Tennessee Titans' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
The start of free agency is approaching fast, and the Titans have a little less than $10 million in cap space, according to Spotrac.com. After the likely cuts of David Stewart and Chris Johnson that number jumps up to more than $22 million.
Cutting Johnson and Stewart is actually perhaps the most important step in the Titans offseason blueprint, as cutting the two career-long Titans more than doubles the team's current cap space.
The Titans remain a team with a ton of youthful promise at every position group, but lack any standouts on the roster. Jurrell Casey took a major step toward being considered an impact player, but a new coaching regime and change in defensive scheme could hinder his progress.
Overall, there is plenty of talent on the Titans roster just waiting for the right coach and blend of talent to help them get over the hump and become a playoff-caliber team again.
Here's what steps general manager Ruston Webster will need to take to help the Titans take another step in the right direction.
Target an Inside Linebacker
Inside linebacker was considered an area of need before the Titans decided to bring in a coaching staff that prefers a 3-4 hybrid defense. Now the need is doubled due to the need for a pass-rushing linebacker.
Free-agent target D'Qwell Jackson ended up signing with the division-rival Indianapolis Colts on Thursday rather than with the Titans. While new defensive coordinator Ray Horton lauded Jackson as a "coach's dream," the Titans still have plenty of options to infuse talent into the position this offseason.
Some of the top remaining free agents the Titans could target are Karlos Dansby, Perry Riley, Brandon Spikes and Daryl Smith. The team could also look to the draft, where top inside linebacker prospect C.J. Mosley is projected to be available when Tennessee makes its first selection.
The linebacker unit is essential to the success of a 3-4 defense, and the Titans only have two players on roster with room to grow—Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers. The need for talent at the position is dire.
Find a Replacement for Chris Johnson
If the Titans do ultimately decide to part ways with Chris Johnson, the need for a replacement at running back is something that must be dealt with. The best route for finding the final piece of the team's running-back-by-committee approach would be the draft.
This year's free-agent options at running back are extremely thin, and the Titans don't appear primed to put too much money into the position so soon after cutting their star.
Unfortunately, the Titans do not possess a third-round pick in the upcoming draft due to a trade with the San Francisco 49ers in last year's draft resulting in the selection of Justin Hunter.
The third round is shaping up to be the round when the majority of the positions' top prospects are most likely to be taken, leaving Tennessee with the option of taking a guy early or waiting until the fourth/fifth round and missing out on who they really want.
With Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle currently on the roster, the Titans are in need of a scatback to bring an alternative running style to the offense. Ken Whisenhunt utilized Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead to perfection with the San Diego Chargers last season and will look to duplicate his success in Tennessee.
Retain Damian Williams
With so many needs on both sides of the ball, the Titans don't need to add on to their list of positional needs. The Titans have a solid top three at receiver, but bringing Damian Williams back would be a smart move.
Williams is an upper echelon No. 4 receiver in the league, capable of playing in the slot, at flanker and split end. Not only would Williams provide quality depth now, but with the possibility of 2014 being Nate Washington's final season in Tennessee, he could also prove to be a solid third receiver in the future.
Williams also offers the added benefit of being a solid return man should the team find itself lacking at the position again during the upcoming season.
Find a True 3-4 Nose Tackle
Lost in the search for improvement at linebacker is the need for the team to find a stalwart to man the middle in a 3-4 defense. Some have projected Sammie Lee Hill or Jurrell Casey to man the middle, but neither is ideal for the job.
Casey lacks the size, while Hill lacks the consistency and stamina. Hill will likely be given a shot at the role, but the team would be wise to add some more size to the unit.
There are plenty of options available via free agency and the draft. Earl Mitchell and Linval Joseph are a couple of free-agent options, while Louis Nix III, Kelcy Quarles and Daniel McCullers are all viable draft prospects.
If there's one thing to learn from the success of some of 2013's top teams (Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers), it's the importance of winning the battle of the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Trade Down in the First Round
The Titans seem to have one too many needs for the amount of draft picks they have. The top needs of the team are an edge-rusher, offensive tackle, running back, inside linebacker and hybrid personal on the defensive line.
This year's draft is abnormally deep and, as mentioned earlier, the Titans lack a third-round selection to help fill an immediate need.
With the cost of early first-round picks coming back to earth with the most recent renegotiation of the collective bargaining agreement, the likelihood of teams being willing to trade up has increased.
The Titans' first pick of the draft is in a pretty desirable spot in the first round, and if Webster is able to negotiate a deal that fetches the team a third-round pick in a return, the Titans could fill all their major needs this offseason.
Find an Edge-Rusher
The top two outside linebackers that were headed to free agency, Brian Orakpo and Jason Worilds, had each of their teams' franchise tags placed on them. With that, the elite pass-rushing talent well the Titans are seeking is completely dried up.
If the need for the Titans to find a top-tier pass-rusher in the draft wasn't high on the team's draft board before, it's a virtual lock to be one of Tennessee's first two draft selections this year.
Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack have been projected to be selected by the Titans by several sources, including Charlie Campbell of Walter Football and Bleacher Report's Sean O'Donnell, since Day 1 of mock-draft season. Since the Scouting Combine, Mack has shot up draft boards and Barr has slipped.
Barr's slip goes hand-in-hand with the speculative plan to trade down in the first round. Finding an elite pass-rushing threat is no easy task; teams will not let prospects that have shown an ability to get to opposing quarterbacks stay on the board for long.