The Tennessee Titans have a great deal of empty cap space. Despite the fact that they will soon have to pay Taylor Lewan and other current players big money, some of that cap space will be used to sign free agents who can immediately contribute. Here are the five guys who they should take the closest looks at.
5. Kevin Zeitler (Guard, Cincinnati Bengals)
Last season, the Tennessee Titans had one of the most dominant and productive offensive lines in the NFL. Anchored by elite bookend tackles, the unit paved the way for DeMarco Murray to lead the AFC in rushing.
The group was also one of the best in terms of pass protection, shutting down big time pass rushers like Khalil Mack and Von Miller. Additionally, their efforts took a lot of pressure off of Marcus Mariota, allowing him to stay healthy and improve a great deal in his sophomore season.
For these reasons, it would be easy for the Titans to ignore the offensive line this offseason. However, adding Kevin Zeitler, one of the NFL’s best interior pass protectors, would take them to the next level.
Unlike tackles, offensive guards don’t usually command a ton of money on the open market. Marshal Yanda of the Baltimore Ravens, who in the opinion of many (including myself) is the best guard in the NFL, is set to have a cap hit of under $10,000,000 this season. Compared to what elite tackles like Joe Thomas and Tyron Smith have counted against their teams’ salary caps, that is a pretty reasonable amount.
That being said, signing Zeitler could be very affordable for the Titans, who already have one of the lowest cap numbers in the league. His durability, age, and balanced skill set make him a quality option for any team in free agency, but especially for a team that centers its offense around running the football.
4. Brandon Williams (Defensive Tackle, Baltimore Ravens)
Like the offensive line, the Titans’ defensive line is one of their biggest strengths. Players like Jurrell Casey, Karl Klug, Da’Quan Jones, and Austin Johnson are great at both stopping the run and getting after the quarterback. What the unit lacks, however, is a quality nose tackle.
The Titans reportedly tried to sign Damon Harrison to play that role last offseason, but were outbid by the aggressive New York Giants. They eventually re-signed veteran Al Woods, who split time at nose tackle with 2015 fourth round pick Angelo Blackson.
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Unfortunately, neither one of those two players produced. Pro Football Focus gave Blackson and Woods putrid grades, both under 43.
While second round pick Austin Johnson could eventually fill the spot, signing Brandon Williams to a two to three year contract could bridge the gap while Johnson develops. It would also allow Johnson to focus more on playing DE, if that’s where Dick LeBeau and his staff see Johnson being most productive.
Though Williams is 28, he likely still has three to four years left of playing at a high level. It’s undebatable that Williams is one of the best run stoppers in the NFL, but his pass rush skills are almost non-existent.
Because of that, Williams is limited to being a two down player. The Titans would rather have Austin Johnson and Karl Klug (assuming he gets re-signed) rushing the passer, so Williams would really only see the field in base defense sets.
So, the question becomes how much money is a two down, one dimensional player, albeit a good one, worth? Angelo Blackson might be a more economically sound option for the Titans, but Williams would be a vast improvement on the field.
3. Dont’a Hightower (Linebacker, New England Patriots)
The Titans’ two starting inside linebackers, Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard, are both very good in base sets and against the run. However, they both struggled immensely last year in pass coverage. Couple that with the fact that the Titans have no true depth behind Woodyard and Williamson, and it becomes apparent that inside linebacker is a big need this offseason.
There will certainly be options early in the draft, such as Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham and Alabama’s Reuben Foster. However, signing Dont’a Hightower would allow the Titans to address other needs in the first round of the draft.
Hightower is a rare talent. He’s a sure tackler, terrific in coverage, and a great blitzer. With the Patriots, he’s also shown the ability to put his hand in the dirt and play defensive end. If Dick LeBeau were given the power to hand craft a linebacker, he would make Hightower.
Signing Hightower would make sense for the Titans schematically, but it would come at a price. Hightower reportedly wants to at least make as much as his former teammate Jamie Collins, who recently signed a 4 year, $50M contract with the Cleveland Browns. Collins will average a $12.5M cap hit over the course of the deal, a somewhat hefty number.
Despite the money it would take to sign Hightower, it would be a low risk, high reward signing. Nothing in free agency is a sure thing, but Hightower seems pretty close to being just that.
2. Alshon Jeffery (Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears)
There are currently only two legitimate WR options on the Titans roster: Tajaé Sharpe and Rishard Matthews. Matthews is a crisp route runner with reliable hands and Sharpe will develop into a nice slot receiver, but neither player possesses the speed necessary to be a consistent vertical threat or the size necessary to dominate in the red zone.
The Titans will have several intriguing receiver options to choose from in the draft, like Clemson’s Mike Williams and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. Based on how those prospects perform at the NFL Scouting Combine next weekend, Jon Robinson and his staff may fall in love with one of them. If that doesn’t happen, signing Alshon Jeffery could be a backup plan.
While the Titans would surely benefit from a speedy receiver like DeSean Jackson, what they need is a bona fide number one receiver. Someone who will dictate coverage, run quality routes, make contested catches, and make plays after the catch.
When Jeffery is healthy, he does all of those things. But that’s the problem: he struggles to stay on the field. In the past two seasons, Jeffrey has missed eleven games. Seven of those missed games came as a result of various injuries.
There are also potential character concerns with Jeffery. Following the levying of Jeffery’s four game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy for substance abuse, Bill Zimmerman of FanSided’s Chicago Bears affiliate, “Bear Goggles On,” wrote that he is “an injury-prone player who is willing to take shortcuts if it benefits him.”
Looking simply at talent, Alshon Jeffery is worthy of a big contract. But would Jon Robinson be willing to dish out capital to a receiver who has recently been suspended and stays injured?
If the Titans do their due diligence on Jeffery and find that they like him as a person and want to give him a chance to prove himself, he could be a great fit in Terry Robiskie’s offense. But don’t expect the Titans to get into a bidding war for his services.
1. A.J. Bouye (Cornerback, Houston Texans)
Part of the reason the Philadelphia Eagles were quick to sign DeMarco Murray to a large contract when he declared for free agency was that they wanted to take him away from their division foe, the Dallas Cowboys.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, Murray was lackluster in their system and horribly misused by Chip Kelly. They proved to the world that you don’t sign free agents simply so that someone else can’t.
If the Titans sign cornerback A.J. Bouye, they will be taking him away from their biggest rivals. But forking money over to one of the most intriguing free agents available would do more for the Titans than just take ammunition away from the Texans.
You simply cannot find shutdown, man coverage cornerbacks in free agency, and Bouye is no exception. Nevertheless, he would still be a fantastic addition to the Titans’ putrid corps of defensive backs.
Unlike the coveted cornerback of last year’s free agent class, Josh Norman, Bouye’s success didn’t come by simply playing the flats and reading quarterbacks’ eyes in Cover Two. The Texans had Bouye play a good bit of multiple coverage techniques, from a deep zone in Cover Three, a shallow zone in Cover Two, and straight man coverage.
Bouye finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ third overall cornerback, and was not targeted too often last season because of how well he covered receivers. His instincts, physicality, and versatility make him seemingly the perfect corner for a Dick LeBeau defense.
As with most free agents, the biggest issue with Bouye will be the money. Being the #1 corner in this year’s free agency crop means he will be paid big boy money. Per John Clayton of ESPN.com, Bouye could receive upwards of $12M per year. That’s a pretty big cap hit. But if Bouye performs at the level he did in 2016, it would all be worth it.
It seems to be a given that the Titans will use one of their two first round picks on a defensive back, even if they sign Bouye. Pairing a talented rookie corner with a talented veteran on the other side seems to be an ideal formula.
Whether it be by signing multiple free agent corners, drafting multiple corners, or some other way, the Titans must address their cornerback problem sooner rather than later. Signing Bouye would seemingly be a good way to start that process.