After sputtering to a 2-4 start early in the 2019 season, the Tennessee Titans made a change. Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, went to the bench and Ryan Tannehill stepped in as the starting quarterback. It’s a decision that ultimately sparked an unbelievable run for the Titans in a season fans will never forget.
Tannehill provided a tremendous upgrade over Mariota. The 31-year-old opened up this offense and executed everything far better than Mariota ever did in his career. Meanwhile, the offensive line hit its stride and helped Derrick Henry go on a remarkable stretch, running through defenses and carrying this team to the AFC Championship Game.
It’s an exciting time in Tennessee. The Titans are in a position to bring back Tannehill and Henry, both headed for free agency, to make another run at the Super Bowl. It’s what the fans want, but we’ve also seen the risks of reactionary moves.
The Titans face critical decisions this offseason, calls more significant than they’ve faced in years. As we’ve seen across the NFL recently, making the wrong moves can handcuff an organization for years. That’s what makes Tennessee’s approach to the offseason so critical.
The skinny: Tennessee enters the offseason with $50 million in cap space and could create an additional $11 million by releasing Dion Lewis, Delanie Walker and Ryan Succop. There’s plenty to spend, but this team also has key starters set to hit the open market.
- OT Jack Conklin – He’s one of the best right tackles in football and now is the time for him to get paid on the open market. He could easily land $11M-plus per year and the Titans need him on the right side.
- CB Logan Ryan – A reliable corner and a trusted voice in the locker room, Tennessee’s secondary only benefits by having him out there. He will be 29 next season, though, making a long-term investment risky.
- LB Kamalei Correa – Set to enter his age-26 season, Correa demonstrated the ability to be a key starter next season. Given Tennessee’s need for more help pressuring the quarterback, losing Correa would be another hit to a weak position.
- QB Ryan Tannehill – The NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, Tannehill’s play helped this team come within one win of a Super Bowl appearance. He’s going to cost more than $25 million annually and a long-term deal comes with serious risk.
- RB Derrick Henry – The 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back is a treat to watch run the football. Tennessee relied on him heavily late in the year and it paid off. Now he’s ready to cash in for his dominant work.
The Titans can’t afford to keep everyone. Sacrifices must be made. These crucial decisions will be up to general manager Jon Robinson. If he makes the wrong calls this offseason, the decisions will be costly.
Don’t overpay Derrick Henry: The 26-year-old running back dishes out plenty of punishment to defenders on the field, but he takes even more hits throughout the season. Henry wants to be back in Tennessee and the feeling is mutual, but his contract demands are the problem.
- Henry told The Rich Eisen Show that Ezekiel Elliott’s record-breaking contract is the floor for his negotiations. That means giving him a deal worth more than $90 million, including $50 million guaranteed.
It’s a massive financial commitment to a running back, especially one that is a non-factor in passing situations. For as impactful as Henry was this past season running the football, paying running backs an exorbitant amount of money hasn’t worked out lately.
- Todd Gurley – four-year, $60 million extension – Less than two years after signing him to a record extension, the Los Angeles Rams already want out of the deal. Gurley was younger when he signed the deal and is an all-purpose back, but it still backfired for the Rams.
- David Johnson – three-year, $39 million extension – Arizona gave Johnson $30 million guaranteed before the 2018 season. As this offseason begins, the Cardinals must attach a draft pick to Johnson via trade if they want to dump his bloated contract.
- Le’Veon Bell – four-year, $52.5 million contract – New York took a massive gamble on Bell this past offseason and it blew up in their face. He reportedly gained weight, the front office wants to trade him and he is still owed $44 million.
- DeVonta Freeman – five-year, $41.25 million extension – Atlanta rewarded Freeman for his excellent production with a sizable extension in 2017. He played in just 16 games and combined for 724 yards over the past two seasons. As you might expect, the Falcons are ready to move on.
It’s only a matter of time before the Cowboys regret overpaying Elliott. The Titans can’t make the same kind of mistake, especially on a running back who can’t be a pass-catching weapon. Even if the Titans make Henry the third-highest paid running back in NFL history, it’s almost certain to be a mistake that will crush this team’s cap space for years.
Avoid a long-term commitment to Tannehill: The Titans acquired Tannehill last offseason for pennies on the dollar and it proved to be one of the best moves all year. He certainly earned a pay raise this offseason and the Titans plan to bring him back. However, this is another spot where overreacting to a small sample size could burn this organization.
- Tannehill’s 2019 season was certainly incredible. A 22-6 TD-INT ratio with a 117.5 quarterback rating was the peak stretch of his entire NFL career.
- It can’t be ignored, though, that he finished a six-year run in Miami with an 87 quarterback rating, completed 62.8% of his passes and posted a 42-46 record.
- After completing 70.3% of his passes and averaging 9.6 yards per attempt in 12 games in the regular season, Tannehill only completed 60% of his attempts and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt in the postseason.
Making a long-term investment into a quarterback who played at just an above-average level then suddenly exploded in his age-31 season is a horrible decision. Tannehill can easily command more than $25 million annually on the open market and his agent can push for a four-year deal if he gets there.
He is going to experience regression in his age-32 season and the falloff could be significant from the numbers we saw in 2019. If the Titans commit to him on a multi-year that pays him like a top-10 quarterback, that will only further put this team at risk for long-term financial constraints.
The alternative approach: Being an NFL general manager takes a willingness to go against the grain and approach decisions with reason. The Titans certainly have key players they must re-sign this offseason and some marquee names have to be set free. After laying out the moves to avoid, here is how the Titans should approach the offseason.
- Place franchise tag on Ryan Tannehill – The franchise tag for quarterbacks is projected at approximately $27 million next season. It’s a high cost for one season, but it gives Tennessee another year to see if Tannehill’s play is for real and it keeps him off the open market.
- Let Derrick Henry walk – While fans love him and he carried this offense during the stretch run, he’s not worth overpaying. The Titans can find a replacement for a fraction of the cost in the draft in a draft class with plenty of all-purpose backs to choose from. Replacing Henry with a cheaper and more versatile back is better for this offense and organization.
- Re-sign Jack Conklin – If Tennessee is going to make a long-term investment in one player, it needs to be Conklin. The entire offensive line excels as a unit and the 25-year-old right tackle is one of the most crucial pieces. If he leaves, it hurts Tannehill and the run game.
- Focus on the defense: Tennessee must find talent to plug in on the defensive side. Its first-round selection can be spent on an edge rusher or cornerback with a significant chunk of its cap space targeted towards either position. Whether it’s Jadeveon Clowney, Shaquil Barrett or Chris Harris Jr. paired with edge rusher Terrell Lewis or cornerback C.J. Henderson with the 29th pick, the Titans can’t go wrong.
The bottom line: Letting Henry walk won’t be a popular decision among fans and players, but it is the right move. Likewise, Tannehill still hasn’t proven enough to be awarded a multi-year deal that pays him like a proven, high-end quarterback.
The Titans can return to the playoffs without Derrick Henry. Improving the defense is a far better use of Tennessee’s cap space than giving it to a running back with limited abilities and that plays at a position of rapid decline. Quarterbacks are the most important position in football followed by edge rusher, offensive tackle and cornerback. That’s how the Titans should prioritize their spending this year.
If general manager Jon Robinson makes the right moves this offseason, there’s no reason to believe the Titans can’t remain a playoff contender next season and be free to spend in the years ahead. If he makes the mistake of overpaying Tannehill and Henry, it will set this franchise back for years to come.