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Front Page - Friday, February 3, 2023

Titans: Hello salary cap, goodbye stars

Often-injured Tennessee Titans offensive tackle Taylor Lewan is a prime candidate for release. He counts $14.8 million against the salary cap for next season. - Photo by Matt Durisko | AP

Every newly hired NFL general manager wants to put his own stamp on the roster. Ran Carthon will be no exception as he comes into his role as the 14th GM in Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans history.

Carthon has already said he wants to work in conjunction with head coach Mike Vrabel to supply him with the type of players who best fit Vrabel’s schemes on both offense and defense.

But before Carthon can get to work on roster building, he has a more immediate task on the horizon: roster whittling.

Carthon must not only find a way to shed the roughly $23.7 million salary cap overage the Titans face as they head into 2023, he also must trim even more to give the team the ability to go out and sign much-needed free agents and sign the club’s incoming draft class.

Carthon doesn’t plan to burn what the Titans have to the ground and start over. At least that’s not the impression he gave during his introductory press conference a couple of weeks ago. His plan – as he outlines it – is to return to contender status right away rather than go through a painful rebuild.

“This is a competitive team. We can win football games,” he says. “Every year at the end of the year you evaluate your roster and you are always looking for ways to improve. That is what we’re going to do here.

“Although I feel that this team is competitive and we’re good, the objective is not to be just good. The objective is to be great. We are going to continue to work to build a great roster. That is going to be every year. You can always take it to a new height. That is going to be our approach.”

So, where to start on the salary cap? There are several veteran players whose performances have not justified the salaries they’re due in 2023.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan is an obvious candidate for release. Even as poorly as the Titans offensive line played, Lewan’s second ACL surgery in three years makes him expendable.

The veteran has even said as much on his own podcast and in interviews he has given that he expects the Titans to cut him and save the $14.8 million base salary he’s due in 2023.

That, of course, leaves the Titans looking for a left tackle, but the good news is Tennessee has the same 11th pick this year it had back in 2014 when it selected Lewan.

Outside linebacker Bud Dupree is another injury-riddled player the Titans can probably move on from this offseason. He was coming off an ACL injury when the Titans signed him in 2021, and in two seasons in Tennessee he has played in just 22 of a possible 34 regular-season games with seven sacks, hardly enough production to justify a five-year, $82.5 million free agent deal.

Offloading Dupree from the roster would cost the Titans $10.85 million in a dead cap hit. But even with that hit, the Titans would still save $9.35 million against the cap by moving on from Dupree.

Those two moves alone should get the Titans right at the salary cap threshold, and there are at least two or three others they could turn the page on in the coming weeks.

Inside linebacker Zach Cunningham could not stay healthy due to an elbow injury and wasn’t terribly productive when he was on the field in 2022. Cunningham, claimed off waivers in 2021, has an $11 million base salary and a $176,000 roster bonus he likely will never see.

Even with a $4.5 million dead cap charge, the Titans still can save almost $9 million from cutting Cunningham.

Receiver Robert Woods, who led the Titans in receiving with 51 catches for just 527 yards and two touchdowns, is another cap casualty candidate. Woods, though it is not nearly all his fault, didn’t come close to being a replacement for A.J. Brown after coming over from the Rams in a trade. His numbers were not significantly better than those put up by Julio Jones, who was kicked to the curb after an injury-riddle season in 2021 for the Titans.

Woods’ contract calls for a base salary of $13.75 million and was restructured in-season in one of the final moves made by former GM Jon Robinson before his firing. If the Titans cut Woods, it would net them a cap savings of $12 million-plus, making this an easy decision.

Offensive lineman Jamarco Jones, who essentially missed the whole year, is due a $2 million base salary. The team can save nearly $1 million by sending him on his way.

Likewise, if center Ben Jones retires with one year left on his contract, the Titans can save more than $3 million.

Of course, the biggest question is what will Carthon do with quarterback Ryan Tannehill? Tannehill is set to cost the Titans $36.6 million in salary cap money, which makes up more than 16% of Titans salary cap. If the Titans cut him, they would need to wait until after June 1 so they can spread the gigantic cap hit over two seasons, thereby cutting it in half.

The Titans could also extend Tannehill’s contract and roll some of the big $27 million base salary into later years of the contract.

Other restructuring candidates include:

• Receiver Kevin Byard ($19.6 million cap hit)

• Linebacker Harold Landry ($18.8 million)

• Running back Derrick Henry ($16.37 million).

The Titans also need to be strongly leaning toward extending defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons’ contract long-term and structuring it in a way to make it cap friendly for a couple of seasons.

All these moves – some of them no-brainers, others more difficult – can get the Titans out of salary cap jail. But that’s just the beginning of Carthon’s work. Carthon then has to use that money to not only fill the holes on the roster that existed from 2022 (offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback), but also add several players to replace those who are shown the door.

In other words, Ran Carthon’s task of remaking the Titans into a contender is just beginning.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com, a part of Main Street Media.