This isn’t the first time the Tennessee Titans season ended up just a little bit short of their ultimate goal, but at least this time when our Boys in Two-tone Blue fell to the Kansas City Chiefs 35-24 in the AFC Championship game, there were still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the team. When we last visited the Titans and their prospects going forward at mid-season, the picture wasn’t so rosy. Thanks to some bold moves by the coaching staff and superior performances by replacement QB Ryan Tannehill and man among boys RB Derrick Henry, the Titans finished the season on a roll, in fact they had a record of 9-3 when both those warriors where in the starting lineup.
Certainly, there are some causes for concern going forward. Veteran defensive coordinator Dean Pees who schemed his talented team into one of the most feared units in the league finally made good on his promise to retire at the ripe age of 70. General Manager Jon Robinson will have to move quickly to replace that sort of defensive genius, but hopefully at least somebody was taking good notes in the team meeting rooms.
Speaking of replacing people, the Titans have a long roster of talent who might be leaving in the off season, either through retirement or free agency. All-Pro tight end Delanie Walker has been plagued by serious injuries over the past two seasons, and Titans fans have probably seen his last game in their favorite team’s uniform, if not his last game in the league. Fortunately, a talented trio of TEs have risen to the occasion during Walker’s decline, and the three-headed monster combines to replace most of his skill set. Jonnu Smith has the big play ability, while Anthony Firkser showcases the dependable hands and pass catching ability in tough situations while MyCole Pruitt is a reliable blocker.
LB Wesley Woodyard was an important team leader on defense, albeit more in the locker room than on the field of late. The Titans probably won’t pay free agent pricing for him to return, so that leadership vacuum will have to be filled. At the beginning of the season, the team had already decided not to exercise their option on one more year of right tackle Jack Conklin’s contract at a vastly inflated rate. That seemed like a good decision early in the 2019 season as the offensive line struggled to sync, but by the time they all gelled into a powerful blocking unit by season’s end, it will be a shame to see the mauler leave. They’ll be looking for a new tackle either in free agency or the draft.
In fact, there are 22 free agents that could hit the open market in the offseason, representing close to half of the game day roster. Many of them will be re-signed, although their prices may be inflated based on the team’s recent success. Veteran cornerback Logan Ryan will certainly be an important item on Jon Robinson’s to-do list, as will important role players like offensive lineman Dennis Kelly, defensive back LeShaun Sims and breakout linebacker Kamalei Correa. One name they almost certainly won’t be pursuing is beloved five-year starting QB Marcus Mariota. We love the kid, but it’s probably best that he move along to a fresh start.
Of course the two big names to lock up before free agency are those two late season heroes, Henry and Tannehill. Both were among the absolute best at their positions in the stretch drive of the season, and if the Titans hope to repeat or build on their past success, those two must absolutely be retained. Henry will probably command top RB salary, and “El Tractorcito” has earned that consideration by becoming a virtually unstoppable force. Will the Titans be willing or able to pony up $15 million a year to keep him?
Tannehill’s value will be even harder to figure out. The Titans had an incredibly affordable deal with him this year after acquiring him in a trade with the Miami Dolphins, so there will be some sticker shock when they begin to negotiate. Star QBs can earn in the $30 million range of annual salary, but as good as Tannehill was this year, he could find himself competing with other proven veteran quarterbacks for a new starting position. And we’re talking about the potential of some very big names on the market: Tom Brady, Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton. Hmm, maybe Mariota and Tannehill might both prefer the relative security and familiarity of sticking around.
Thanks to a quirk in the NFL’s current players agreement, there’s actually an opportunity for the Titans to retain both Henry and Tannehill under one year arrangements called the Franchise Tag and the Transition Tag. That would just kick the can down the road a bit but would allow more time to negotiate long-term deals with the team’s two biggest stars.
So don’t worry too much, fans. In fact, the support of Titans Nation for their team has grown stronger than ever in recent memory as part of the 2020 playoff run. This team is loaded with young talent and veteran leadership, even if a few key players depart. If we can return Nissan Stadium to the sort of environment that was so hostile to visiting teams like when the team first arrived, it could be a very difficult place to play. And this team could be a heckuva lot of fun to watch! Hang with them in the off season, and until we find out the newest additions to the team through free agency and the draft, Titan Up!