March 9, 3 p.m. CST not only marked the official start of the new NFL year, but also the beginning of NFL free agency.
Teams across the league are able to resign in-house players who have reached the end of their contract or acquire out-of-house players who have reached the end of their contract with a different organization.
Since the Tennessee Titans entered free agency with the fourth largest salary cap in the league at around $60 million, analysts expected general manager Jon Robinson to be a heavy spender when the new year began, targeting touted free agents like wide receiver Brandin Cooks and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
These expectations did not come true.
Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots traded the New Orleans Saints draft picks in exchange for Cooks and resigned Hightower on March 15. Fans may be asking, “What’s going on?” The Titans were one of the most improved teams in the league last year. If they hope to transition from middle-of-the-pack to playoff contenders, shouldn’t they target some of the biggest names on the market? Not necessarily.
Robinson has continued to follow the principles of free agency that he learned while working for the Patriots from 2002 to 2013: acquire productive players; do not overreach on cost; and address the team’s biggest areas of need.
This strategy worked exceptionally well last season, Robinson’s first with the Titans. The team earned a 9-7 record, had five Pro Bowlers and nearly secured the AFC South title and an automatic bid to the postseason. Considering this body of evidence, a similar approach to free agency ought to benefit the team in 2017.
Since March 9, the Titans have resigned DE Karl Klug, LB/ST Nate Palmer, and TE/ST Phillip Supernaw. The team has also acquired the following six players from different organizations: S/ST Brynden Trawick (Oakland Raiders), LB/ST Daren Bates (Oakland Raiders), KR/PR Eric Weems (Atlanta Falcons), S John Cyprien (Jacksonville Jaguars), CB Logan Ryan (Patriots), and DL Sylvester Williams (Denver Broncos).
“We had our targets set on those guys,” said Robinson, “trying to position ourselves and have the discussions with their representation to get them here. We set out to add good football players to the team, and we think we did that with the guys we were able to acquire … and signing our own guys back.”
None of these free agents carry the national name recognition of Cooks or Hightower. Nonetheless, they have a history of production in the league, they were acquired at reasonable costs, and they are primarily specialists in either pass coverage or special teams — two of the Titans’ largest weaknesses last season.
Tennessee ranked 30th for pass defense in 2016, 26th for punt return defense, and 18th for kick return defense. They also allowed two punts to be returned for a touchdown, a league high.
a 26-year-old, Ryan (5-11, 195 pounds) gives the Titans a top-notch pass defender alongside Jason McCourty. In 2016 he graded as the 16th overall corner in the league and fifth overall at tackling efficiency, per Pro Football Focus.
“[Ryan’s] a really smart football player, played a lot of different roles for the Patriots,” said Robinson. “He played outside corner, played inside corner. He’s an aggressive tackler, good run-support player. He’s a savvy coverage player, has a knack at the top of the route, end of the route.”
Meanwhile, 26-year-old Cyprien (6-0, 217 pounds) gives the Titans an aggressive tackler at strong safety. The former Jaguar recorded at least 104 tackles in each of the past four seasons, tallying a career-high of 128 in 2016. He also earned the highest run defense grade among all safeties last year (98.8).
As for the remaining free agents (excluded Klug and Williams on the defensive line), it is clear that Robinson and head coach Mike Mularkey are beefing up the Titans’ special teams unit. Both have been vocal about this intent.
When asked, “What’s the most underrated aspect of football?” Mularkey replied, “The importance of how special teams affect the outcome of games every week.”
“The kicking game really controls the field position of where those offenses and defenses are going to line up,” Robinson added. “When we went about targeting these guys for our special teams unit, you look at how are they going to factor in from a strategic standpoint of where the opponents offense is going to line up and where our offense is going to line up.”
“So if we can get the ball back to the offense and plus gain an extra 15 yards in field position each week that puts us in a better position to score points. There’s strategy involved when it goes to the team-building component with special teams.”
Palmer played in 14 games for Tennessee last year and led the team with 10 tackles on special teams. Trawick and Bates were special teams aces for Oakland in 2016, recording 24 tackles cumulative. Supernaw is a physical-player on return coverage and can play the No. 3 tight end. And Weems is a former Pro Bowler (2010) who not only returns kicks and punts but also defends returns.
The Titans can continue to sign free agents through the offseason. However, for the time being, it appears that Robinson and Mularkey have acquired the players they wanted and have addressed defense and special teams for the 2017 season. The next question for Tennessee is: What positions will the team address in the NFL Draft?
Photo credit: Tennessee Titans