Titans to get feet wet in free-agent market

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In making the biggest move of the offseason thus far, the Tennessee Titans did nothing.
Coveted tight end Jared Cook did not receive the team’s franchise tag by Monday’s deadline for roster retention. Come Tuesday, should the Titans not be able to re-sign their 2009 third-round draft pick, Cook will enter the free-agency market.
This past weekend, Cook reportedly turned down a long-term contract offer from Titans general manager Ruston Webster and coach Mike Munchak, who had steadfastly proclaimed they would work diligently to make sure Cook returns.
But with Cook apparently not returning to the roster, you can add tight end among the positions of need for the team this offseason, joining interior offensive linemen, defensive line, strong safety and backup running back. Cook’s departure comes as a blow to a roster spot that seemed destined for achievement under new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.
At this stage of the game, though, the Titans made the prudent decision to not franchise Cook. Sure, the athletic and rangy Cook has shown flashes of being the kind of game-breaker at the position the NFL now presents. The decision to keep Cook through the franchise tag — which would have locked him on the roster for a year at around $6 million, the average salary of the top five tight ends in the league — would have been a solid one had those numbers been the only ones in play.
But Cook and agent Christina Phillips had intimated they would challenge the franchise tag salary number at tight end because he had lined up in offensive sets in the receiving slot 54 percent of the plays. That compared to 27 percent while stationed at the traditional tight end slot alongside the tackle.
Thus, Cook wanted to be considered a wide receiver, meaning his franchise tag salary would then bump to around $10.5 million for this year. Although no player has ever taken the position-played question to arbitration, the NFL Players Association was planning to plead Cook’s case. Green Bay tight Jermichael Finley appeared ready to stake the same claim in arbitration this time last year before the Packers locked him down.
Concerning Cook’s chances for a successful appeal, there was a strong enough feeling among the Titans that the risk wasn’t worth the reward of having to pay Cook what the top receivers in the league are making, should he prevail. After all, Cook is no Johnson, as in receivers Calvin of the Detroit Lions and Andre of the Houston Texans, for example.
That’s because Cook’s lack of consistency and injury concerns the past four years were compounded in 2012 by his insistence to be traded during the season because of his lack of presence in an already-beleaguered offense. It was one of many reasons Munchak fired coordinator Chris Palmer before the 6-10 season even ended.
Never mind that Cook, who made a modest $615,000 in 2012, often showed his lack of ability to grasp the offense and run basic routes properly. But he sure looked good when he used that 6-foot-5, 248-pound agile frame to make 44 catches for 523 yards and four touchdowns last season in 12 games before being sidelined by shoulder injury. For his career, Cook has 131 catches for 1,717 yards and eight touchdowns.
All that apparently leaves the Titans trying to fill another roster hole, considering current tight ends Craig Stevens, Taylor Thompson and Brandon Barden aren’t offensive threats. Heading into his sixth season after being used primarily as a blocker, Stevens has 44 career catches for 572 and four touchdowns.
Thompson, a fifth-round draft pick last year, was moved from the defensive end spot where he played in college to tight end as a pro last year. Barden was an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt who played in three games, but was recently arrested in Georgia on DUI charges.
Which means the Titans are in the market for a tight end. The lead player at that slot will probably be filled through free agency and not through their seven draft picks, including the No. 10 overall pick.  
Included among the top tight ends around the league who will probably become free agents on Tuesday are Brandon Myers (Oakland Raiders), Martellus Bennett (New York Giants), Dustin Keller (New York Jets) and Fred Davis (Washington Redskins). Top tight end prospects in the draft include Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert and Stanford’s Zach Ertz.
Cook is among 17 Titans who will become free agents on Tuesday, if the franchise tag is not used and/or individual deals are not done. At the top of that list of hopeful returnees to the Titans are defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks and kicker Rob Bironas. While Marks appears destined to the open market, Bironas is likely to return to the Titans, who would pay Bironas $2.7 million in 2013 should he be franchised.
Last season, he made $2.85 million in the fourth year of a deal worth $12 million. The former Arena Football League kicker just completed his eighth season as the third-most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history by connecting on 85.6 percent of his career kicks. Only one kicker, David Akers, has more field goals than Bironas since he entered the league in 2005.
Another interesting possible free agent-to-be is six-year guard Leroy Harris, a dependable lineman who grew to regular status before missing the last half of last season with a partially torn ACL. It is a stated goal for the Titans to sign and/or draft interior linemen, so his status going forward is in question.