilson to post that on a random weeknight in the middle of the offseason is unclear, but at least one report has suggested that he grew angry over the team Twitter account failing to send out a happy birthday tweet (something they regularly do for players) when he turned 22 on February 12th. That may sound ridiculous to you, but this is the same guy who told Bussin’ With The Boys that he decommitted from Alabama because Nick Saban didn’t give him a hug, so I don’t think the birthday explanation is that farfetched.

Regardless of the “why” behind the tweet (which he quickly deleted), the fact of the matter is that these two parties seem to be cruising towards a split sooner rather than later. Despite the relatively large investment in draft capital tied up in the 6-6, 350-pound right tackle, the Titans are probably better off moving on at this point. If all of the trials and tribulations of his rookie year haven’t served as a wake up call, what will?

So if the Titans do grant Wilson’s apparent wishes and turn him loose, what does that process look like and what are the financial implications for both him and the team?

Let’s start by pointing out a couple things. Wilson’s one-game suspension in Week 13 wasn’t just the Titans sending a message, it also laid the groundwork for the team to void the guaranteed money remaining on his rookie contract, specifically his base salaries of $1.136-million in 2021, $1.662-million in 2022, and the $1.78-million guaranteed portion of his $2.188-million base salary in 2023. Altogether, that’s close to $4.6-million that the Titans should be off the hook for if they choose to move on from Wilson this offseason.

Without seeing the actual terms of his contract it’s impossible to know for certain that it’s voided, but as former NFL agent Joel Corry has pointed out in previous instances, it is standard for teams to have language that voids guarantees that looks something like this:

“Notwithstanding this Skill, Injury and Cap Guarantee, Player shall report to Club, practice with Club, play with Club, and honor all terms of the Contract, including all addenda thereto. If at any time Player does not report to Club; does not practice or play with Club; leaves Club without prior written approval (including, but not limited to retirement); does not honor any terms of the Contract (including any addenda thereto); is suspended by the NFL or Club for conduct detrimental, violation of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, violation of the NFL Policy on Substances of Abuse, or violation of the NFL Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances; violates any other agreements between Club and Player; or is injured as a result of a breach of Paragraph 3 of the Contract or as a result of participation in hazardous activities which involve a significant risk of personal injury and are non-football in nature (including but not limited to skydiving, hang gliding, mountain climbing, auto racing, motorcycling, scuba diving, skiing, and any other sports) then Player shall be in default (“Default”) and the Skill, Injury and Cap Guarantee shall be null and void and Player shall be only eligible to earn his remaining stated Paragraph 5 salary on a weekly, non-guaranteed basis if Player is on Club’s roster for the 2019 League Year and meets all ordinary criteria for earning Paragraph 5 Salary, subject to any applicable fines.”

We also learned that the team has already come after Wilson’s money in one respect. Ian Rapoport reported yesterday that the team elected not to pay Wilson’s salary for the games that he spend on the reserve/Non-Football Illness list at the end of last season. That was worth $180,000 in savings for the team and that money will be credited back to them on next year’s cap. It’s not a ton of money, but it’s something.

However, even if the guaranteed money is, in fact, voided thanks to his suspension, that doesn’t mean the Titans can get away from Wilson scot-free. They still have to contend with the cap hits from his $5.973-million signing bonus. While that money has already been paid out, it gets spread evenly across the four years of his rookie deal for cap purposes, so the Titans are still carrying a roughly $1.5-million hit in 2021, 2022, and 2023 to account for that bonus.

If they release Wilson today, those cap charges would all accelerate onto their 2021 cap sheet, actually increasing his cap hit by close to $1.9-million assuming that they can void the guarantee on his base salary. If their contract language does not give them a path to voiding the guarantees, they’d be taking a $6.4-million hit to their 2021 books by releasing Wilson — a result that would be extra painful with the lowered salary cap this offseason.

The more likely option, if the Titans do cut Wilson, is that they designate him as a post-June 1st release which effectively splits his cap charge between 2021 and 2022 (when the Titans would reasonably expect to have more cap room). That would mean Tennessee would gain just over $1.1-million in cap room for 2021 if they can void his guaranteed money.

Of course, the best option for the Titans would be to find a trade partner that would take Wilson off their hands. That would remove the need to void his remaining guarantees because they would become the responsibility of the team trading for him. So from a financial standpoint, there is no difference between trading Wilson and cutting him while voiding his guaranteed salaries.

What kind of team would trade for a guy who has been an epic disaster to this point? Well, first round picks tend to get second chances in the league no matter how bad they screw up early in their careers. Could a team like the Ravens — who could find themselves needing a new right tackle if they give in to Orlando Brown’s trade request — consider giving up a conditional 6th or 7th round pick in exchange for a potential high upside flier at a position of need? There is almost no risk involved for a team trading for Wilson outside of a potential locker room distraction and general irritation. Tackles have enormous positional value in the NFL (see: Super Bowl LV) and that plays in the Titans favor here.

One interesting angle to Wilson’s Monday night tweet is that him quitting would give the Titans an avenue to pursue his signing bonus, essentially wiping him off their books altogether and saving millions in cap space. Obviously, a late night tweet that was hastily deleted (likely after an all caps text from his agent) doesn’t constitute an actual resignation, but if Wilson was to hang it up or fail to show up for mandatory minicamp later this summer, that would give Tennessee an out financially.

Signing bonuses are very difficult for teams to recoup. The Titans would have to go through an arbitration process with the NFLPA and the odds would be against them unless Wilson quits or stops showing up to work entirely. It also isn’t always a great look for a team to be seen coming after signing bonuses regardless of whether the player deserves it. Other players see that and get nervous that it could happen to them if they slip up. I’d be extremely surprised if Tennessee was able to get any of that money back from Wilson.

So to summarize, here are the changes in 2021 salary cap space for each of the options on the table with Wilson from best for the Titans to worst:

  • Trade Wilson (Post-June 1 Designation): +$1.135M
  • Void Guarantees + Cut Post-June 1: +$1.135M
  • Trade Wilson (no Post-June 1 Designation): -$1.851M
  • Keep Guarantees + Cut Post-June 1: -$3.442M
  • Keep Guarantees + Cut: -$6.428M

Finding a trade partner would be ideal, but the Titans should have grounds to void Wilson’s guarantees and designate him as a post-June 1 cut (more on that designation and how it works here). At this point, getting some cap space back and being done with this headache sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

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