Every year in February, I like to take a step back and size up the NFL field, pre-offseason, by looking at a few factors.
1. Who has a lot of work to do?
2. Who doesn’t have a lot of work to do?
3. Who has a lot of money?
4. Who doesn’t have a lot of money?
5. Who has a lot of draft currency?
6. Who doesn’t have a lot of draft currency?
After breaking it all down, most teams fall somewhere in the middle. The 1-15 Cleveland Browns have a ton of work to do, but they have two first-round picks, two second-round picks and more cap room than anyone else in football.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons are still stacked coming off a Super Bowl season, and they don’t have a lot of big-name players hitting free agency. But they pick 31st overall, and only a handful of teams have less cap space.
With that criteria in mind, we can also offer our condolences to teams with lots of work to do (roster holes, plenty of in-house free agents) that don’t have a lot of salary-cap space and/or draft currency (a high pick or two and a steady dose of selections in the early and middle rounds).
The Los Angeles Rams, for example, are riddled with holes coming off a 4-12 season. They’re also without a first-round pick, while nearly half of the league has more cap space than Los Angeles does. That’s not good.
But on the other end of the spectrum, you find a team with little work to do, lots of money and a great draft situation. You find a team coming off a winning season with a strong core in place, including a young franchise quarterback.
A team with two top-20 draft picks (including the selection that originally belonged to the Rams) and more than $60 million to spend (more than all but three other teams). They don’t have any high-priced in-house free agents to take care of. They’re good, and they practically have carte blanche to become great in the coming months.
That team in a particularly golden position this year is the Tennessee Titans.
They’re Already Better Than You Think
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That has to be tough for Titans fans to swallow, considering the franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003. But the reality is that falling short might have been a blessing in disguise for a sneaky-talented team that remains under the radar and now has higher draft picks in every round.
The Titans increased their win total from three in 2015 to nine in 2016, and it wasn’t a fluke. Pro Football Focus graded Tennessee as the eighth-best team in the NFL, ahead of six playoff teams (Miami, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, Kansas City and the Giants).
Yes, they played in the weakest division within the weaker of the two conferences, but Football Outsiders still ranked the Titans 13th in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which takes the schedule into account.
Not bad for a team relying on a second-year quarterback who entered the year with 12 career starts under his belt—a team with just one regular starter (tight end Delanie Walker) over the age of 30.
That green quarterback, Marcus Mariota, is just 23. His bookend tackles, recent first-round picks Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, are 25 and 22, respectively. Those three should only get better, as should hard-nosed 22-year-old running back Derrick Henry, who will ease the aging process for reigning AFC rushing yardage leader DeMarco Murray.
Of course, that core—along with an underrated defense led by front-seven studs Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Avery Williamson—might have been enough for the Titans to win the division and take Houston’s spot in the second round of the playoffs if Mariota hadn’t fractured his right fibula in a Week 16 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That injured occurred with Tennessee down 15 points in the third quarter. The Titans had a chance to come back, but Mariota’s replacement, Matt Cassel, threw a death-knell pick-six to ice it in the fourth quarter. Had Mariota remained in the game, they might have won, setting up a do-or-die Week 17 matchup with the Texans. Instead, their season was essentially over.
But now they’re in better shape than Houston and fellow divisional foes Indianapolis and Jacksonville. They have a better situation under center than the Texans or Jaguars, and if Mariota can perform the way he did during the heart of the 2016 season—he had 21 touchdowns to just four interceptions and a 110.9 passer rating in October and November—he might be able to give Indy sweetheart Andrew Luck a run for his money.
The Titans are deeper than the Colts, more balanced than the Texans and better at football than the Jags.
Most importantly, they have far more rising stars than fading vets. The trajectory is promising. Don’t touch these Titans and they’ll still have a chance to win double-digit games in 2017.
Now They Have More Than $60 Million to Spend
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But general manager Jon Robinson (pictured) won’t leave this exciting young team untouched. There’s money to be spent and there remain holes to be filled. It’s hard to imagine the Titans not getting better on paper. And if Robinson can hit some home runs, they could go from good to great—from “fun” to “scary.”
According to OvertheCap.com, the Titans are slated to start the new league year in March with about $62 million to spend. Only three teams are projected to have more cap space, and those franchises—Cleveland, San Francisco and Jacksonville—won a combined six games in 2016.
Nine-win teams aren’t supposed to have $62 million in cap space, especially when they have few key players to re-sign.
In fact, not a single regular 2016 Titans starter is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
They’ll have to deal with offensive linemen Byron Bell and Chance Warmack. Both started in 2015 and were hurt in 2016, but neither are in demand after watching their replacements—Conklin and Josh Kline—perform well throughout the year.
If they decide to re-sign role-playing pass-catchers Anthony Fasano and Kendall Wright, it won’t cost them much. If they let them go, few tears will be shed. The same applies to role-playing defenders Karl Klug, Sean Spence, Rashad Johnson, Daimion Stafford, Antwon Blake and David Bass.
That’ll give Robinson and Co. a chance to chase top-tier free agents at any position.
They remain in need of more weapons for Mariota, which should cause them to consider Terrelle Pryor, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and maybe even old pal Kenny Britt at wide receiver, as well as Martellus Bennett, Jared Cook and Jack Doyle at tight end.
The entire secondary has had problems, which should mean A.J. Bouye, Logan Ryan, Trumaine Johnson, Stephon Gilmore and Morris Claiborne get looks at corner and John Cyprien, Tony Jefferson and Barry Church get looks at safety. Heck, they might even have a chance to make a run at Eric Berry.
And they could use some support for Orakpo, Morgan and Casey on the edge, which could bring Melvin Ingram, Nick Perry or even Jason Pierre-Paul into play.
The Titans can afford to sign most of their in-house free agents and two or three of the names listed above and still have cash left over for draft picks, summer additions and potentially even some carryover into 2018.
It’s a nice position to be in.
And Two Primo Draft Picks
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Nine-win teams aren’t supposed to have $62 million in salary-cap space, and they definitely aren’t supposed to hold picks in the top five. But this is a special offseason for Tennessee.
Not only do the nine-win Titans have all that money along with the No. 5 overall pick (thanks to a trade with the Rams last offseason), but they also still hold their own first-round pick (18th overall).
If they don’t trade that fifth pick, it’ll mark the first time this decade that a team has selected in the top five coming off a winning season. If they hold on to both picks, it’ll mark the first time this century that a winning team has selected in the top 10 and again in the top 20.
Of course, there’s a strong chance they trade one or both selections, which is fine. That’s why I’ve been calling it draft currency. It’s up to Robinson to decide how he wants to capitalize on the value associated with those picks, as well as the two he’ll have in Round 3 (Cleveland owns Tennessee’s second-round selection, but it picked up a compensatory pick from Los Angeles).
But we’ve been exposed to many a cautionary tale about the perils of offseason spending sprees. A loaded draft arsenal gives the Titans wiggle room for mistakes on the open market, or even the luxury of being able to set aside money for the future. Orakpo, Casey and Morgan all have two years remaining on their contracts, as will Lewan when they inevitably pick up his fifth-year option in the spring.
When you’re young and your championship window is just opening, it makes sense to save for a rainy day and focus on the draft, especially when you have draft currency like the 2017 Titans. But Tennessee can spend, save and focus on the draft, all at the same time. That’ll enable the team to strengthen its core while also creating competition at multiple positions on both sides of the ball.
It isn’t complicated. In fact, it’s borderline foolproof. Just don’t do anything really stupid and you’re bound to get a lot better, which is a rare scenario when you’re already as good as the Titans are.
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While the Titans won’t move the needle like the Cowboys or Patriots or Steelers, they are the team to watch this offseason. No other playoff-caliber team is likely to play as large a role as Tennessee will in both free agency and the draft.
A lot of people overlook the Titans, and many continued to do so in 2016. That’s fair, because they were coming off a three-win season, they had an inexperienced quarterback, they hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008 and they again failed to do so despite playing in a weak division.
But there are about half a dozen new playoff teams every year and at least a few new contenders. Few figured the Atlanta Falcons had a Super Bowl run in them in 2016. Same with the Carolina Panthers the year before.
If they play it right in an offseason that appears to be custom built for them, the Titans could be the NFL’s next surprise Super Bowl contender.