Mike Fanelli | January 23rd, 2020
The Tennessee Titans’ 2019 season was one of the quieter, yet bigger stories of the year. After starting the year with a dominant 43-13 win over the highly hyped up Cleveland Browns in week one, the Titans went on to lose two straight to division rivals Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars. After a 16-0 loss to the Denver Broncos, the Titans sat at 2-4 when head coach Mike Vrabel benched Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill.
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For those of you who don’t remember, the Miami Dolphins traded Tannehill to the Titans along with a 2019 sixth-round pick in exchange for a 2019 seventh-round pick and a 2020 fourth-round pick. To make the deal happen, the Dolphins ended up paying a large part of Tannehill’s 2019 salary. The Titans’ season turned around as they went 7-3 over their last 10 games, averaging 14.1 more points per game with Tannehill under center than Mariota. Finishing the season 9-7, the Titans clinched the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs in week 17.
What Went Right
After finishing the second half of the season as one of the top teams in the league, the Titans went on the road and defeated the reigning champion New England Patriots 20-13 as a Logan Ryan pick-six sealed the victory. The following week the Titans were 10 point underdogs as they headed to Baltimore to face the Ravens. Behind Derrick Henry‘s 195 rushing yards and a strong performance by the defense, the Titans won 28-12. However, the following week the Titans were unable to get the ground game going as Henry had just 69 yards on 16 attempts while Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense was too much to overcome as the Titans lost 35-24.
During the second half of the season, Henry stepped up his game, rushing for over 100 yards in five of his last six games, including 211 yards in week 17 that locked up the rushing title. Second-round rookie A.J. Brown exploded with Tannehill. Brown finished first among rookies and 24th overall in receiving yards with 1,051. He also finished the year with eight receiving touchdowns; tied for ninth-best in the league. Defensively, second-year outside linebacker Harold Landry finished 22nd in the league with nine sacks, doubling his total from his rookie season.
What Went Wrong
Landry was one of the lone bright spots for the defense this season. He led the team in sacks while Jurrell Casey and Kamalei Correa each had five. Ryan had 4.5 sacks, as he was one of the better blitzing cornerbacks in the league. No one else on the team had more than three sacks. For a defense that struggled to get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing, this must be addressed in the offseason.
One must wonder if the Titans went 7-3 with Tannehill as the starter, what would have happened if he started all 16 games. Over a full season, had the Titans won 70% of their games (their winning percentage with Tannehill starting), they would have won 11 games, which would have given them the AFC South division title and a home playoff game. While Brown had a terrific rookie season, former top-five pick, Corey Davis, regressed. In 2018, Davis had 65 catches for 891 yards and four touchdowns; all career-highs. However, this season his production dropped to 43 catches for just 601 yards and two touchdowns. In the offseason, the Titans’ will have to make a call on his fifth-year option and I expect them to decline it.
Outlook for the Offseason
The Titans should be active this offseason. They are projected to have $54.2 million dollars in cap space this spring but have several free agents they need to re-sign, headlined by Tannehill and Henry. Both players are likely to get slapped with the franchise or transition tag if they can’t come to long term deals with the Titans. This isn’t a prediction but if I’m making the call on whether to sign these guys to long term deals or not, I would franchise tag Tannehill and make him prove this season wasn’t a fluke.
With Henry, I would sign him to a long term deal up to $11 million per year on average, but I would write the contract with the ability to get out of the deal after year two. I am not a believer in paying running backs big money long term, especially given the recent struggles of players who got paid like Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell. However, Henry was outstanding and arguably the best running back not named Christian McCaffrey this season, and deserves to get paid.
The Team’s Free Agents
In addition to Tannehill and Henry, starting cornerback Ryan is an upcoming free agent and should be the team’s top priority to re-sign. Starting right tackle Jack Conklin had a solid season and should also be re-signed unless the money gets out of hand. If he leaves in free agency, I expect the Titans to spend their first-round pick (and possibly move up in the draft) to select his replacement. A lot of the running game’s success was because of the offensive line. In addition to re-signing Conklin, swing tackle Dennis Kelly, who caught a touchdown pass in the AFC Championship game, is a free agent and should be re-signed.
Role players like wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and cornerback Tramaine Brock both had solid years. Sharpe filled in when the wide receiver position was hit with injuries, playing 44% of the snaps this season. Meanwhile, Brock stepped in when Malcolm Butler was lost for the season with a broken wrist, playing 66% of the snaps. Both guys could be replaced with rookies, but if the market dries up on them and the Titans can get them back below market value, they should re-sign both. With so many key free agents to re-sign and the need to improve in other areas in free agency, the Titans will need to make some cap casualties.
Butler has been inconsistent since signing a big-time free-agent contract with the Titans a few offseasons ago. The team can save $7.6 million dollars in cap space by cutting him but he will leave $6 million dollars in dead money on their books. Unless cutting Butler is needed to re-sign Ryan, I expect Butler to be a Titan next season. Another defensive veteran that could be on the cutting block is outside linebacker Cameron Wake. Last offseason the Titans signed Wake to help with their lack of pass rushers but he struggled, playing just 18% of the snaps while registering just 2.5 sacks. The Titans can save $5.9 million dollars (69% of his cap hit) by cutting him and I expect that to happen early in the offseason.
Offensively, long time starting tight end Delanie Walker will likely be playing elsewhere next season. He played in just seven games this season and only 25% of the games over the last two seasons because of injuries. Walker will turn 36 years old before the start of next season and the Titans can save $6.7 million dollars by cutting him. While Henry should be re-signed, backup running back Dion Lewis will likely be cut. He played in just 37% of the snaps this season and the Titans can save $4 million dollars (78% of his cap hit) by cutting him. Maybe he is brought back at a much lower cost but with a deep free agency and draft class at running back, I expect Lewis to be playing somewhere else in 2020.
Open Market Free Agents
By cutting Wake, Walker, and Lewis, the Titans can open up $16.6 million dollars in cap space this spring. With that money, they can target a top-end pass rusher to pair with Landry. Some potential names to keep an eye on are Shaquil Barrett, Bud Dupree, Dante Fowler, and Matt Judon. Barrett and Dupree are likely to receive the franchise tag from their current teams if they aren’t able to come to a long term deal, while Fowler and Judon both finished top 20 in sacks this season. Pairing any of these four with Landry would give the Titans two very good outside linebackers.
While I expect Tannehill back next season, some veteran options on the open market could include Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and Teddy Bridgewater. Of the trio, Bridgewater has the best odds to sign with the Titans but all three are long shots. Similarly, with Henry, the Titans will likely bring him back but could turn free agency to replace him. Kareem Hunt would be the best option but as a restricted free agent, it will require the Titans to give up some sort of draft pick to sign him. Meanwhile, backs like Jordan Howard or Carlos Hyde would be nice cheaper veteran options to pair with a rookie should the Titans move on from Henry and Lewis.
With Walker likely playing elsewhere, it leaves third-year tight end, Jonnu Smith, as the full-time starter. He posted career-highs across the board in 2019 with 35 catches on 44 targets for 439 yards and three touchdowns. While he had a solid season, he will be a free agent after the 2020 season and if the Titans can get their hands on an elite tight end in free agency like Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry, they should invest the money to do that.
If the Titans decide to not or are unable to re-sign Ryan, veteran cornerbacks on the market like Byron Jones and Mackensie Alexander would be nice replacements. Both are expected to hit the open market as their current team lacks the cap space to re-sign them at market value deals. In a division with DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, T.Y. Hilton, and DJ Chark, the Titans should also look to add depth at cornerback in the middle rounds of the draft.
Projecting the NFL Draft
Free agency will play a major role in what the Titans do during the draft. They have three picks in the top 100 selections and thanks to their playoff run, they will pick 29th overall in each round. Assuming they re-sign Tannehill, Henry, Conklin, and Ryan, this is how I expect them to address the draft.
Round 1, Pick 29: Outside Linebacker
Given all their own free agents that need to be re-signed, I doubt they have the cap space to target a big-time pass rusher. Adding someone to pair with Landry, Casey and 2019 first-round pick Jeffery Simmons is critical if the Titans want to improve from their 43 sack total from this season. Expect them to use their first-round pick on a pass rusher.
Round 2, Pick 61: Wide Receiver
As I said earlier, I doubt the Titans exercise Davis’ fifth-year option this offseason. Brown and Humphries are a solid duo but the Titans need to add a big wide receiver on the outside. A potential target for the Titans in the second round is Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson.
Round 3, Pick 93: Offensive Line
This becomes less of a need if the team re-signs Kelly but even with him back, the Titans lack depth along the offensive line. Good cheap talent on the offensive line is harder to come by these days and the Titans should invest a mid-round pick on building up their depth. If Conklin isn’t re-signed, finding a new starting right tackle becomes the team’s top priority.
Titan fans won’t want to hear it but the truth is the team outperformed expectations. Entering the 2019 season, they were expected to be a borderline playoff team and while they didn’t clinch a playoff spot till week 17, they got an easy win against the Texans’ reserves. Then they got hot in the playoffs behind Henry’s dominant running. If Tannehill and Henry can repeat what they did in the back half of the season, the Titans could challenge for the AFC South title. However, the Texans are a formidable opponent and the Colts have all the tools in the world to improve this offseason. With a tough division, the Titans are more likely battling for a wild card spot next year or missing the playoffs than winning the division.
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