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The Titans do indeed spend money in free agency

Like fans of approximately every team not crowned Super Bowl champion two weeks into free agency because they just underwent a massive spending spree, I’ve seen Titans supporters claim the Titans clearly won’t pursue expensive free agents because the Titans are cheap. While the Titans were only middle of the pack in cap spending last year and have never been awarded the Super Bowl on April 1, I don’t think this is a fair criticism of the Titans.  Rather, I believe a look at the free agency history over the past few years shows the Titans have been willing to spend money to meet what they see as their team needs.

I recently wrote about this free agency class, and gave the Titans a mixed but slightly positive grade on I thought the individual signings worked out in the first year. That doesn’t answer, though, how well the Titans pursued players who could fit the needs they had.

The biggest need position was obviously at quarterback, even after drafting Jake Locker, and the Titans signed the player I thought was the perfect fit in providing a smooth transition to Locker in Matt Hasselbeck. The Titans gave him a competitive but not overly-lucrative deal. There was no clearly more attractive option on the market for their needs.  While the Shaun Smith signing didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, there’s no question he fit the mold, and he was paid a competitive salary.

When I wrote about Chris Johnson’s struggles running the ball in 2010, one thing that was obvious was he wasn’t able to find yards on the edge the same way he did in 2009. One reason for that clearly was the blocking (in)ability of Bo Scaife. Daniel Graham was an excellent blocker earlier in his career, and if he was still playing at that level would’ve solved that need (ignoring whatever was going on with CJ). Graham’s also far from the cheapest more or less third tight end in the league. If the Titans wanted an inexpensive middle linebacker, they could’ve re-signed Stephen Tulloch instead of going out and getting Barrett Ruud for more money. That Ruud didn’t work out doesn’t mean the Titans weren’t willing to spend to go out and get him.

Did the Titans go out and sign the biggest free agents on the market? No, but that wasn’t a surprise at all. Looking at one (deeply imperfect) list of the top free agents, I’m not sure who the Titans should have signed. With perfect hindsight, I wish the Titans had added a veteran wide receiver, but with a healthy Kenny Britt probably would’ve been just fine at the position.

Did the Titans fail to re-sign any of their own players who could’ve been useful? I’ve already mentioned Tulloch. Other than him, the highest-profile name is Jason Babin. Babin’s career shows, though, that he’s a phenomenallly effective player in the right scheme, and probably only a role player outside of that scheme. The Titans were moving away from that scheme, so he was worth much less to them than he was to the Eagles.

With the limitation on how many players made it to unrestricted free agency, the list of top free agents wasn’t nearly as strong. Kyle Vanden Bosch was not re-signed; he was getting to the stage of his career where he wasn’t a standout player, and the Lions gave him more money than he was worth to the Titans because he was worth something extra to Jim Schwartz and the Lions. The Titans only had one high-profile free agency acqusition. With David Thornton and Keith Bulluck not available, they went out and signed the best starting-caliber weakside linebacker on the market in Will Witherspoon. The Witherspoon signing is one I that I think is emblematic of how the Titans have conducted business: they’ve identified one or two key positional needs, and gone out and signed the best player at that position.

Twenty of twenty-two starters returned off the AFC’s top seed from the year before. The ones who did not were Justin McCareins and Albert Haynesworth. For McCareins’ replacement, the Titans signed one of the top two free agents on the market in Nate Washington to a 6-year, $27 million deal. Yes, Nate Washington was considered either the best or second-best wide receiver on the market. The other one who was at the top of everyone’s list was Bernard Berrian, who received even more money from the Vikings for deeply disappointing results.

With Albert, well, the Titans put a pricetag on his services, and the bidding went well beyond what they were willing to pay. Without re-hashing the whole debate, I think everyone in Nashville understood giving Albert a lot of guaranteed money was a dicey proposition. Had the Titans been willing to pay him what the Redskins were, it’s easy to see him being just as disappointing here.

Looking at the list of top free agents, a couple Titans players were on the list. The Titans made one big free agency signing, inking Jake Scott to a four-year deal to replace the retired Benji Olson at right guard. They left left guard Jacob Bell depart in free agency (for more money than they paid Scott), inserting Eugene Amano into the starting lineup in his place. Antwam Odom earned starter-type defensive end money from the Bengals, which was more than he was worth to the Titans. Ditto Randy Starks from the Dolphins.

Albert was also officially a free agent this year, and the Titans crafted a compromise that ensured he was present and productive in 2008, which was probably their top priority heading into the offseason. Jevon Kearse was also added as a good depth signing. With perfect hindsight, Justin Smith would’ve been a nice addition, but he wouldn’t have been a high priority at the time. The Titans also re-upped Justin Gage, which was a decent idea given what else they had. Obviously adding a wide receiver would’ve been nice (I wasn’t a fan of the Justin McCareins experience), but there aren’t many good names on the list of top receivers.

The Titans let Drew Bennett, Travis Henry, Zach Piller, and Bobby Wade hit the free agent market and go elsewhere. Wade earned an overly lucrative deal with the Vikings. Piller had been made redundant by the development of Jacob Bell, and didn’t have a starting job. Henry was thanked for his kind service. It would’ve been nice to retain Bennett, but he signed a long-term deal with the Rams and the Titans were probably hoping for a return to health by David Givens, plus additional development by some combination of Brandon Jones, Courtney Roby, and Roydell Williams. It’s tough to begrudge allowing him to depart.

The Titans did go out and add one starter in free agency, Nick Harper, since Pacman Jones had already been involved in the Las Vegas shooting. While Harper wasn’t a marquee name, he was one of the top cornerbacks available in free agency. Notwithstanding his 2009 season, he was a solid starter for the Titans in 2007 and 2008.

I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis of this year, but I just wanted to point out with a lot of team needs that the Titans went out and brought in a free agency bonanza: Chris Hope to provide some experience and skill to an inexperienced and/or untalented secondary; David Thornton, an excellent scheme fit with the ability to play nickel linebacker and get post-ACL Peter Sirmon off the field; Kevin Mawae, to provide some stability, experience, and attitude to a mostly young offensive line; and David Givens, a big upgrade at what was really a horrible position in 2005. None of those guys was a bargain basement player like KVB was in 2005, either. They had money to spend, and spent it.

I think the record amply demonstrates that, while the Titans have never been the league’s most aggressive team in free agency, they’ve consistently been willing to sign players to relatively expensive but not overly so deals. If I had to come up with a free agency mantra for the Titans, it’s been: Identifying one or a small number of key needs, and finding the best player that fit that needs. None of the players they’ve signed in free agency has been a real All-Pro player (Hope was excellent in 2008 in particular and Mawae got some being-famous honors), but they’ve been very reliable immediate starters. True, some of them have ended their careers ignominiously, but that’s a separate issue altogether.

Frankly, the idea that the Titans are cheap in free agency doesn’t make sense to me. They’ve stuck to a fairly consistent and effective practice that’s cognizant of the fact that elite players rarely make it to free agency, and you shouldn’t pay non-elite players elite money. I have no issues with that, and don’t think you should either. The question we’ll have to see this offseason is if they see any elite players worth paying or over-paying elite money to. Ruston Webster indicated pass-rushing end is the position where you might do that, so can you help me consign this post to the dustbin of history by signing Mario Williams pretty please?