The playoffs might still be going, but for the Tennessee Titans, the time to start preparing for free agency is now. With the team out of the playoffs and Ken Whisenhunt hired as the new head coach, as Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen of ESPN reported, the Titans can start thinking about what to do with their players who aren't their players anymore.
One problem the Titans could have with re-signing free agents is the fact that there's a new head coach in town.
Players entering free agency won't feel a sense of loyalty to Whisenhunt, as they've never played under him before. Because of that, I expect that the Titans will see a lot of their players end up elsewhere.
One way to combat that is the franchise tag.
When a team franchises a player, it essentially gets to bypass free agency for a year at the cost of paying that player the mean of the top five salaries of players at his position, or 120 percent of his last year's salary, whichever is greater.
Because of the expense, it's something teams will only use when they really, really want to keep a player.
However, the franchise tag has evolved in use to some degree. Teams will use a franchise tag to keep a player with them, then trade the player to another team for a draft pick or another player. Or they will tag a player and use the tag as leverage for that player to sign a long-term agreement.
The Titans did just that with Michael Griffin in 2011.
Now, no matter how they use the franchise tag, there are really only two players who even warrant consideration for the franchise tag: Alterraun Verner and Bernard Pollard.
No one will dispute that Verner has earned consideration for the franchise tag. After all, he made the Pro Bowl, led the NFL in defended passes, and came away with five interceptions this season.
He's also a young player who could be just now reaching his potential, so the Titans definitely want to lock him down long-term if they can.
Pollard, on the other hand, might be a bit of a head-scratcher.
He's been good this season, leading the team in tackles, defending 10 passes and picking up three interceptions himself, but he's not been one of the best players at his position.
The reason I include Pollard on this list is because the free-agent class of safeties is not so great.
Besides, Pollard is way above-average as a run defender, and the Titans have already been struggling against the run. Losing Pollard could exacerbate that problem.
If the Titans don't want to spend one of their few early picks on a safety, that means getting one in free agency. If they don't want to downgrade the position, that means probably spending a lot of money.
If they were to franchise Pollard, however, they could easily get him to sign a long-term contract (since he's already 29), and save money in the long run. In fact, the Titans did that same thing with Michael Griffin in 2011.
That said, I think the Titans could convince Pollard to return without having to resort to the franchise tag. He signed with the team for very little in 2013, so even a big raise means getting him at a pretty good rate.
With Verner, on the other hand, franchising may be the only way to keep him around.
Cornerbacks can be very expensive, and with the Titans already hurting for cap space, they may not be able to afford Verner even if they use the tag to negotiate.
Verner is an excellent corner, but his size limits him, and he may not fit in a man-coverage scheme as well. He also might be a flash in the pan and never produce at this high of a level again.
We don't know who the new defensive coordinator will be, but if he wants to run a man-coverage scheme, then Verner wouldn't be nearly as valuable as he is in a zone scheme.
So the real question the Titans have in front of them is not whom to tag, but whether they should tag anyone at all.
Verner is a great player, but even if the Titans could make room for his massive salary in 2014, with guys like Derrick Morgan, Michael Roos, Jurrell Casey and Jake Locker getting close to the ends of their current contracts, that might mean letting a lot of other good players go.
Furthermore, while the tag-and-trade option may sound appealing, it doesn't really net the team much. If Verner were franchised and traded, he probably wouldn't bring more than a third-rounder.
If that seems low, keep in mind that the team trading for him has to give away a draft pick and would still have to pay Verner.
On the other hand, if the Titans were to let Verner walk, they'd probably come away with a third-round compensatory pick in the 2015 draft.
As great a player as Verner is, the Titans are deep and young at the corner position, and they just don't have the budget to bring back Verner unless he's willing to take way less than other teams will offer him.
With Pollard, the choice is even easier. While franchising a safety is much cheaper than franchising a corner, Pollard can probably be retained for less than what he'd get with a tag-initiated long-term contract.
If he can't be retained, he'd probably net the Titans a later compensatory pick as well.
Pollard and Verner are both great defensive backs, and the Titans would do well to keep them both on the team. But if the team wants to keep them in Tennessee, I don't think using the franchise tag is the right way to do it.
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