Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
News of free agency signings has been slow, but fans mashing the panic button are overreacting… for now.
It’s been a week and a half since free agency opened in the NFL, and after a fast start, the Titans additions to the roster have slowed to a trickle. Sure, we got a Nick Dzubnar here and a Ty Sambrailo there, but nothing that really moves the needle. Meanwhile, fans have watched other teams add players and several former Titans find new homes.
So what gives? Here are five reasons that you shouldn’t be panicking about the Titans offseason right now:
1. This offseason was always about keeping the core intact.
Let’s start with a fact that has gotten lost in all the free agency frenzy of the past couple weeks… this Titans offseason was always about who they could bring back, not who they could add. This isn’t some retrospective spin job either. Here are the exact words that I wrote in my offseason preview piece from over two months ago:
“However, if I’m Tennessee, I’m trying to keep my guys in house this offseason rather than chasing players from other teams. It’s a bit of a different mindset than we are used to around here this time of year, but it’s a sign that things are changing for the better. This is what good teams do. They fill their roster with good players and then have to prioritize which ones to bring back and which ones to let walk. The guys that do walk earn the team compensatory picks in the next draft and lets the good GM start filling the pipeline back up with young, cheap talent.”
The Titans spent big money to make sure that the quarterback who completely transformed their offense and the league’s rushing champ were back in the fold for another year. That’s a massive win by itself.
We’ll get to the defense in a minute, but you have to feel pretty good about the offense that the Titans are bringing back in 2020. They’re going to bring back 10 of 11 starters and the only new starter, right tackle Dennis Kelly, is entering his fifth year with the team. Even most of the regular contributors — guys like blocking tight end MyCole Pruitt, third down tight end Anthony Firkser, deep threat Kalif Raymond, and fullback Khari Blasingame — and offensive coaching staff are going to be returning to their roles.
Continuity is valuable, especially on offense, and with a shortened offseason practice schedule expected due to COVID-19, the Titans could be one of the teams best suited to take advantage early in 2020.
2. The coronavirus has messed with physicals and that could have something to do with the lack of new signings.
Another impact of the current pandemic that is that NFL teams are prohibited from flying players in and having them undergo physicals with team doctors like they normally do when agreeing to terms this time of year. Team personnel is also banned from traveling to see a player so that means that everything in this signing period is being done remotely.
Technology allows for players to take virtual tours of the facilities and video conference with GMs and coaches, but teams being forced to arrange for physicals through third party doctors in the city where the player is currently living has made things far more complicated than usual. That’s especially true for teams that might be considering forking out big money to a player who is coming off an injury or surgery at the end of last season.
We’ve already seen two players — Michael Brockers and Darqueze Dennard — have deals announced publicly, only to have the agreement fall through later. Brockers contract with the Ravens was pulled after the team got a look at the results of his physical. The exact circumstances of Dennard’s situation haven’t been reported, but my guess is that it was also physical related.
Some deals get leaked out early through agents or team sources, but the Titans are among the most tight-lipped front offices in the NFL, often breaking their own news via TitansOnline.com rather than being dropped in a tweet from Adam Schefter or Ian Rapoport.
It’s quite possible that the Titans have a deal or two that are agreed to in principle already pending a physical that we just haven’t heard about yet. It benefits the team to keep these quiet for as long as they can. Putting the numbers and structure of the agreement out there for the world to see does nothing besides give rival teams insight into what the offer to beat really was.
It’s relatively rare that players go back on their word, but it’s not unprecedented. Anthony Barr did it to the Jets a couple years ago and we know that the Patriots threw an “after the bell” offer at Adam Humphries last offseason, though Hump didn’t bite.
So while it’s frustrating for information-starved fans that the Titans often move quietly in free agency, it’s good for the team in the long run.
3. This is generally how good teams operate.
The dirty little secret of this free agency period is that it’s been kind of boring with the exception of the quarterback carousel. Who is the best non-quarterback that switched teams? I’d say Byron Jones, who left the Cowboys for the sunny rebuild in Miami in exchange for $16.5 million per year. The big ticket trades of DeForest Buckner, DeAndre Hopkins, and Stefon Diggs have added some unexpected flashes, but if you are looking just at signings, this has been a remarkably boring free agent signing period.
Among the four conference finalists from last year, the Titans have actually made the biggest impact signing of the group in Beasley (assuming that deal does, in fact, finalize). The Chiefs have lost Kendall Fuller, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Stefen Wisniewski. The 49ers have lost DeForest Bucker (via trade) and Emmanuel Sanders. The Packers have lost Bryan Bulaga, Blake Martinez, and Jimmy Graham. None of those teams have made significant additions so far.
Of course, the Titans have lost players as well. Jurrell Casey and Jack Conklin are significant losses who will need to be replaced. Tennessee has made it’s plan for Conklin’s right tackle spot known by re-signing Dennis Kelly, but they will likely still address this position in the draft for a long term fix. Casey’s replacement is a more complicated question and it doesn’t have a clear answer just yet, but I am relatively sure that another move is going to be made here (more on that in a bit).
However, it should be noted that the Titans shedding players in free agency, rather than spending for another team’s surplus talent, is going to become more and more likely as Jon Robinson continues to draft well. It will make for a boring March every year — and some painful goodbyes at times — but it will ultimately result in a better football team to watch in the fall. The most sustainable and successful franchises in the NFL build by drafting and developing talent from year to year, not buying expensive replacements.
During Ruston Webster’s entire tenure as GM, the Titans drafted just six players who completed their rookie contract with the team and went on to start at least one game for another NFL franchise — Kendall Wright, Coty Sensabaugh, Chance Warmack, Zach Brown, Avery Williamson, and Marcus Mariota — and he drafted just two players who went on to sign a significant second contract with the Titans, Taylor Lewan and DaQuan Jones.
Jon Robinson will nearly equal that number with just one draft class. Daniel Jeremiah — one of the NFL Network’s best draft analysts and a former NFL scout — often says that Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens judged their draft classes by the number of starters that they found in the class. He defines a good draft as having three starters and a “great” draft as getting four.
Using that grading system, let’s look at Jon Robinson’s results so far by class:
- 2016: 3.5* starters (Conklin, Henry, Byard, Sharpe)
- 2017: 4 starters (Davis, Jackson, Smith, Brown)
- 2018: 2 starters (Evans, Landry)
- 2019: 3 starters (Simmons, Brown, Davis)
*I’m giving Sharpe credit as a half here. He was a starter in two of his four years here and likely falls somewhere between a WR3 and WR4 for most teams.
The 2019 class will likely look better within the next couple years as I would expect to see Amani Hooker make the jump into the starting lineup before the end of his rookie deal and it wouldn’t totally shock me if David Long becomes a starter at some point too.
So based on Jeremiah’s definition of a good class, Jon Robinson is pretty consistently hitting the mark, and I think it’s fair to say that the high round bust rate for his classes has seemingly dropped with each passing year. We know that Kevin Dodd and Austin Johnson were duds in 2016 and Taywan Taylor went bust from the 2017 class, but Robinson is a five for five on starters in rounds one through three over the past two years.
If he continues to hit at this rate moving forward, the Titans are going to continue to have to pick and choose which of their own players they want to bring back rather than scouring the scrap heap for help. That’s a good thing, even if it is a little boring this time of year.
4. There are still some good free agent options left.
This might be the biggest reason to take your hands off the panic button… free agency isn’t over. The Titans are not going to have to play a game tonight with the roster as it stands this moment.
As discussed above, the Titans are pretty set on offense. We know today — barring any injuries — that the starting lineup in Week 1 will consist of Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Jonnu Smith, A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, and Dennis Kelly.
If you believe in the value of continuity and chemistry, bringing back virtually the entire offense that ripped the league to shreds for most of the final three months of the season is pretty appealing. We’ll almost certainly see a new backup running back added and probably some additions to the wide receiver depth, but we know what the core of this offense is going to look like, and given how well this group played last year, that’s probably a good thing.
Defense is where the question marks come in. The Titans shipped out Jurrell Casey in return for a 7th round pick (but really cap space) and have yet to re-sign Logan Ryan or Kamalei Correa. They also cut Cameron Wake and saw a couple depth pieces in Austin Johnson and LeShaun Sims sign elsewhere. The only addition to this point has been edge rusher Vic Beasley.
We also saw some turnover on this side of the ball within the coaching staff as defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired, defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs left to become Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, and inside linebackers coach Tyrone McKenzie was “invited to find a new opportunity”. The Titans didn’t directly replace Pees, but did add defensive backs coach Anthony Midget, inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett, and promoted defensive assistant Scott Booker to safeties coach.
This was the unit that the Titans needed to focus on improving this offseason, and while a lot has changed, it’s hard to say that they have gotten better at this point. In fact, it’s reasonable to say that they’re in worse shape defensively on March 27th than they were at the end of last season.
However, this is also where I would expect additions to be made. The Titans have been connected to Jadeveon Clowney, and while trustworthy reports have been few and far between, it still sounds like there is a chance that Tennessee could end up landing the biggest remaining free agent on the market. Setting my two-tone glasses and personal affinity for Jurrell Casey aside, going from Casey to Clowney would a pretty clear upgrade.
No, it’s not a like-for-like swap, but that would effectively be the team telling us that they viewed Clowney as a piece that could help fix a broken pass rush and moved Casey to free up the money to sign him. Besides, getting hung up on the position of each player is a waste of time, particularly if you’re looking at this as “starters” in a 3-4 base defense.
So, if it’s Clowney — and to be clear, I’m not saying it is — why haven’t they signed him yet? Did they really risk losing Casey for nothing just to chase this guy? Again, we have heard virtually zero from legit sources regarding Clowney’s free agency. The little that has been reported has pointed to him being disappointed that teams weren’t willing to match his $20 million per year asking price and that the Seahawks offer — at least at one point — was a multi-year deal worth $18.5 million per year. We’ve also heard that Clowney is considering a one year option to try and make another run at the market in 2021, but that the one year offers are lower in average value than the long term offers.
Given Clowney’s injury history and the fact that he had surgery at the end of last season to repair a sports hernia that he played through for much of last year, it seems very likely that any team that signs him would want a thorough physical done. That’s true of all signings to some degree, but with the money and injury history associated with Clowney, this is a critical part of any deal.
Is it possible that a deal has already been agreed to pending physical results? Sure. You’d think that word might have leaked out, but keeping it quiet until all the ink is dry would be in the best interest of both parties. The team wouldn’t want their offer getting out to competitors who may try and outbid them after the fact and Clowney wouldn’t want a failed physical getting to the media and giving his other suitors cold feet.
It’s also very possible that Clowney isn’t the target. There are still more than a handful of attractive free agent options on defense that remain unsigned as of right now. Interior defensive linemen like Shelby Harris, Derek Wolfe, Snacks Harrison, Timmy Jernigan, Christian Covington, and Mike Daniels would all be able to step in behind Simmons and Jones on the defensive interior.
The edge rusher market is getting pretty thin, but Markus Golden was a 10-sack player last year who remains unsigned and Everson Griffen is also on the market after his fifth 8-plus sack season in the last six years. You also have older vets like Terrell Suggs, Clay Matthews, and Pernell McPhee who could all still give you quality snaps as part of a rotation, especially if you have Harold Landry and Vic Beasley carrying more of the load.
Cornerback, probably the biggest true need position on the roster still has some options as well. Logan Ryan could still be in play for a reunion and veterans like Prince Amukamara, Ronald Darby, Johnathan Joseph, Daryl Worley, Darqueze Dennard, and Bashaud Breeland are all players with recent success as starters in this league.
The Titans aren’t going to start the season with the roster where it currently stands. Some of these guys — or others that I didn’t get to here — will be added at some point in the relatively near future.
5. Jon Robinson has earned the benefit of the doubt.
The Titans were in absolute disarray when Robinson arrived in 2016. They had gone 5-27 over the previous two years and featured a roster that was a hodgepodge of failed draft picks and worse free agents signings.
Over the four years since, Robinson has remade the roster almost entirely while going a combined 36-28 with two playoff appearances. Just four players on the current roster predate their GM: Brett Kern, Beau Brinkley, Taylor Lewan, and DaQuan Jones.
Robinson hasn’t been perfect by any means and it’s not too hard to rattle off a list of his misses — Kevin Dodd, Austin Johnson, Sylvester Williams, Josh Kline, Taywan Taylor, and Dion Lewis all say hello — but his hits have been bigger and more frequent than the misses. He’s absolutely elevated the overall talent level of the roster and he’s put the Titans into a spot where they can call themselves Super Bowl contenders with a straight face for the first time in over a decade.
Shouldn’t that earn him some patience from the fan base, especially given the increased uncertainty surrounding free agency occurring in the midst of a global pandemic? Robinson’s M.O. has always been to fill out the top of the roster with veterans and then enter the draft with maximum flexibility to take the best player available approach. Why do we suddenly expect that he’s abandoned this strategy and is planning on entering the draft with a sparse defensive depth chart?
Basically, in the words of Aaron Rodgers, “R-E-L-A-X”. Jon Robinson is working his plan and that’s worked out well for this team more often than not.