The question is how his head will react. Concussions that keep a player out for as long as Reed was sat down are not easy to dismiss. Sure, it was at the end of a season where Washington was going nowhere, but I must admit I am still worried about his long-term health.

For this reason, I feel like Reed’s going to be one of the riskiest fantasy football picks in the league next season. He could win you a league or start two games and never play again.

Read more at Football Outsiders.

Texans sign S Chris Clemons to two-year, $2.7 million deal, release S Danieal Manning

I identified Manning as a potential cap casualty when I looked at the Texans cap situation.

What I didn’t expect was for the Texans to release him and replace him with someone who is a better bet going forward for less money.

The discussion of Manning refusing a pay cut being the key to the Clemons signing is logical. For the Texans, Clemons is the new Manning: a solid safety signed off a good defense to put out a fire. With Manning hurt, Ed Reed shot, and Shiloh Keo still Shiloh Keo, safety was a tire fire for the Texans in 2013. Manning is coming off season-ending surgery and turning 32, the risks in bringing him back were pretty obvious. Another injury could cascade the Texans back into Shiloh Keo territory. Any dice rolls Houston could take to keep that from happening were important.

This move doesn’t exactly take a lot of upper-level analysis to figure out — not that we have much of it for safeties anyway. These are two players cut from the same cloth, but the Texans wound up with the cheaper, younger, healthier version. Seems like a winner to me.

The Texans come into next season with D.J. Swearinger, Chris Clemons, and Kendrick Lewis as their top three safeties. Given what we know about Romeo Crennel, I’m curious if we’ll see more three-safety looks than he has usually shown in the past.

Texans sign RB Andre Brown for a league-minimum contract

Welcome to the running back market circa 2014. It’s a land where NFL general managers have colluded to toss bargain bins into the flea market. It’s a land where the much-lauded Ben Tate wound up getting less than $4 million a season. And, yes, it’s a land where the Texans stare at Arian Foster and ponder why they gave him that enormous extension.

Brown had an awful year last season. His DVOA was -16.3%, and he was a zero as a pass-catcher. Of course, there is more context to it than that. Brown was playing behind an awful line in New York. He was trying to come back off injury — perhaps too soon — for a Giants team that resorted to tricks such as “calling up Peyton Hillis.” The Giants were one injury away from asking if anyone knew Eddie George’s phone number.

So what the Texans have in Brown is a player with a serious injury history, but one who put up a 45.6% DVOA in 2012 over 73 carries. A solid second back who Houston will use more often on running downs than passing downs. It’s a zero-risk, moderate-reward signing. And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, he has just as much potential as Tate does for NFL success in a small sample size. Given that the Texans and Foster are in this for the long haul, Brown can mirror the role that Tate had if he is healthy. If not, there are always more running backs to feed to the machine. High-variance is the way to go at this position, and Houston found it with this signing.

-Texans trade QB Matt Schaub to the Raiders for a sixth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft
-Texans sign QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to two-year deal worth $7.5 million, with $4 million in guarantees

Matt Schaub is finally gone, proving both Sean Pendergast and the front office right: there was no need to release him. The truth is that in a world where Blaine Gabbert is worth a sixth-round pick, Matt Schaub is too. Particularly when this world has a salary cap floor that some teams are struggling to make.

Schaub’s arm strength is pretty much kaput at this point, so I expect the situation in Oakland to wind up much like the Matt Flynn scenario. It’s hard to criticize the Raiders harshly, because it’s not like they gave up anything of value for the chance to rehabilitate a quarterback who was once good, but I think they’re facing some very low odds in trying to fix him. And even if they did fix him, their best-case scenario is probably flipping him to a team that is much closer than they are before he turns back into a pumpkin. Low-risk, low-reward investment. But hey, someone has to eat salary cap space in Oakland, and Matt Schaub can definitely do that.

For the Texans, there’s no need to really analyze this deal. They gave up nothing, and got a pick that generally is expected to provide very little in return. I suppose there’s an off-chance they hit a home run with the pick, but the odds are stacked against it. This is basically a leverage deal that they were able to make because they held the “best” of a bunch of bad quarterbacks on the market. The most important thing that happened in this trade is that the Texans sucked up all of Schaub’s dead cap money this year, rather than having it linger into 2015. That’s a good move for a team that, barring a No. 1 overall quarterback that is good out of the gate and superior coaching, is probably looking at a rebuilding season.

I am less than enthralled with the Ryan Fitzpatrick signing. My favorite thing about it is watching media types connect the dots that he must be smart, because he attended Harvard. Well, guess what? On the field, he’s not actually very smart. He can crumble quickly in pockets, he looks to scramble fairly quickly, and I always saw him as someone who played better when told to run a streetball offense rather than the kind of system Dowell Logains wanted. I should say, though, that my distaste with the signing isn’t based on thinking Fitzpatrick is a bad schematic fit, or that he’s a bad quarterback compared to who else was on the market: my objection is simply that I don’t believe in spending money on a backup quarterback. I don’t think adding reliably mediocre quarterbacking off the bench is something worth giving an actual contract of substance to. The Texans, of course, learned last year when Case Keenum had four solid games against tough defenses that you can engineer mediocre quarterback play — then immediately switched away from an offense he was comfortable running because (SENSIBLE REASON NOT FOUND), and decided that was enough of that. Some other names I’ll throw out at you: Brian Hoyer, Thaddeus Lewis. I really don’t think it’s so hard to find a decent backup quarterback that it’s worth guaranteeing them money. But, other than that thought process, I have no real problem with them choosing Fitzpatrick.

- Texans sign S Kendrick Lewis to a one-year deal, worth $795,000. 

I’m not a huge Kendrick Lewis fan, but when your franchise is at the intersection of Keo Drive and Pleasant Lane, and is staring at more holes than it can reasonably expect to replace in one offseason, I have no problem with this contract. Lewis has been an NFL starter for quite awhile, is still rather young (entering his age 26 season in 2014), and has generally not been a huge weakness for his teams. That’s not to say he’s been appreciably good in coverage or run defense — though he has his moments — but when you’re looking for stopgap safety play, you’re not going to get much better than this.

In a lot of ways, this is just a rehash of the same-old, same-old Texans safety philosophy, where they dig up an in-his-prime player with starting experience and not much of a market. Wil Demps and Eugene Wilson say hello. But I think Lewis is better than either of those guys were, and it’s not like the contract is holding them back from picking up someone of actual importance should they become available.

One of the very first topics I covered, when I started the 3CD, was Eugene Monroe’s valuation after he was traded from the Jaguars to the Ravens in the middle of the season.

I’ve always thought Monroe was overrated by those who saw him as a Pro Bowl-caliber guy, but there are people out there who see Monroe as that kind of tackle. Even if he’s only a solid left tackle rather than a great one — how many of those are there in the league today? How many teams would kill for Eugene Monroe as a free agent in a league where Jermon Bushrod got five years and about $22.5 million in guarantees? I don’t necessarily have a problem with the Jaguars moving to deal Monroe, because they are going nowhere this season and there’s always a chance that he gets hurt, but I’ve got to think there’s a better return out there for Monroe than this.

If the Ravens are able to find a way to keep Monroe, this trade will have been worth it. If he walks in the offseason, they’ll have traded a fourth- and a fifth-round pick for 12 (not counting playoffs) games of slightly above-average tackle play. While the offensive line was a problem last year too, keep in mind that shifting McKinnie into the starting lineup dramatically changed things in the playoffs. It’s not ridiculous to state that the Ravens could have found a move that would produce similar short-term benefits without giving up draft picks.

Taken solely in the short-term, it becomes very clear why these teams did what they did here. Look past that, though, and you’ll see a team that had no reason to trade a decent left tackle selling low to a team that doesn’t have the cap room to pay a decent left tackle without sacrificing elsewhere.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m still really struggling to find the motivation for this trade for the Jaguars. And it’s making me wonder what they know about him that we don’t.

I have misevaluated tackles before, of course. I was very puzzled as to why Marcus McNeill remained unsigned for so long before he retired due to his injuries. But generally speaking, a lot of the top-10 and top-15 free agent lists I saw included Monroe in the top 5. Some of the reasoning behind that was PFF ratings — which, while I respect them in the same way I respect AV, I don’t think is really a serious measure of a player’s talent — but other outside analysts just see more from Monroe than I do.

There are a lot of smart people in the Jaguars front office, and this trade brings me back to the idea of how important it is that an organization is completely on the same page. There is a very delicate balance in a football front office when it comes to “having too many cooks in the kitchen” versus overworking one person beyond his capabilities. We have entire books and conferences now about how to connect analytical thought through the brain of a coach. Basically, we are at the phase of football analytics where we are trying to intercept human emotion — decisions tinted with gut feelings — with logic, and human emotion is inherently illogical and hard to change in the moment, once it’s made the decision.

For the Jaguars to make the trade, despite the fact that franchising Monroe and looking at his market would apparently have zero downside for them, in my mind this had to be a decision tinted with gut feelings. Maybe it was a gut feeling about the upcoming draft that went against traditional draft value (i.e. it’s deeper than most), maybe it was the idea that Monroe was unhappy and wanted out, or maybe — my guess — they got so wrapped up in trying to ascertain the pieces of their roster that they didn’t want going forward that they just accepted the highest offer they were going to receive at the time. (Austin Pastzor, you’ve got friends in high places.)

Monroe hit the open market. Tackles were given premium dollars there, despite the oft-cited trend that recent Super Bowl winners haven’t really had much going on at tackle, and he received a five-year deal worth $37.5 million, $19 million of which was guaranteed. The Chiefs were holding out for a second-round pick for Branden Albert last offseason after they franchised him — which is pretty much the exact opposite of how the Jaguars played this scenario, though I thought Albert was a better player — and they didn’t get it. I would have held out for a third-rounder for Monroe, knowing that my worst-case scenario is that I have a solid tackle for another season and it puts me a step closer to not having to worry about the salary floor. I do think, in the offseason market, when teams are traditionally more interested in pursuing upgrades, that they could have found that. At the very least, I think they could’ve found the same value they got before the trade deadline.

The only reasoning that I can find that would lead me to believe that dealing Monroe in the moment was smarter is the general fungibility of football players. If Monroe blows out his knee in Week 13, his value as an asset is completely gone. But, if that’s the case, why not move him before the season even started and worry about the consequences later? It’s not like the Jaguars were particularly concerned with winning games last season.

Ultimately I do think the difference between a third-rounder and fourth- and fifth-rounders is worth holding out for. I don’t think we know the full story of why the Jaguars didn’t. And, since they are an organization that values analytics, I’m curious as to what they knew that we didn’t.

There’s usually a divide between NFL free agency and the NFL draft that can be paraphrased as “in the draft, you have to project how someone will do in the NFL, and in free agency, you have to project how someone will do for your team.” So, when you re-sign your own free agent, it’s one of the few times that you can say that you really know what you’re getting.

Only, in the case of Garrett Graham, I don’t think the Texans really know what they’re getting.

As I said when I went over the Texans cap situation, I wouldn’t want to be the team paying Graham over $2 million a season. Houston is the team doing that: the deal is for three years, worth $11.25 million, and carries $4.5 million in guaranteed money. While I always liked Graham as a prospect, and I do think he can become an effective fourth option in a passing game, I really don’t think that’s the guy you want to sink $3.75 million a year into when the player in question is a) going to be 28 before the season starts and b) has exactly zero experience being effective at being a fourth receiver. In his only real extended action as a starting tight end, Graham finished second-to-last in both DVOA and DYAR among tight ends. He did have a functional 6.8% DVOA as the No. 2 tight end in 2012, but that’s not the role the Texans are envisioning for him with this contract.

Here’s why I started with the talk of projection: because of how bad Case Keenum was at actually checking down last season, I do feel like some of Graham’s poor numbers are the result of the context of the team rather than his individual abilities. I know this is a bold stance, to say that Graham isn’t the second-worst starting tight end in football, but I believe it to be true. The problem lies in figuring out just how good Graham really is. From a scouting perspective, as someone who watches every Texans game, I can’t really say I see any special traits here. Graham’s a solid tight end in a lot of areas, but he has no go-to receiving move, he doesn’t have enough speed to force safeties to play him honestly, he’s not a good blocker, his routes aren’t so crisp that they leave linebackers stumbling, he doesn’t break tackles. He can still be a solid tight end and not have any of those things, but if a tight end has no special qualities and no track record of being productive as the No. 1 tight end, how can you really justify the contract they gave him?

I understand a lot of people are frustrated with the austerity the Texans have shown this offseason. They see a team that went 2-14 and wonder where the changes are. They see free agents fleeing for the hills and are glad to keep somebody. But with how crunched the Texans are for cap room, every little expense needs to be scrutinized. I’m totally okay with them letting the Joe Mayses and Darryl Sharptons of the world walk. I’m fine with Ben Tate leaving, understanding that he wouldn’t have accepted $7 million to continue to be Arian Foster’s backup. I’m less okay with them letting Antonio Smith walk, but understand that he’s an older player and that he probably won’t be productive by the time the Texans are ready to field their next competitive team.

You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere on the “which players on this roster are worth keeping?” discussion. But I don’t think Graham should’ve been the player. Because he doesn’t have a lot of experience actually playing in the league, I think people are using that as an marker of where he is on the NFL scale: a young tight end that could blossom now that he has playing time. But, as I said above, he’s already 28. (There’s a reason he was a free agent.) He never seriously pushed Owen Daniels for playing time, even though Daniels had injury problems and wasn’t very productive in his own right over the past few years. Ed Dickson, to take one guy on the market who has seen little interest, is basically the same player — and he even has the bonus of being more prolific — and nobody is offering him $3.75 million a year. Dustin Keller is a free agent tight end that’s actually produced — albeit one coming off a serious injury — and he’s drawn little interest.

So I’m not going to beat the horse into the ground. This isn’t an apocalyptic signing. This isn’t the kind of franchise-crippling deal that, say, the Raiders actually following through with that Rodger Saffold contract would’ve been. But it’s not a net positive in my eyes. The best-case scenario is that Graham, for the first time in his career, plays up to that deal. That’s not the position you want to be in when you sign someone as a free agent.

And, yet, it could be worse. We could still be on #ReedWatch.

This year, the Texans have the No. 1 pick. It’s been a full-frontal assault of stupid since the day the season ended. From people implying that Matt Schaub isn’t actually so bad, to using their mock drafts to create a hot take that is generally not accepted  — Khalil Mack is totally going to be better than Jadeveon Clowney, you guys, because he’s never quit! — to stirring things up based on the latest innuendo they’ve heard at the combine rather than using their actual eyes.

Here is my one contribution to the draft seas, carefully planned during all the free agency news:

It seems to me like there are three prevailing arguments against Teddy Bridgewater — the player I’d select — being the No. 1 pick. The first is that it is inherently risky to take a quarterback in the first round, because we’ve done studies that include Jim Druckenmiller and first-round quarterbacks don’t have a high “hit rate” compared to other positions. I think that context is a great thing to remember when you are thinking about selecting a quarterback who there are conflicting grades on — let’s call said player B. Bortles, no, too obvious, Blake B. — but it doesn’t really make as much sense to me to group players that “only one team needed to believe in,” like a Druckenmiller or a Christian Ponder, with sure-fire first-round picks. And, I feel like if a player like Ryan Leaf or Akili Smith had come out today, their statistical red flags would be more well-understood, and that would cause them to slip a bit. Quarterback evaluation is still very much in the eye of the beholder, but I think if there’s one thing analytics has created in the eyes of general managers, it’s an ability to understand that completing 55 percent of your passes (or a similarly poor statistic) isn’t something you can give a quarterback a pass on without a lot of scrutiny.

An offshoot of that argument, one that is rooted in Houston history, is something like: “We picked David Carr No. 1 overall and look how that turned out.” Well, yeah, it went really poorly. But there were a lot of mitigating factors to that situation that don’t exist today. A No. 1 overall quarterback is no longer married to the franchise for years, especially now that the rookie scale has eliminated them from haunting the salary cap for years to come. I will never be leading the David Carr Excuses club — it’s my belief that his pocket presence wouldn’t have played in this league, no matter the team — but part of the reason he played as poorly as he did was that he was on an expansion team with a pretty bad offensive line. Letting the fact that Carr was bad keep you from wanting to select another quarterback first overall would be like never dating again because the first relationship you hopped into was abusive.

The second main point I’ve seen revolves around the body type. Bridgewater doesn’t have a “projectable” body, or the classic quarterback build. There are a lot of ways to word this, but since it’s my blog, I will be crude: I don’t give a shit. I mean, yeah, it’d be nice if Bridgewater was 6-foot-5 and built like an Adonis too, but I’m way more concerned with how he plays on the field. I’m no Matt Waldman. I don’t break down college tape for a living — in fact, I think it’s practically impossible to follow both the NFL and college football at similar levels — but the little work I’ve put in on the subject, both with my own eyes and through the eyes of people I trust, suggests that Bridgewater has a chance to be a very special quarterback at the NFL level. If he does that without the ideal body mass index, whatever. We just saw a 5-foot-11 quarterback lead his team to a Super Bowl. (One that is nothing like Bridgewater, admittedly, but my point is that obsessing over body type is a “We’re Not Selling Jeans Here” error, and it’s 2014.) I’ve also heard innuendo that Bridgewater’s interviews weren’t flawless, and that he came off as meek in them. I also don’t care about that. Sign me up for 11 players with that meekness. Mentality matters, but how a player handles his initial failings is more important to me than how rah-rah he is in the locker room. Cam Newton is vocal and pouty and he couldn’t avoid the body language critics either — somehow, I think he still wants to win at football. Just a hunch.

Finally, there is the idea that pairing J.J. Watt with Jadeveon Clowney will create the sort of explosive doomsday defense that skeptics were afraid of when the Large Hadron Collider was going full-speed. I can’t deny that this would be fun to watch, nor can I deny that I think Clowney is going to be a very good player at the next level, but I think scouts tend to overrate anything that jumps off the screen that much and not consider the full picture. If you want an NFL example, Percy Harvin was traded for a first-round pick and given an enormous contract by the Seahawks. Injury problems limited him throughout the season — as they often have — and while he appeared in the Super Bowl and returned a kickoff for a touchdown, nobody would tell you that on a seasonal basis, he was worth the investment. That doesn’t mean he won’t be worth it in some future years — he’s a damn good player that presents some unique matchup problems for a defense — but the injury issues and lack of snaps are a part of the total package of his value. You’re rolling the dice on it. If you want a Texans-centric example, Ben Tate has produced highlight reel broken tackles and flashed an amazing size-speed combination that makes scouts drool. On the other hand, his pass blocking is pedestrian, he’s finished two years on IR, his vision comes and goes, and he’s almost a complete zero as a pass-catching back. The whole is less impressive than the 20 best plays, but those 20 best plays are so amazing that scouts are drawn to him.

I suspect this would be the end result of a Watt-Clowney pairing. They’d have some plays where they’d make an offense look silly, and they’d have some ridiculous games where they would shut down a poorly-quarterbacked team singlehandedly. But ultimately, they can’t play safety. They can’t make Whitney Mercilus a better pass rusher. They can’t make Brice McCain not be a trainwreck at nickelback. They can’t teach Darryl Sharpton what a seam route is. Hell, the Texans got a vintage J.J. Watt season last year and he couldn’t keep them from going 2-14. Don’t get me wrong, the Texans could really use an outside linebacker that can rush the passer, but if Mercilus had 12 sacks last year, how much would that have swung the bottom line? Would the Texans be a four-win team? Six?

To be sure, there’s an inherent risk in selecting somebody No. 1 overall. But the goal isn’t necessarily to minimize that risk, but to find the right balance of risk and reward. If Bridgewater is, as I believe, a top-10 quarterback in this league ultimately, and the Texans can shuttle Matt Schaub’s contract off the books, they are well on their way to the Seattle blueprint of having a lot of money to spend elsewhere in the short-term. If he’s a bust, the Texans lose probably two years, and they likely get another shot at a franchise guy at that point. If they take Clowney, they leap to a six-win team, but now they are going to have to find the most difficult asset to create in the NFL — a good starting quarterback — with lower picks, trades, and free agency. Good quarterbacks are available in free agency only so rarely, and so the Texans find their own Alex Smith, and they are on the path to becoming the new Kansas City Chiefs. Is that something to aspire to? Isn’t that just where they were with Matt Schaub at the end of 2012, before he further declined?

There isn’t a more game-changing asset in the NFL at this point than a cost-controlled quarterback that can play with the best quarterbacks in the game. Even if the Texans feel there’s only a 50 percent chance Bridgewater is that good, it will likely be higher odds than they’ll see for a long time. It doesn’t seem like they share that view, or at least there’s been little in terms of media connections to it. Granted, the Texans have thrown a lot of smokescreens around. John McClain’s ratio of calling the 2013 Texans “pathetic” to having to contradict wrong national reports is nearing 1:1. But as someone used to the Kubiak administration’s silence, it’s hard to really have a handle on what this team is doing. All you’ve got is hope.

He’s not a sexy pick, he’s not a scout’s pick. But in my mind, he’s the correct one.

Quick turnaround! Here’s the full thing, available at Football Outsiders.

Obviously, the Texans’ biggest issue is their desperate need for a quarterback with an NFL future, but chances are they will select one with the No. 1 overall pick. So let’s go ahead and put a check in that box for now, as it is a pretty well-identified need by this point.

The biggest non-QB problem last season was at linebacker. The Texans signed a six-year extension with Brian Cushing in September, only to watch him end a second consecutive campaign on injured reserve with a torn LCL and a broken fibula. Cushing returned from his first injury in good shape, and though his medical history is starting to make the contract look a little scary, LCLs and broken fibulas aren’t devastating injuries in the long run.

Now that you see how awesome the whole thing is, surely you’ll spring for an Insider membership to support our website, right?

Today’s new post at Football Outsiders begins a division-by-division look at what each team is dealing with as far as cap space with the AFC East.

Scott Kacsmar touched on Buffalo’s ability to <a href=”; target=”_blank”>upgrade their offensive line</a> in Four Downs, but for me Buffalo’s offseason turns on how they handle Byrd. If they let him walk, suddenly they have some money to splash around. Personally, I’d just franchise Byrd rather than let him walk if it came to that — they’re not likely to find a better defender than him and safety beyond him is a mess — but it’s one potential way to go.

Buffalo’s roster is well-envisioned. The talent seems good enough to be a middle of the pack team, especially if the defense doesn’t regress under new leadership, but it all depends on how EJ Manuel develops. If he rolls out in 2014 and suddenly demonstrates the ability to complete screen passes, slants, and the rest of what Buffalo was asking him for last year that he couldn’t deliver between injury bouts, this could be a tough team. If he stagnates or regresses, the roster is a Mazda Miata in the hands of a 15-year-old with a learner’s permit.

Read the whole thing here.

New on ESPN: Four Downs AFC South

Posted: February 12, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Filling the holes edition! Here’s the Insider link ($)

Obviously, the Texans’ biggest issue is their desperate need for a quarterback with an NFL future, but chances are they will select one with the No. 1 overall pick. So let’s go ahead and put a check in that box for now, as it is a pretty well-identified need by this point.

The biggest non-QB problem last season was at linebacker. The Texans signed a six-year extension with Brian Cushing in September, only to watch him end a second consecutive campaign on injured reserve with a torn LCL and a broken fibula. Cushing returned from his first injury in good shape, and though his medical history is starting to make the contract look a little scary, LCLs and broken fibulas aren’t devastating injuries in the long run.

The full thing will hit Football Outsiders early next week or late this week, and I’ll link it again at that time.

Cap Space as of today: A little under $7 million. (All monetary figures courtesy of Over The Cap.)

Unrestricted Free Agents (16, via Rusty Smith, Jackie Battle, Leon Washington, Kenny Britt, Marc Mariani, Kevin Walter, Damian Williams, Mike Otto, Kevin Matthews, Chris Spencer, Rob Turner, Antonio Johnson, Ropati Pitoitua, Zac Diles, Alterraun Verner, Bernard Pollard

The priority free agents in this class for Tennessee are Alterraun Verner and Bernard Pollard. Verner was the darling of tape analysts this season, even making a Deadspin appearance, which is kind of funny since all the smoke coming out of OTAs would lead one to believe his job was up for grabs. Tommie Campbell and Coty Sensabaugh were held off, and Verner had his best season. While Verner certainly had an off-year in 2012, he was hardly so bad that his job should’ve been in jeopardy. I’m a little curious to see how he’ll feel about that lack of faith in free agency, if it comes down to the Titans and a different team.

Pollard played 99 percent of the snaps and had the Bernard Pollardest of seasons: plenty of fineable hits, solid run defense (though he has a tendency to overpursue at times), and questionable at best pass defense that is mitigated by his tendency to make the big play. In 1993, he would’ve been a Pro Bowl-caliber safety. However, in 2014, where you have to actually cover people sometimes, he’s more of an inelegant solution than a solid player. The Titans probably shouldn’t be throwing big dollars around to make it happen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back.

The big curio of the bunch is the mercurial Kenny Britt, who tumbled down the depth chart and pretended the ball was made of magma when he actually did get on the field. He’s still got all the physical talent you’d want from a receiver, though his explosion has never really recovered from his ACL surgery. I expect some team to take a chance on him as a red zone target, at least. Ropati Pitoitua and Antonio Johnson both had respectable years as rotation linemen, and it’d make sense to bring them back as cheap bodies, though they might just be 3-4 ends in Ray Horton’s scheme.

Leon Washington and Marc Mariani could, in theory, be good kick returners. Damian Williams has a lot of experience in a lot of different roles, but has never been statistically impressive. Rusty Smith saved the 2010 Texans from having the worst pass defense in NFL history.

Restricted Free Agents (1): Herb Donaldson

Well, I cover football for a living and I’ve never heard of this guy. So that’s comforting. He’s apparently spent the last four years on practice squads in New Orleans, Dallas, and Tennessee. So, I’m thinking he probably won’t be tendered.

Franchise Tag Candidates: Assuming Joel Corry’s projections are close to true, the cornerback franchise tag would run about $11.2 million. Verner had a great season, but given how up against the cap the Titans are, I can’t imagine them tagging him. He’s really the only candidate on the roster.

Release/Restructure Candidates: Chris Johnson ($6,000,000 saved against the 2014 cap), David Stewart ($6,400,000), Nate Washington ($4,800,000), Rob Bironas ($3,125,000), Kamerion Wimbley ($2,400,000)

I’ve turned around a bit on Chris Johnson over the years. I no longer think of him as a bad, arrogant running back. I think of him as an average one. In 2014, an average back can’t have a $10,000,000 cap number unless there are monster bargains elsewhere on the roster. So, though I do think this move may actually weaken Tennessee a bit, it’s probably time to let him go.

David Stewart has long been a red-ass player, but his pass blocking has significantly declined and leg injuries have sapped him of some short-area speed.  He’s missed four games in each of the last two seasons. Cutting Michael Roos would save just about the same amount of money, but Roos has been the much better player over the past few seasons.

Nate Washington has continued to be a real find for the Titans, and he managed a 6.6% DVOA, putting him 28th among 90 qualifying receivers. I hesitated a bit to put him on this list, but given Justin Hunter’s role expansion I think the Titans may continue to bleed that position and bring in some outside talent, or at least try and get him to agree to a cheaper deal.

The Titans have been below average on kickoffs and field goals/extra points in Football Outsiders numbers for two straight seasons. Bironas was one of the best kickers in the game at one point, but the decline phase looks to be here to stay, and it’d save a lot of money to let him go.

Wimbley started one game, and had one sack. His release doesn’t generate all the cap room you’d like given how big of a bust his contract wound up being, but it’s something. I could see them keeping him on the notion that he has 3-4 experience as an outside linebacker, but as a non-starter on a team that really needed pass rush last year, the mental heuristics don’t work for me.

Overview: While the Titans are barely under the cap as it stands, the amount of money they can save in releases and/or restructures could enable them to be players in free agency should they so choose. The thing is, outside of finding perfect schematic fits for Ray Horton’s new defense and retaining Verner, they don’t really have a whole lot of festering wounds. Instead, they have positions where talented players have underachieved their perceived skill: quarterback, offensive guard, linebacker, and safety (despite Michael Griffin’s decent season, his track record makes me lack trust in him.) Assuming the Titans get the whole gang back together, I expect them to add a defensive line piece and an inside linebacker. Maybe a combo of Randy Starks and Jon Beason, or something along those lines.

The kicker is that they’ll probably keep some money free to deal with a potential Jake Locker breakout season, which would cause some cap chaos for them. So even if they did want to spend wildly and bring in a top outside linebacker, that guy a) doesn’t exist in free agency, and b) would mean the team would have a lot of cap gymnastics to do in 2014 to keep Locker.

So, instead, I think you’ll see mostly austerity, with a few stabs at defensive pieces to help Horton out.