The 5 Moves the Tennessee Titans Must Avoid in Free Agency
The excitement of the NFL offseason is nearly upon us. Unlike most other teams, the Tennessee Titans dipped into the free agency pool a bit early by signing ex-Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson to a two-year $4 million contract (according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport via Pro Football Talk).
The move should serve as a boon to the franchise, filling one of the team's biggest positional needs before March 12 (first day of free agency) rolls around. However, the Titans still have plenty of other areas of need that need to be addressed either through the latter method or the NFL draft.
Rather than delving into what moves the should make, let's take a look at some of the moves the team should probably avoid if given the opportunity.
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Breaking the Bank on Jared Cook
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Year after year, the word out of Titans' camp is that they are going to get Jared Cook more involved in the offense. And year after year there, one way or another, he does not have a breakout season.
This time around I think it's safe to blame Cook's inconsistent involvement on the play-calling of former offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and the erratic throwing of Jake Locker in his first year starting.
The Titans would like to bring Cook back into the fold. The most likely option of doing that before free agency begins is by designating him with the team's franchise tag. March 4 is the deadline for applying franchise tags. Titans general manager Ruston Webster said (via the Tennessean):
How it gets done, we’ll see. We’ve always wanted Jared. That hasn’t changed, and I don’t see that changing. And we are on the same page with the coaching staff that way. … He is a big part of our offense.
However, the problem with applying the franchise tag to Cook is that he lines up as a wide receiver on 56 percent of his snaps in 2012, Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean says. As Wyatt also explains in the article, the position of the player designated with the franchise tag is determined by where they line up the most.
As a wide receiver Cook would cost the team $10.5 million; as a tight end he would be priced at about $6 million. Unless the two sides can come to a long-term agreement at a more agreeable cost, the team will need to bid adieu to the underachieving tight end.
Standing Pat at Defensive End
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Kamerion Wimbley proved to be a serviceable right defensive end in his first year with the Titans, but he's not being paid to be just "serviceable." Wimbley gets a bit of a pass after transitioning from being an outside linebacker for the majority of his career back to his collegiate position.
Wimbley graded in the top 20 in three of four categories that decide a player's overall grade on PFF, but he was almost nonexistent when it came to run defense. In fact, Wimbley finished the year ranked 61st of 62 defensive ends (4-3 only) in run defense.
The Titans can either decide to stand pat with Wimbley or bring in a sub-package player to help spell him on obvious run situations. This year's free agent class is perfect for finding just that need, as most of the players are far more adept at stopping the run than rushing the passer.
The Titans cannot afford to spend big money at the position for the second consecutive offseason, with Derrick Morgan finally staying healthy for a year and grading out as a top-five talent in 2012. ESPN's Paul Kuharsky seems to think that the Cincinnati Bengals' Michael Johnson can be had, but at what cost?
With the size and ability to rush the passer from inside and out, Idonije is a valuable addition for any 4-3 team and his improved run defense this season (+7.5) only increases his value as you don’t have to carefully manage the snaps he plays.
Look for the Titans to still draft a defensive end if they bring someone in via free agency is the position is completely devoid of talent behind Morgan and Wimbley.
Signing Andy Levitre
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Former Buffalo Bills offensive guard Andy Levitre has been touted as the top guard in this year's free agent class. Since being drafted 51st overall in the 2009 NFL draft he has been a stalwart left guard on the Bills' offensive line.
Levitre has been a mainstay on the interior of the Bills' offensive line since entering the league in 2009. He is a good athlete that wins with technique, toughness and intelligence. He lacks great strength and size for the position. Levitre gains leverage with quickness and taking proper angles on larger defenders. He utilizes active hands and excellent pad level in pass protection. He has a decent punch, but doesn't have great power to get movement at the point of attack. Levitre has been very durable during his short three-year career and brings consistency and attitude to the Bills. (via ESPN's Scouts Inc.)
And therein lies the problem. While Levitre is an excellent pass-blocker. Since 2010, Levitre has finished ranked 11th, 12th and ninth in Pro Football Focus' player grading system as a pass-blocker, but when it comes to run-blocking, Levitre turns into a very average, if not below-average player.
The Titans have one of the league's best pass-blocking offensive line units already. The whole point of the Titans needing to solve its interior offensive line woes is to bring in some strength and run-blocking ability.
Not only will Levitre likely draw top dollar on the open market, but his skill set is not a necessity in Tennessee. Brandon Moore and Donald Thomas are the top names at the position the team should set their sights on.
Whiffing on Re-Signing Fernando Velasco
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Fernando Velasco became the Titans starting center after an in-camp injury to Eugene Amano, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Velasco finished 11th for the 2012 season in Pro Football Focus' player grading system.
The Titans still have Eugene Amano signed through 2014 and may be a bit wary of paying two centers starters' money. According to Jim Wyatt, the Titans plan to tender the upstart center an offer as a restricted free agent.
By Pro Football Focus' grading, in 2010 Amano finished the year as the league's worst center (34th of 34), and in 2011 he was a still horrible (32nd of 34). There's no reason for the team to have any faith in Amano as the starting center if they're serious about revamping the interior of the offensive line.
Velasco is a player who can be brought back on the cheap and would give the Titans fewer holes to fill this offseason. It would be a mistake to let him walk despite Amano's terrible contract hit of more than $6 million.
Ignoring the Situation at Linebacker
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When the Titans shift to their nickel defense package, strong-side linebacker Akeem Ayers moves down closer to the line of scrimmage to rush the passer and Colin McCarthy typically comes off the field in favor of another defensive back. Ayers isn't particularly adept in coverage at this point in his career.
McCarthy showed himself to be strong in coverage during his rookie year but wasn't very keen on stuffing the run consistently. In 2012, McCarthy struggled with injury, regressed mightily and finished the year ranked 49th of 52 inside linebackers on PFF.
On the weak side, Zach Brown showed a lot of promise after taking over as the starter early in the year. He graded out as a solid coverage linebacker but struggled in run defense. So while not ideal on an every-down basis, the run game isn't necessarily supposed to be his strong suit.
What the Titans need is someone who is capable of providing the versatility that soon-to-be free agent Will Witherspoon once did. Someone who can come in to take over for McCarthy on run defense situations and still play as the other linebacker in nickel situations.
Through the draft the best option for that fix is Alec Ogletree, but he seems to have a lot of issues off the field, and with the current situation with Kenny Britt the Titans may have already taken him off the board.
Through free agency, Kaluka Maiava grades out positively in both rush and pass defense for 2012 on a limited snap count, and Leroy Hill is another option capable of filling the roll.
Either way the position needs to be addressed or the team's defense could still be susceptible to back-breaking third-down conversion plays.