Will the Titans use their franchise tag for a second straight year?

The NFL’s 2021 offseason got a jolt of life last week when three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt was released by the Houston Texans after a decade with the team. Watt and Lions edge rusher Romeo Okwara, whose contract had a void clause that gives him an early start to free agency, are now free to sign deals with new teams and both are guys that should be firmly on the Titans radar. However, while we wait on news for those two players, let’s take a look at the next milestone on the NFL’s offseason calendar: the franchise tag window.

Teams can officially begin using their franchise and transition tags on February 23rd, though most usually wait until right before the March 9th deadline to actually pull the trigger. Let’s start with a refresher on how these tags work and how teams use them.

The exclusive version of the franchise tag is rarely used, but it is the most restrictive for the player (and most expensive for the team). Players who get this tag are not allowed to negotiate with other teams. They can continue to negotiate a long-term extension with their current team or they can choose to play on a one-year contract at a salary calculated by the league based on top salaries at the player’s position.

The non-exclusive franchise tag is the version that is most common and it’s the one that the Titans used on Derrick Henry last year. It allows a player to solicit offers from other teams, but gives the team who tagged the player the right to either match the offer and keep the player or receive two first-round picks from the signing team. Usually, the threat of those two first-round picks is enough to keep potential suitors away, effectively giving the team using the tag an extended exclusive negotiating window. The non-exclusive version of the franchise tag carries a slightly lower salary formula than the exclusive version.

The third tag is the transition tag. It’s rarely used as well. While the price tag is the lowest it also offers the least protection, simply giving the team the right of first refusal on any contract offer the player receives from a rival team with no draft pick compensation coming back if they choose not to match the offer.

Because the non-exclusive franchise tag and the transition tag are both calculated based on, in part, a percentage of the upcoming year’s salary cap, we don’t know exact values at this time, but below are the estimated salary numbers for the 2021 season according to Over The Cap:

PositionFranchise TagTransition Tag
QB$24,112,200$21,749,000
RB$11,112,000$8,942,000
WR$16,430,000$14,269,000
TE$10,167,000$8,576,000
OL$14,507,000$13,156,000
DT$14,178,000$11,405,000
DE$17,752,000$14,811,000
LB$15,657,000$13,406,000
CB$15,266,000$13,202,000
S$11,196,000$9,550,000
ST$4,792,000$4,382,000
Via OverTheCap.com

Teams often use these numbers as starting points for negotiations with their top players. For example, the Titans essentially gave Derrick Henry a contract where the first two years was based on what their cost would have been if they’d applied the franchise tag twice in a row. Henry gets the security of two guaranteed years instead of one and the Titans get increased cap flexibility and the option to keep Henry at a similar rate with two non-guaranteed years in 2022 and 2023.

So, let’s get to the question of whether the Titans will use the tag in 2021. There are really only three candidates in my opinion: Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, and Jayon Brown. Desmond King and DaQuan Jones are nice players, but they’re worth nothing close to their respective tag values ($15.3-million for King and $14.2-million for Jones) and the team agreed not to tag Jadeveon Clowney when they signed him (not that they would want him at that price tag anyway). Let’s look at the case for and against tagging Davis, Smith, and Brown:

Corey Davis

Franchise Tag: $16,430,000
Transition Tag: $14,269,000

I really don’t think this is a particularly close call so we’ll keep this brief. The Titans declined Davis’ fifth-year option last offseason, and despite the best year of his career in 2020, that remains the right decision. Davis simply isn’t a $15-million receiver at this point in his career.

Spotrac is projecting Davis’ next contract to be four years, $39.4 -million, putting his average annual value at just a shade under $10-million. That’s obviously nowhere close to the $16.4-million franchise tag number. Even if you think that projection is a little low (and I would tend to agree), Davis is not going to reach the $15-million per year range.

There is expected to be a glut of talent at the wide receiver position in both the free agent market as well as the draft this offseason, so replacing Davis’ role as WR2 wouldn’t be a huge task for Jon Robinson. Tennessee could look at upgrades like Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, or JuJu Smith-Schuster if they wanted to take a big swing or there are some quality mid-tier options like Marvin Jones, Curtis Samuel, T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Green, or Will Fuller that could be good bargains.

Of course, you’d love to have the continuity that Davis would bring, but I don’t think anyone should be panicked about the offense if he leaves and is replaced by one of the guys listed above. I’d be shocked if Davis got tagged.

Jonnu Smith

Franchise Tag: $10,167,000
Transition Tag: $8,576,000

This, to me, is by far the most likely option for the franchise tag. While Smith’s production waned as the season wore on, I think the evidence points to that being more of a product of the offense adapting to the loss of Taylor Lewan than it was a reflection of Smith’s performance. Take a look at Smith’s numbers with and without Lewan in the lineup in 2020:

With Lewan: 5 games, 234 yards (46.8 yds/gm), 5 TDs
Without Lewan: 10 games, 214 yards (21.4 yds/gm), 3 TDs

Smith was asked to chip frequently on passing downs after Lewan went down and that dramatically reduces his opportunity to be a primary target in Ryan Tannehill’s progression.

Nobody is going to confuse Smith with Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Darren Waller and I don’t think we will ever see him put up that kind of production. However, he’s developed into one of the better two-way tight ends in the NFL, grading out as the 12th best tight end in the league according to PFF this year.

His athleticism and run after catch ability are threats in the passing game and his run blocking has really improved over the past couple seasons to the point that he is now a plus contributor in that part of the game. Mike Vrabel has called Smith one of his favorite players to coach in the past, and at 25 years old, his best football is likely still ahead of him.

Spotrac projects Smith to get a five-year, $40.4-million contract in free agency at an average annual value of just over $8-million per year using recent contracts for Austin Hooper (four years, $42-million), Tyler Higbee (four years, $29-million), Cameron Brate (six years, $40.8-million), and Tyler Kroft (three years, $18.8-million) as comparables. That’s getting pretty close to the projected $10.2-million franchise tag number for tight ends.

The options available to replace Smith make the decision to tag him even more appealing. Hunter Henry is the only other tight end of Smith’s caliber that is set to hit the open market and it seems likely that the Chargers will choose to franchise tag him again even if they don’t reach a long-term extension. The other names set to be free agents — Gerald Everett, Jacob Hollister, 34-year old Jared Cook — don’t inspire a ton of confidence. And don’t even get me started on rookie tight ends.

What about just rolling with a combination of Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt, and Geoff Swaim? All three played pretty well in 2020, but there is a pretty big problem with just duct taping them together and calling them a Jonnu Smith replacement… none of them are multi-dimensional. Pruitt and Swaim are good blockers, but run like they have cement cleats. Firkser has been an outstanding third-down tight end over the past couple years, but he doesn’t offer much as a blocker. A big part of the value of the tight end position is its versatility. Having a guy like Smith who can be a plus player as both a receiver and a blocker puts defenses in a bind from a personnel perspective. Do they go small to get a safety or corner on Smith in coverage and risk getting trampled by the run game or do they go big and ask a linebacker to run the seams with him? You don’t create that conflict with Firkser or Pruitt or Swaim.

Additionally, I don’t think the Titans can afford to lose both Davis and Smith in the same offseason (not to mention Adam Humphries, who seems to be a likely cut candidate). Continuing to give Tannehill talented options that he trusts outside of A.J. Brown is going to be critical to allowing this offense to perform at an elite level.

Obviously, the best solution here is for the Titans and Smith to work out a long term deal, but if they get to the end of the tag window and still don’t have something done with either Davis or Smith, I think they have to consider using the tag on their young tight end.

Jayon Brown

Franchise Tag: $15,657,000
Transition Tag: $13,406,000

Brown struggled a bit early in the 2020 season, but was just starting to come on when his season was ended thanks to a fractured elbow caused by an illegal block by Ravens guard Ben Powers. The Titans 2017 fifth-round pick was on pace to set new career highs in tackles, passes broken up, and tackles for loss for a second straight year.

After earning a role as a third-down coverage linebacker as a rookie, Brown quickly made Avery Williamson expendable and became a full-time starter in 2018. His 22 pass breakups over the last three years rank fifth among all linebackers and he routinely checks in among the highest-graded coverage ‘backers in the league according to PFF.

Spotrac doesn’t have a contract projection for Brown, but PFF is projecting a four-year, $47.5-million deal for him at an average annual value of just under $12-million per year. That’s at least in the ballpark of the $15.7-million franchise tag number.

Given that Brown’s injury, while serious, is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on the remainder of his career, I think the Titans would be better served to try and get a long-term deal done rather than letting him play on the tag. Besides, there are some potential replacements on the market if they were to let him walk. Lavonte David, K.J. Wright, and Matt Milano are all set to hit the market and all three would be good replacements if the Titans were to lose a bidding war for Brown. The draft also offers some good options at inside linebacker, including Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Zaven Collins on day one and Chazz Surratt, Jabril Cox, and Baron Browning on day two.

The Titans also have David Long as a potential low cost in-house option. While he doesn’t offer the same level of coverage skills that Brown does, he has proven to be a starting quality linebacker in limited reps during his first two years.

The Verdict

I don’t think the Titans will use a tag on Davis or Brown, though there is at least a case to be made for Brown. Jonnu Smith stands out as the clear best value among the taggable options and I think there is a chance they choose to lock him in if they can’t reach a long term deal by the close of the franchise tag window.

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