NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After reaching the playoffs for the second straight season, the Tennessee Titans find themselves with a dilemma.
They want to improve a pass rush that ranked 30th (19 sacks) in 2020. They also face the possibility of losing two players -- tight end Jonnu Smith (41 catches, 448 yards, 8 TDs) and wide receiver Corey Davis (65 catches, 984 yards, 5 TDs in 2020) -- who were heavy contributors to an offense that averaged 30.7 points per game last season. They'd like to bring back both.
But the salary cap won't have the typical jump because of the pandemic. In fact, it's going to shrink from approximately $198 million in 2020 to $182.5 million in 2021 -- so fixing the Titans' biggest issues will be a challenge. The Titans had approximately $1,275,000 in cap space before trading 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Wilson to the Miami Dolphins on Monday night. They also released Malcolm Butler on Tuesday which saves them $10.2 million in cap space.
More than ever, the 2021 season will require precise roster management that only gets tougher for the Titans and their limited salary-cap space. How do they create more space, and what are their biggest decisions to make as they position themselves for a Super Bowl run?
Who to extend, whose deals to redo?
One way to free up more cap space is extending existing player contracts to lower the number for 2021.
Right tackle Dennis Kelly is a prime candidate after signing a three-year, $17.5 million deal last March. Although Kelly has proved he's a capable starter, he carries a $6.5 million cap hit this year. His deal is set to expire after next season but extending it now to keep him around for a couple more seasons would allow the team to stretch the amount over the additional years tacked onto the new deal.
The other option would be restructuring deals with players that have a high cap number. The easiest way to restructure a deal is to convert salary to a bonus.
Doing that would allow the Titans to spread the cap charges out over multiple years. In other words, the Titans would be kicking the can down the road. The signing bonus is increased and paid upfront to reduce the salary which is paid over smaller game checks during the season.
In this scenario, the salary is added to later years in the contract. Given how the cap is expected to go back to normal increases in future years as the pandemic subsides, kicking the can down the road isn't a bad idea.
Which players should they release?
The week before the new league year (which begins March 17) is always an ugly time for veteran players. Those who would account for little dead cap space are sometimes released to free up cap space to sign free agents.
The Titans have already released wideout Adam Humphries, which cleared up $4.5 million in cap space.
Adoree' Jackson is due a $10.2 million payout this season after the Titans picked up his fifth-year option. The Titans could rescind the option which would make Jackson a free agent and save them the $10.2 million in cap space.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro is another option. Although he established himself as the tone-setter for the defense, releasing him would save $3.9 million. Deciding to move on from Vaccaro could depend on whether the team feels third-year safety Amani Hooker is ready to step into a bigger role.
Can they improve their evaluation process?
Adding the right players is the next step after freeing up cap space through restructures, extensions and releases. Last offseason, the Titans spent over $20 million combined to add Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney to boost their pass rush. One year later, the pass rush still needs major improvement.
Before he signed with Tennessee, Beasley had already drawn questions about his work ethic and love for football -- two staples within the Titans' locker room. For whatever reason, that didn't stop Tennessee from signing Beasley to a one-year, $9.5 million deal. He didn't pressure the quarterback and failed to register a sack before being released after appearing in three games.
Similarly, the Titans failed to get any contribution from Isaiah Wilson, who finished the season on the non-football injury list and played only four snaps his entire rookie season. He was traded to the Dolphins earlier this week.
The Titans need to strongly consider revisiting how they analyze free agents and prospects in a season where there are no opportunities to meet face to face. There are few ways to better gauge how a player will mesh with the team's core values.
One possibility? Rely more on analytics. Last offseason, ESPN conducted a survey to determine which teams were the most and least analytically inclined. The survey included 26 people who were NFL analytics staffers or had been in the past year.
Tennessee listed zero full-time analytics staffers on its website and were regarded as among the least analytically inclined teams in the league. Perhaps adding an analytical approach would lower the margin for error.