Tennessee Titans: The Case for Re-Signing Avery Williamson

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 16: Jack Doyle /

The Titans should make an effort to bring back one of the best run defenders in the league at inside linebacker: Avery Williamson.

Free agency and the draft are fast approaching, but the Tennessee Titans have some in-house decisions to make first. Perhaps the biggest decision they have to make is whether or not to re-sign inside linebacker Avery Williamson. Williamson has been an underrated piece of the defense during his four years in Nashville, and has shown improvement each consecutive year. Some have said his lack of coverage skills are reason enough to let him hit free agency, but I’d like to provide some reasoning as to why it is important that the Titans re-sign Williamson.

Elite Run Stopper

Williamson is one of the best in the league when it comes to stopping the run. By the end of the regular season, he had a 90.3 run defense grade from PFF, which was good for sixth in the NFL. And this wasn’t just a result of stepping up his game in a contract year; Williamson also had the highest run-stop % of any inside linebacker last season. Football fans love to argue about who is or isn’t “elite”, but I think it’s fair to say that Williamson is an elite run stopper. Going by overall PFF scores, Williamson’s grade of 85.6 was the third-best of all Titans defensive players in 2017, trailing only Jurrell Casey (89.7) and Kevin Byard (89.0).  According to PFF’s Free Agency Tracker, he is the 11th-ranked UFA this offseason.

The Titans have been a top five team in run defense the past two years after being the second-worst team in the league during Williamson’s rookie year. It is a passing league, but defending the run remains important. NFL teams ran the ball 42% of the time (and AFC South opponents 46%) last season, so the loss of one of the best run defenders in the game will certainly be felt. It is fair to harp on his coverage deficiencies (which I think are somewhat overblown), but the bottom line is that the Titans shouldn’t let elite talent walk, even if it that talent only applies to one aspect of defense.

Lack of Depth at LB

Despite his elite run-stopping ability, I can understand the argument of not wanting to pay a LB significant money to only play 60% of the defensive snaps. Unfortunately, the Titans’ current depth chart lacks options to replace Williamson. The Titans have four other ILBs on the roster: Wesley Woodyard, Jayon Brown, Nate Palmer, and Daren Bates. Woodyard played great last year, but will be 32 for this upcoming season. Brown subbed in for Williamson in coverage situations, but wasn’t much better, posting a terrible 46.2 PFF score.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans /

Tennessee Titans

Brown was drafted to improve pass defense against TEs and RBs, but the Titans actually regressed in DVOA in defending those positions from 2016 to 2017. Palmer and Bates are talented special teamers, but they have had limited reps on defense. If Williamson leaves, this unit is one Woodyard injury away from becoming a major liability.

Limited Options in FA and Draft

What about picking up a LB in free agency or the draft? A quick look at upcoming ILBs doesn’t produce many enticing options. There are few options for a true ILB, and some of the best would be aging stars like Navorro Bowman or Paul Posluzny. Otherwise, there are risky players like Demario Davis or Tahir Whitehead, but they aren’t as good against the run as Williamson while similarly struggling in coverage. Nigel Bradham is perhaps the best option, but he currently plays in a 4-3 and will most likely be more expensive to sign. There will be few upgrades to Williamson available, and with salary cap and age playing into it (Williamson will be just 26 next season), it doesn’t seem worth it to explore other options in free agency.

There is the possibility of nabbing a quality LB in the draft, but the Titans’ success in 2017 makes that difficult. Picking at 25 means quality linebackers, such as Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds, could be gone by the time it’s the Titans’ turn at the podium. And if you draft an LB in later rounds, what are the chances they are as good as your third-best defensive player? There would obviously be salary cap benefits to getting a starting ILB from the draft, but letting Williamson leave town and banking on getting your guy in the draft carries a certain level of risk. 

All Comes Down to Money

As much as I think the Titans need to re-sign Williamson, there is also a price at which he becomes too expensive. There is a chance another team could consider him a three-down linebacker and offer him a Bobby Wagner level deal where he gets around $10M a year. For the percentage of snaps he plays, that is far too much for Williamson.

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But I would hope the Titans would be able to sign Williamson to a deal where he averages around $6.5M a year, and would feel comfortable going a bit higher. The guaranteed money could also be front-loaded if opportunities to upgrade the position present themselves. Even if the Titans keep Williamson, I think it is worth taking a look at ILBs in the draft for future development.

Avery Williamson is young and one of the best in the league at stopping the run. Letting him walk would create a gaping hole in the depth chart, with few viable options to replace him. Re-signing him could be viewed as a conservative move, but letting him walk could create a big liability for the Titans defense in 2018. 

Next: Harold Landry a popular mock draft pick for Titans