Tennessee Titans’ rise, franchise tag candidates and free agency

With a bevy of cap space and a pair of first-round picks in the NFL Draft, the Tennessee Titans are poised to be a power in the AFC.

Every year, pundits and fans alike wonder and prognosticate on the subject of sleepers. Which team is going to rise form the playoff-less abyss and become a contender? It’s an age-old guessing game, and one that nets varied results each year.

In 2017, the Tennessee Titans are the proverbial smart money.

After drifting about in the wilderness for years, Tennessee finally looks poised to make a big run in the dreadful AFC South. The Titans went 2-14 in 2014, but used that record to land Marcus Mariota with the second-overall pick. The following year saw a modest one-game improvement in the standings and the dismissal of head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt’s replacement, Mike Mularkey, was a football choice, not a sexy one.  The result? 9-7 and a tiebreaker away from a division crown.

Now, the Titans are primed for an ascent. While the Jacksonville Jaguars languish and the Indianapolis Colts begin a massive retooling, Tennessee gears up for a postseason run. The Titans have been drafting over the last three years, landing Mariota, Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin in the first round. The latter duo has become the premier tackle duo in the AFC, with Conklin earning First-Team All-Pro honors as a rookie.

General manager Jon Robinson now has the opportunity to build on that foundation. Thanks to a savvy trade with the Los Angeles Rams, Tennessee has both the fifth adn 18th-overall selections in the upcoming NFL Draft. The class is loaded with defensive talent, something the Titans desperately need to invest in.

While the offense made strides thanks to Mariota and a bruising combination of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry in the backfield, the defense ranked 20th in yards allowed despite playing a schedule that featured Brock Osweiler and Blake Bortles for a quarter of the contests.

In that vein, Robinson should target defensive playmakers early in the draft. Tennessee would do well to select either Jamal Adams or Malik Hooker, safeties that are projected to be top-10 picks. With their second first-round selection, the Titans could double down on defense, or find a playmaker for Mariota, perhaps John Ross or Corey Davis.

With Mariota entering his third year behind one of the best offensive lines in football, the offense should improve from experience alone. If Robinson can use the draft and his projected 465 million  in cap space to build up the defense, Tennessee could be a legitimate threat to not only the AFC South, but to win a playoff game or two.

While the Titans aren’t ready to become a Super Bowl contenders, the ammunition is there to formulate a consistent winner.

Power rankings

Top 10 franchise tag candidates

1. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
3. Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
4. Kawaan Short, DT, Carolina Panthers
5. Chandler Jones, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
6. Dont’a Hightower, ILB, New England Patriots
7. Melvin Ingram, OLB, Los Angeles Chargers
8. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
9. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
10. Trumaine Johnson, CB, Los Angeles Rams

Quotable

“Those same critics, did they say anything about the wins that the Indianapolis Colts had? You want to talk about that, too? Because they were getting everybody’s signals,”

– NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders about the Colts stealing signals under Tony Dungy

Sanders was not bashful on this subject, one that Dungy responded to by saying that while his teams stole signals, they didn’t cheat. Ultimately, this is professional sports with jobs and millions of dollars on the line. Teams are going to push the boundaries. They pump in fake crowd noise, turn off headsets and deflate footballs.

The New England Patriots are famous for this, but the Atlanta Falcons have been dinged in the past. The Kansas City Chiefs are serving a tampering penalty. In the 1975 AFC Championship Game, former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis accused the Pittsburgh Steelers of tampering with the field conditions.

This is the NFL. It’s not always right (it rarely is right), but it’s reality. Hide your signal better.

Random stat

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the worst all-time regular-season winning percentage in NFL history at .389 (250-393-1).

The Cincinnati Bengals hold that distinction in the postseason at .263 (5-14). The best postseason winning percentage? The Baltimore Ravens, at .652 (15-8).

Info learned this week

1. Carson Palmer returning to Cards

The 37-year-old quarterback has announced he will be playing in 2017 for the Arizona Cardinals. Palmer, who struggled through a tough 2016, has a contract which runs through 2018 with almost $45 million left to earn. With Palmer coming back, it appears Arizona is out of the Tony Romo sweepstakes.

This impacts a litany of teams in pursuit of Romo, including the Denver Broncos, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Without the Cardinals in the mix, the price continually goes down with less competition for his services. Meanwhile, the Cardinals take one more run at a championship with their aging veteran.

2. Chiefs don’t commit to Jamaal Charles

Kansas City has played the better part of the past two seasons without Jamaal Charles, who has undergone a trio of knee surgeries. On Thursday, general manager John Dorsey told local reporters that Charles remains on the Chiefs “right now.”

Charles is due $7 million in 2017, the final year of his contract. If the Chiefs cut him, they owe nothing against the cap. Considering they need to sign Dontari Poe and Eric Berry, that sum of money is awfully enticing. Look for Kansas City to either offer a hefty paycut, or give Charles his outright release. If he gets cut, a few suitors could include the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers, a pair of contenders with holes at running back.

3. 49ers introduce Kyle Shanahan

The San Francisco 49ers made their fourth coach in as many years official this week, announcing Kyle Shanahan. The 37-year-old is coming to a franchise that went 2-14 last year and has been the model of dysfunction, firing its last two coaches in as many years.

Shanahan does has some reason for hope, though. The 49ers own the second pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, getting a chance to draft a franchise quarterback. San Francisco also has $81 million in cap space, giving the franchise a litany of options in free agency.

4. Teams begin cutting veterans

The new league years begins on March 9, and some teams are already shedding veterans for salary cap reasons. With players having certain days where guaranteed money kicks in, teams are looking to save a few million by moving on quickly.

The Green Bay Packers said goodbye to corner Sam Shields, while the Philadelphia Eagles waived Leodis McKelvin after one year on the team. On Thursday, the Indianapolis Colts released inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, saving more than $5 million in 2017. The Cleveland Browns moved on from a pair of vets in quarterback Josh McCown and corner Tramon Williams.

Look for a few other big names to hit the market as well. The New York Jets could easily cut Brandon Marshall and Ryan Clady, saving more than $20 million. In Miami, the Dolphins would save $8.5 million by cutting Mario Williams. The Los Angeles Chargers will also shed some cap weight by releasing corner Brandon Flowers, saving them $9 million.

Of all the cap casualties, look for Jay Cutler to be released by the Chicago Bears, netting them $14 million.

5. Seahawks sign Blair Walsh

The Minnesota Vikings moved on from Blair Walsh last season, after watching him miss a potentially game-winning kick against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2015 Wild Card round. On Thursday, the Seahawks decided to give Walsh another chance in the NFL, perhaps repaying the favor.

Walsh was a mess in 2016, missing eight kicks before his release. He will now have to compete with Stephen Hauschka, should he be re-signed. History says Hauschka is the better kicker, but after a rough 2016 of his own, perhaps Seattle is ready to move on.

History lesson

Most people believe the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys began the tradition of playing on Thanksgiving. However, the first current NFL team to play on Turkey Day was the Chicago Bears back in the league’s inaugural season of 1920.

Each of the NFL’s 97 seasons has seen at least one Thanksgiving, save the four years of America’s involvement in World War II. Since reemerging in 1945, the Lions have played on the holiday each season, joined by the Cowboys in 1966. Dallas has played each year since except for 1975 and 1977, when the St. Louis Cardinals took center stage instead. They hosted the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, respectively, losing both times.

The team to never play on Thanksgiving? The Jacksonville Jaguars.

Parting shot

The New Orleans Saints are a team to watch this offseason. After myriad reports that they would trade head coach Sean Payton for the right price, Payton stayed in the Big Easy. With their coach still in tow, the Saints make another shot at the postseason with Drew Brees inching closer to 40 years old.

With approximately $29 million in cap space, general manager Mickey Loomis can be aggressive in free agency. Loomis, who is always willing to take risks (and dead money) has to be thinking about one more deep run with Brees at the helm. It would help to land some defensive talent, with Eric Berry, A.J. Bouye, Jason Pierre-Paul and others slated to hit the market.

If the Saints don’t make a push, keeping Payton and Brees in the fold for another year is only setting back the rebuilding process. That’s not to say it’s the wrong decision, but it’s a fruitless one without the proper offseason.

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