Cap Space as of today: A little under $7 million. (All monetary figures courtesy of Over The Cap.)
Unrestricted Free Agents (16, via NFL.com): 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.