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Serious Salary Cap Issues Looming

The Titans already have contracts that exceed the expected 2021 NFL salary cap.

The 2020 NFL season officially ended with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory Sunday in Super Bowl LV.

That means it is time to look ahead to 2021, which officially begins with the start of the new contract year on March 17 (3 p.m., CDT). And when it comes to contracts, the Tennessee Titans will have some serious and difficult decisions to make.

According to reports, the salary cap for next season will be $180.5 million. That is not as low as it could have been following a season in which COVID-19 reduced or eliminated many traditional revenue streams (the league and its players agreed to a minimum of $175 million) but it’s still not good news for the Titans.

As it stands right now, Tennessee is one of 13 franchises with existing contracts for 2021 that already exceed that number.

Here are some of the reasons general manager Jon Robinson and his staff are in this situation and some things they might have to address to get out of it:

The Big Hit: Unlike a number of other teams, the Titans are set at quarterback. That security comes at a cost, though.

Ryan Tannehill will carry as $29.5 million cap hit in the second season of the four-year extension he signed back in March. That is almost double the next highest cap number, Kevin Byard’s $15.03 million, and accounts for more than 16 percent of the Titans’ entire salary pool. It also ranks ninth among all quarterbacks for 2021, and it should be noted that six of the eight ahead of him have played in at least one Super Bowl (three have at least one win).

• Dearth of Draft Picks: Robinson has been willing to make trades in order to draft the players he wants. Those moves have allowed him to move up and select high-profile contributors such as Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry as well as role players such as Amani Hooker and Dane Cruikshank.

But those deals cost him picks. The Titans have draft just 16 players in the last three years and three (one from each class) are not on the roster. In order to be successful in the current NFL business climate, a team has to have a significant number of players – and a respectable number of starters – playing on rookie contracts, i.e., they are affordable. That is not the case with Tennessee.

• Big Men, Big Money: As of now, there are 11 players that have a cap hit of more than $6.5 million. Combined, they account for slightly more than $139 million of the salary cap – and four of them are starters on the offensive line, Taylor Lewan ($13.696 million), Rodger Saffold ($12.344 million), Ben Jones ($7.25 million) and Dennis Kelly ($6.583 million).

Nearly a year ago, it looked as if the plan was to release Kelly this offseason and plug in 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Wilson at right tackle. There is nothing to suggest, though, that Wilson is ready for that opportunity, now or ever. So, something else must be done.

More than likely, at least one – probably more – of those must be renegotiated to provide some cap relief. But even that is not simple because such moves typically add years to the player’s contract, and three of those four (Saffold, Jones and Kelly) are already older than 30, and Lewan will turn 30 just before the start of training camp.

• Playing it Safe?: Byard and Kenny Vaccaro have been a productive safety tandem for three seasons, and each is under contract for at least another two years. Both have a cap number that is among the Titans’ top 10. More importantly, Tennessee is one of two NFL teams with two of the top 20 cap numbers for safeties in 2021. The other is the New York Giants, but the combined cap hit of their two, Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers ($13.77 million), is only slightly higher than Byard’s on its own.

Given the current economics of the NFL, it just does not make sense to be so heavily invested in that position. On top of that, the aforementioned Hooker, who is still on his rookie contract, looks like he is ready to be a starter. Thus, it is likely one of the veterans – almost certainly Vaccaro (the Titans can save more than $5 million if they wait until after June 1) – will have to be released.

• Hurting Humphries: Adam Humphries was the team’s highest-paid wide receiver in 2020 after having been second to Corey Davis in 2019. However, injuries have limited him to just 19 games played and 60 receptions. By comparison, A.J. Brown caught 70 passes in 2020 alone.

In a perfect world, a GM would stick with Humphries and allow him the time to deliver a better return on the four-year, $36 million pact that brought him to Tennessee in 2019. The problem is that his cap number increases annually over the course of that deal and will be $9.75 million in 2021 and $11.25 million in 2022. Given the current state of affairs, there is a good chance that will be too steep a price for the Titans to pay.

Note: All salary cap information from OverTheCap.com.