Before the Tennessee Titans can worry about adding talent to their roster, they must first address in-house players with expiring contracts. Here is a list of the Titans’ impending free agents, and what each of them would bring to the team if they were re-signed.
S Rashad Johnson
After recording four interceptions with the vaunted Arizona Cardinals defense in 2015, safety Rashad Johnson joined the Titans this season. Though his stats were not anywhere near that impressive in his first season in Tennessee, his presence was felt in other places.
He was a veteran that helped implement elements from Arizona’s winning culture, a smart player who assisted young players like Kevin Byard and Damion Stafford in the defensive backfield, and a leader who led both with his words and example.
When I talked last week with WTVF-Nashville’s Steve Layman, who co-hosted a weekly Titans highlight show with Johnson this year, he had nothing but positive things to say about the free agent. “He was very key in the growth of a guy like Byard coming into the NFL. I think he (Byard) learned a lot from a guy like Rashad; how to look at certain tendencies on the offense, and how to just go out there and do your job. And when Rashad’s number was called, he continued to make plays for this football team.”
It doesn’t seem incredibly likely that Rashad Johnson will be back with the Titans in 2017, considering the depth of this year’s safety draft class and his age. However, if they do bring him back for another year, a consonant pro who is well-liked by pretty much everyone will be returning to the locker room.
S Daimion Stafford
In 2016, the Titans successfully employed a unique approach to their defensive backfield: safety by committee. One of the key pieces of that rotation was Damion Stafford, who was voted a special-teams captain by his teammates during the preseason.
Stafford is a sure tackler on both defense and special teams that seemingly gets smarter and better every single year. The Titans coaching staff really like him, and his teammates really like him. He will likely be back in Nashville next year, deservingly so.
RG Chance Warmack
Prior to the 2013 NFL Draft, Chance Warmack was pegged as a dominating, can’t miss prospect by most scouts and analysts. Since he was drafted eighth overall by the Titans, he’s been everything but that. Warmack, in his time with the Titans, has played with three different head coaches and five different offensive systems. None of the combinations have resulted in success.
The big knock on Warmack coming out of Alabama was that he lacked the mobility needed to pull. That analysis has rung true, as Warmack has been nothing more than an average “phone booth” style guard who is decent in the run game and struggles immensely with consistency in pass protection.
Especially considering how well Warmack’s replacement, Josh Kline, played when he went down early this season with an injury, there is no chance he returns to the Titans. A zone blocking team who desperately needs offensive line help could potentially overpay for his services.
DL Karl Klug
Aside from the fact that it is incredibly fun listening to Mike Keith, the Titans’ Play by Play Announcer, scream his name when he records a sack, Karl Klug’s presence makes the Titans better. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 81.3 for the season.
Though Klug is not a starter and gets most of his playing time in third down pass rushing packages, his explosiveness from the inside made him one of the many bright spots in the Titans 9-7 campaign. He also perfectly fits GM Jon Robinson’s identity mold, constantly receiving praise from coaches and teammates for being an incredibly hard worker and team first player.
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As much as this coaching staff love him, I would be incredibly surprised if Klug is not back in a Titans uniform next season. If he goes elsewhere, that opens the door for DaQuan Jones and Austin Johnson to get more playing time.
C Brian Schwenke
Brian Schwenke was the Titans’ starting center for multiple years before taking a backseat to Ben Jones in 2016. He has always been very solid when healthy, but that’s the problem: he hasn’t stayed healthy.
Schwenke came off the bench following an injury to LG Quinton Spain, and filled in nicely until Spain returned. He would be a nice asset for the Titans to have as a depth player on the offensive line, but other teams with massive needs on the offensive line will likely offer him too much to refuse. His departure would move Sebastian Tretola up the depth chart, and allow him to compete for a starting job next year.
TE Anthony Fasano
If Anthony Fasano wasn’t 32 years old, he would undoubtedly get a contract offer from the Titans. Unfortunately, he is.
Fasano is a selfless player who did a lot of dirty work in the Titans’ dominating rushing attack last season. When he was called upon in the passing game, he was a sure-handed receiver who consistently made plays. He isn’t Gronk, but he is a very solid and balanced tight-end.
However, Fasano is not getting any younger, and the Titans will likely look to have a youth movement at the TE this offseason. Whether or not Fasano gets resigned hinges on two things: how much belief the Titans have in Phillip Supernaw as a blocker, and how Jon Robinson and his scouts grade this year’s TE class.
I wouldn’t bet on Fasano being back in Nashville next year, but I also wouldn’t bet against it.
CB Valentino Blake
When ESPN produced a segment with the best “C’mon Man!” moments of the season, Valentino Blake had his own segment. Seriously. An entire two minutes of the show was dedicated to showcasing Blake’s many gaffes from 2016, including fielding a punt at the two yard line. Not downing it, fielding it.
Blake is a pretty solid and reliable gunner on special teams, but that’s about where his abilities end. He showed to be a major liability on defense with a lack of ability in both the passing and running game. Blake also repeatedly showed a major lack of awareness, such as the time he played ten yard off the line of scrimmage on 3rd & 2.
If the Titans bring back Blake, it will solely be for special teams purposes. There is just no way they can put that guy on the field to play defense.
LB Sean Spence
Before suffering an injury that forced him to miss multiple games, Sean Spence played a lot of snaps in the Titans’ linebacker rotation with Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard. Inside linebacker is a need for the Titans, and a Sean Spence extension doesn’t fill it.
Spence is a hard hitter and decent tackler, but he does not cover well enough to be a frequent player. The Titans will likely look for youth in this position, considering they still have two veterans under contract in Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard.
WR Kendall Wright
In Kendall Wright’s first two seasons with the Titans, he showed himself to be an explosive receiver who could find holes in zone coverage and make stiff defenders look bad in man coverage. Ever since Dowell Loggains was removed of his duties as offensive coordinator in 2014, Wright’s career has been on a downward spiral.
Wright has struggled immensely with consistency, precision, and his health. Additionally, every season he seems to lose even more favor with his coaches. He was a healthy scratch twice in 2016.
If Kendall Wright ends up in a system with a good quarterback that allows him to play more freely, he could return to his 90 catch form. But in the Titans passing system, which is centered upon perfection and precision in route running, he just does not fit in.
WR/KR Marc Mariani
After playing two seasons with the Chicago Bears, Marc Mariani returned in 2016 to the team that drafted him. A former Pro Bowl returner, Mariani was brought in to be a reliable return man who always makes correct decisions and doesn’t give up the football.
While Mariani’s veteran ability at that position make him an asset for sure, it seems likely that the Titans will turn somewhere else in the returner department. Mariani often looked slow on kick returns and showed really stiff feet on punt returns.
Mike Mularkey and Jon Robinson constantly talk about playing complimentary football. For the special teams to do their part in that, they must make some big plays. As much as everyone in Nashville loves Mariani, he isn’t the guy to fit that bill.
QB Matt Cassel
Jon Robinson brought Matt Cassel in on the first day of free agency to serve as both the emergency backup quarterback and a mentor for Marcus Mariota. He did that job well in 2016.
Off the field, Marcus Mariota talked a lot throughout the year about how he would seek advice from Cassel, and how much Cassel helped his development. On the field, Cassel won his only start, throwing for 150 and a touchdown against a tough Texans defense.
Cassel’s lack of arm strength and athletic ability are clear, but his veteran prowess and ability to read a defense make him a viable backup quarterback. I can’t say if he will be the best option available for the Titans next year, but he is far from a bad one.