Tennessee Titans: Should they trade for Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald?

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19: Alex Smith #11 of the Kansas City Chiefs is rushed by Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 19, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19: Alex Smith #11 of the Kansas City Chiefs is rushed by Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 19, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Two of the league’s best players may be on the trading block. Would it make sense for the Tennessee Titans to broker a deal for one of them?

It is very rare to ever see a top five player at their position mentioned in trade rumors. And if they are, there are usually injury or off-field concerns involved. But, in a shocking turn of events, recent rumors are starting to swirl around two top defenders in the league: Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald (you could also include Earl Thomas here). Their teams haven’t publicly made them available, but neither player has reported for camp and contract negotiations appear strained at best. Mack hasn’t even been in contact with new HC Jon Gruden since he was hired, and the Rams have invested serious money in other players before paying their best overall player (although their talks have apparently improved).

But what would it cost to acquire players of this caliber? And would it make sense to do so with the knowledge that they will require a gigantic contract extension shortly afterward? This is surely a conversation most NFL front offices are having, as being able to acquire players of this caliber is a rarity. I would be willing to bet Jon Robinson and the Titans have had these discussions as well. But does it makes sense for the Titans to trade for one of these players?

Team Fit

Before making an offer, a team has to determine if a player would fit into their plans and scheme. In regards to Mack and Donald, Mack is probably the better fit. This is mostly due to positional stability; the DL trio of Jurrell Casey, DaQuan Jones, and Austin Johnson are locked up through 2019. On the other hand, Harold Landry is the only real starter-worthy OLB on the roster through 2019. Mack and Landry would make an amazing pass rushing tandem for years to come. That being said, Donald is arguably the best player in the league on either side of the ball. Johnson is a solid player, but he isn’t good enough to pass on bringing in Donald if you have the chance. Both Donald and Mack would easily slot into the Titans roster, even though a current starter might lose some snaps to them in 2018. But they would both be major upgrades at their positions and a cornerstone of the defense moving forward.

What is the Price Tag?

The next question is how much they will cost to acquire. Robinson will want to know how much capital he will have to give up to get these guys, and whether their contributions are worth more than the lost capital. At this point, it’s hard to say; there hasn’t been a player of their caliber traded in some time. The best example I can think of is Darrelle Revis in 2013. He was traded from the Jets to the Bucs for the 13th overall pick and and a conditional 4th (that could have become a 3rd). Revis was arguably the best CB in the league at the time, but the main difference between he and Donald/Mack was that Revis was coming off of an ACL tear. The fact that Donald and Mack are healthy most likely means a higher price tag.

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If it’s just picks, I say it would take a 1st and a 2nd. A price tag of two 1st rounders is possible, but the Raiders and Rams don’t have a ton of leverage. Entering trade talks would make it obvious that they don’t want to extend these players and other teams could call their bluff in hopes of a lower price tag. A young player (say Johnson or Aaron Wallace) could also be thrown in to lower the 2nd rounder to a mid round pick. But even if it’s two 1st rounders, I think the price tag is worth it. If you have the opportunity to get one of these players, you take it.

Could the Titans make the Salary Cap Work?

To me, this is the hardest pill to swallow in a potential move. Adding one of these players would mean an eventual extension that could amount to $20M per year. The Titans would have almost zero cap flexibility for the next four years or so. But there are some strategies the Titans could use to make it work:

  1. Only re-sign “cornerstone” players: Over the next two to three years, the Titans will have some important decisions to make in terms of expiring contracts. If they want Mack or Donald, they will have to let loose quality players and only bring back cornerstone guys. To me, this means Marcus Mariota and Kevin Byard; QB is the most important position on the field and Byard is the general of the defense. But this means players like Derrick Henry, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, and Jack Conklin might all hit free agency. They are all good players, but the Titans won’t be able to afford them unless they take a cheap deal. The roster will consist of expensive pieces (adding Casey and Malcolm Butler to this list) and then a bunch of cheap veterans or guys still on their rookie deals. That (understandably) might not be palatable for the Titans.
  2. Cut players to relieve cap: Another tough decision, but one that would have to happen for cap flexibility. In 2019 this would most likely mean Logan Ryan, Johnathan Cyprien (this would be harsh), and Wesley Woodyard. Those three players represent about $18M in savings, almost fully covering the new player’s salary. After 2020, big contracts like Casey and Butler might also be considered cap casualties. It’s not ideal to cut players, but sometimes it has to happen to stay under the cap.
  3. Creativity with the cap hit structure: Let’s assume Jon Robinson has four big new contracts: Taylor Lewan, Donald/Mack, Mariota, and Byard. All of these players would represent significant cap hits. But Robinson might be able to control when a bigger or smaller hit happens for each player. For instance, when Reshad Jones signed a big new contract, his first-year cap hit was relatively small at just $4.5M; the rest of the salary was backloaded. And Von Miller’s contract roller-coasters year to year, with cap hits of $19M, $10M, and $25M from 2017-2019. Robinson could use similar structures to make sure the cap hits were evenly spread over the next three to five years.

2020 would be the most difficult year, with Lewan having the biggest cap hit of his contract at $18M. If Robinson could try to plot out the future contracts so that 2020 was a lower total hit, it might be able to work.

Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts Robinson would have to manage, including the cooperation of the players and their agents. But if Robinson is crafty, he could structure these big contracts in a way that wouldn’t compromise the team’s cap flexibility on a year-to-year basis.

Too Good to Pass Up

Yes, this would most likely make life miserable for Jon Robinson in terms of cap management. He would have to do backflips to make it all work, and there’s no guarantee it’s even possible. I would completely understand if the Titans decide this trade would end up being more trouble than it’s worth. But the fact is that these two players are worth the headache; their addition would make the Titans one of the best defenses in the league. If I am Robinson, I make the move now and deal with the headache later. The team is going to be cash strapped in a couple of years anyways, so they might as well make sure their money is going towards one of the league’s best players.