Tennessee Titans: What We've Learned so Far in Free Agency
Free agency began on Tuesday of this week, and there's already been a flurry of activity. The Titans haven't exactly been the talk of the league with huge signings, but they made some moves early on and are far from done.
The Titans have let some players go, re-signed others, made salary cap moves, and picked up a few free agents from off the market, and there's still the rest of the offseason to go.
Here are a few of the things we've learned about the team based on their free agent activity so far.
1. Expect a Defensive Scheme with More Man Coverage
For a long time, the Titans defense has used a zone-coverage scheme. In the simplest terms, that means defensive backs cover certain areas of the field, rather than a particular player.
I expect that to change this season, and one piece of evidence that points to that is Alterraun Verner signing with the Buccaneers for four years and $26.5 million, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
According to Newsday, on March 10, Verner said in an interview that he wouldn't need big bucks to re-sign, and he was proven honest. Despite making the Pro Bowl, Verner signed a deal that paid way less than other top corners on the market.
If he was available for such a reasonable amount, how did the Titans not re-sign him? It's not like he has a history with the Bucs, their staff or the geographical area. The Bucs are probably not making anyone's list for likely Super Bowl candidates either.
Given all this, the Titans should have been able to keep Verner if they really wanted to. Verner is an excellent zone corner, but he's not as good in man coverage. I can't imagine another reason that the Titans wouldn't bring back their sole Pro Bowler unless they didn't think he was going to fit the new scheme.
Well, there might be one other reason...
2. The Titans Trust the Corners They Have
Another thing that the Verner situation tells us is that the Titans like what they have at corner right now. And I can't blame them.
Jason McCourty has one starting spot locked down, and between Tommie Campbell, Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, there could be a quality starter already on the roster.
Campbell competed with Verner for one of the starting spots during training camps. Verner ended up winning handily, but Campbell still has potential, especially as a backup.
Sensabaugh has turned into a very reliable nickel corner, and entering his third season, he could compete for the starting job, as he got more playing time than the other remaining corners.
Wreh-Wilson got some playing time at the end of the season and looked good. He also was the highest draft pick of the three, and is entering only his second year.
The Titans may add another depth corner in free agency or the draft. But for them not to bring back an excellent player they could afford, they must like the players they've got.
3. Expect a Very Different Running Game
The Titans surprised with their first big signing: Former Chiefs running back/wide receiver Dexter McCluster signed with the team for three years and $12 million, according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
The Titans had trouble with the return game in 2013, but they also reached a new agreement with late addition to the 2013 squad, Leon Washington, who they used as a kick returner.
Given that wide receiver is one of the more talented positions on the team, I imagine that means the Titans plan on using McCluster as a running back as well. They wouldn't sign a fourth receiver for that kind of money, so that makes me think they intend to use McCluster in a multitude of ways.
My money is on him playing a role similar to new Eagles acquisition Darren Sproles or the Chargers' Danny Woodhead. Expect McCluster to catch passes out of the backfield and run with them, rather than carry the ball the way traditional running backs do.
Running backs haven't been a big part of Tennessee's passing game recently, but it looks like that may change next year.
4. They're Far from Finished with Signings
The Titans made a big salary cap move by cutting right tackle David Stewart. Cutting Stewart freed up $6.4 million in cap space, and they haven't picked up any new players since the move, so they definitely aren't finished with their free agent signings.
Add to that the rumors cited by ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio that the Titans will cut Chris Johnson if they can't trade him, and the Titans will soon have even more cap room to work with.
Just cutting those two players frees up $12.4 million, and for context, that much money could've paid almost double what Alterraun Verner got from the Bucs.
The Titans haven't made any big signings, other than McCluster, but they're definitely looking to make more before everything is said and done.
They do still need an inside linebacker.
5. It'll Be Tough to Compete with Contenders for Top Signings
The Broncos got a big haul in free agency, landing T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib, and DeMarcus Ware. While they paid a pretty penny to get Talib and Ware, the deal that Ward signed was only for four years and $23 million, per the Denver Post.
It seems to me that Ward took a lot less money to play for a team that has a good chance to win the Super Bowl.
Michael Bennett did something similar, re-signing with the Seahawks for four years and $28.5 million according to ESPN. He definitely could've made more money going elsewhere, but he wanted to stay with a quality team.
Good teams can often land players on the cheap, but even when they are well paid, a lot of the best free agents end up with the consistently good teams. Like I said, Byrd ended up with the Saints, and ESPN reported that the Patriots managed to land Darrelle Revis.
Until the Titans are serious postseason contenders, they're going to have an uphill battle landing the biggest names, whether they pay them or not.
6. Expect Pass Rushers and Offensive Tackles to Be the Focus of the Draft
The Titans had some big needs going into free agency. With Johnson and Stewart likely to be cut, they were going to need a new running back and a new tackle. Before those cuts, they were losing starters at strong safety, cornerback and defensive end in free agency.
Luckily, according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, they've re-signed Bernard Pollard and Ropati Pitoitua, which helps two of those problems.
So what does that leave as a need? Other than backups at shallow positions like wide receiver, the only needs that haven't been addressed are tackle and inside linebacker.
The Titans have seemed active in the inside linebacker market, so I'm betting they plan on courting a quality player in free agency with their new cap space.
That leaves offensive tackle as the only position of need that they haven't addressed in free agency. Even with Pitoitua back, they're also still thin at pass rusher.
With linebackers Anthony Barr (UCLA) and Khalil Mack (Buffalo), and offensive linemen Taylor Lewan (Michigan) and Jake Matthews (Texas A&M) possibly falling to the Titans in the draft, they could have a good group of players from those positions to choose from.