Tennessee Titans gambling on injured players to build win-now roster. Will it pay off?
The Tennessee Titans roster is closer to Super Bowl-caliber with the addition of star wideout Julio Jones — at least offensively.
But those championship hopes are contingent on what amounts to a roll of the dice from general manager Jon Robinson.
The Titans’ moves during the offseason at three positions of need – wide receiver, edge rusher and cornerback – are highlighted by players with injury concerns: Jones, outside linebacker Bud Dupree and rookie first-round cornerback Caleb Farley. The gambles create some uncertainty for the Titans, who, apart from the tight end position, have addressed every major hole on the roster.
Jones said he's fine health-wise following his first practice with the Titans on Thursday, , but there’s a gamble that comes with taking on a receiver in his 30s coming off an injury season. He missed seven games with a lingering hamstring issue.
Farley, a rookie first-round draft pick, has had two back surgeries since he last played at Virginia Tech in 2019 (he opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns) and he may not be able to practice until September, one doctor told The Tennessean. That’s on top of the longevity concerns with the former college star.
Then there’s Dupree, the Titans’ new No. 1 edge rusher, who played just 11 games last season after tearing his ACL. Dupree expects to be ready by training camp, but how long will it take him to get back to pre-injury form alongside new teammates in a different scheme? In Tennessee, he won’t be paired with a player like All-Pro T.J. Watt on the opposite edge to ease the transition.
This offseason, Robinson has taken a calculated risk in hopes of capitalizing on a Titans roster in win-now mode.
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As soon as 2022, the Titans may have some salary cap maneuvering to do. After restructuring quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s contract to facilitate the Jones trade, Tannehill will account for 18.5% of the team’s cap space for that season as a $38.6 million cap hit, according to Over The Cap. The $38.6 million cap figure for 2022 is the fifth highest of any player in the NFL, per Spotrac.
Center Ben Jones, wide receiver Josh Reynolds, tight ends Anthony Firkser and Geoff Swaim and linebackers Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry III and Jayon Brown are among the projected starters and key contributors scheduled to be free agents after the 2021 season. Star wide receiver A.J. Brown also is extension eligible after 2021 and Julio Jones could ask for a new contract if he has a strong season in Year 1 with the Titans, leaving plenty of unknowns beyond this year.
Robinson’s aggressiveness is part of what has made him a successful general manager, turning the Titans into a perennial playoff contender. He’s made the correct gamble on injured players before. In 2019, he used the No. 19 pick on defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, who tore his ACL a couple months prior to his selection. Now a rising star in the NFL, Simmons could have a breakout 2021 season with the addition of Denico Autry to the defensive line.
But there are the flops too. Jadeveon Clowney, who signed a one-year deal with Tennessee worth up to $15 million despite having played a full 16-game season just once in his career. Clowney had zero sacks, four tackles for loss and one forced fumble in eight games for the Titans before landing on season-ending Injured Reserve. He signed with the Browns this offseason.
The Titans have one of the NFL's most talented offenses on paper – in an offense-dominated league. They are capable of leading a deep playoff run.
But it may all just come down to the luck of the draw.