We will be taking a look back at different aspects of the 2017 season and how the Tennessee Titans fared. Today starts with a review of the first step in the 2017 offseason: free agency.
Tennessee Titans GM Jon Robinson has developed a reputation for being aggressive with his trades and staff decisions in his two years in Tennessee. But when it comes to free agency, Robinson has adopted a more passive strategy. With a hefty salary cap and some top talent on the market, many fans expected Robinson to sign a big name in 2016. He ended up being more measured in his approach, with some mixed results. Let’s take a look at the good and bad from 2017 free agency.
Improving the Titans secondary was arguably the prime objective for Robinson heading into the 2017 offseason. The cornerback position was so talent-poor that it was assumed Robinson would need to address it in both free agency AND the draft. This ended up being an accurate prediction, and Robinson started things out by signing former New England Patriot Logan Ryan to a three-year, $30M deal. Some fans viewed Ryan as a consolation prize, as the Titans were rumored to be chasing the top CB of the free agent class, A.J. Bouye. That obviously didn’t work out, but it may have been for the best, as Bouye’s contract was a hefty one at five years and $67M.
Ryan was much cheaper, and worth every penny. He brought toughness, experience, and a winning mentality to a defense that lacked those qualities. He failed to intercept any passes, but did have a forced fumble and a solid PFF rating of 74.3. His rating and performance were higher earlier in the season, but some late season injuries affected his level of play. Overall, he was a good veteran addition and improved an ailing secondary at a decent price. This signing was not a home run by any means, but I would consider this a win for Robinson.
Titans fans can attest that Tennessee’s special teams over the past few years had been dreadful. It seemed as if Ruston Webster & Co. employed a plug-and-play system where they just threw the last guys on the depth chart out there and hoped they performed. But Robinson realized the value in effective special teamers and went out of his way to sign players specifically to play special teams: Brynden Trawick, Daren Bates, and Eric Weems.
This dedication to special teams certainly made a difference in 2017. The Titans’ 2016 special teams DVOA ranking jumped from 19 to 13, and it would have been even higher had their FG/XP score not dropped from top five to middle of the field (aka Ryan Succop regressed). Their coverage and blocking were much improved, and a lot of it was due to signing these key special teamers.
Many will disagree with Decker being in the “Good” section, but Decker had a decent season. He was third on the team in receiving yards, earned a 71.8 PFF score, and his solid blocking made a difference in the Titans’ rushing game. He was underwhelming, but had the Titans not signed him, they could have been in some trouble. Tajae Sharpe was sidelined for the entire year, and rookies Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor were either hurt or struggled to adapt to the offense and NFL pace. Decker’s signing happened late in the offseason, and the Titans didn’t have many other options at that point. If the Titans don’t sign Decker, they could have been stuck with Taylor or Harry Douglas as their #2 receiver when Davis was sidelined. Robinson realized there was a need at the position and should be commended for nabbing a starter late in the offseason.
Signing Cyprien away from division rival Jacksonville was a bit of a surprise. Many fans thought that the Titans would address the SS position in the draft, as there were many promising safety prospects available. Instead, Robinson inked the hard-hitting Cyprien to a four-year, $25M contract. Cyprien had performed poorly in his first three years after being a high second-round pick. But in his fourth year, the Jaguars chose to use him differently, moving him up in the box instead of relying on him in deep coverage. He responded well, and posted the best run defense score of any safety. Surely, Robinson was banking on this recent improvement to continue when he signed him to such a favorable deal.
Unfortunately, Cyprien regressed in 2017. He posted an abysmal 48.2 score, had no turnovers, and often looked lost in coverage. However, as far as “Bad” signings go, this one still has some promise. Factors such as a new scheme, new teammates, and a significant injury certainly played a role. He actually started to play somewhat better towards the end of the season, and perhaps with a healthy offseason (and new defensive scheme), he can regain his 2016 form. There is still hope for Cyp, but Robinson took a risk in signing a player to a sizable contract after just one good year of play.
Swapping Al Woods for Sylvester Williams
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One under-reported story is how well Al Woods played after being cut by the Titans in 2017. He was impressive for the Indianapolis Colts, posting a 84.1 overall score (24th overall for defensive interior players). He also had 44 tackles and a sack. Contrast that with Sylvester Williams, Woods’ replacement who Robinson signed to a three-year, $16.5M deal. Williams had 20 total tackles, no sacks, and a slow start to the season. He improved as the season went along, eventually bumping his score up to a respectable 76.5. But the main issue here is in relation to the salary cap; between the Titans’ dead cap from cutting Woods and Williams’ new contract, Robinson essentially paid $3.5M more to start an inferior NT.
Like with Cyprien, this “bad” move isn’t world-ending. Williams improved as the year went along, he is a couple of years younger than Woods, and most of his guaranteed money was paid in 2017. So, as far as “bad” moves go, Robinson didn’t have any major misfires last offseason. It will be interesting to see if he continues his trend of safe, conservative free agency deals in 2018.