Titans wide receiver Nate Washington was one of the Titan’s better free agent acquisitions. A leader on and off the field, He never missed a game in six years with Tennessee. -- Ap Photo/Wade Payne
Upon his arrival as the Tennessee Titans’ general manager in January 2016, Jon Robinson made an immediate impact with the trade for DeMarco Murray and his wheeling/dealing approach to the draft.
But don’t underestimate his savvy moves in free agency.
Robinson ignored big-name free agents and focused on second-tier players, picking off wide receiver Rishard Matthews and center Ben Jones, among others.
Matthews tied for the team lead in receptions and had nine touchdown catches, while Jones started every game and was a key factor in the improvement of the offensive line.
Look for the same approach in free agency this season when the period for contacting and negotiating with free agents begins March 7. The Titans have plenty of room under the salary cap, but don’t expect Robinson to throw around money. It’s not his style. Besides, it almost never works.
If we’ve learned anything over the last several years, it is that you rarely fix things by overspending on premier free agents. You’re better off finding the right fit with lesser names that don’t carry huge price tags.
For years, the Titans tried – to no avail – to find a No. 1 wide receiver in free agency. Remember Yancey Thigpen? He was coming off a Pro Bowl season with Pittsburgh when Tennessee signed him in 1998 to what was then the richest free-agent contract ever for a wide receiver. He played three uninspiring seasons before being cut.
In 2006, the Titans spent big money on David Givens. He played only five games and caught just eight passes before suffering a career-ending ACL injury.
The Titans also have a history of spending money on free-agent wide receivers who are over the hill and/or limited by injuries. They hoped to squeeze one more productive season out of Hakeem Nicks when they signed him in 2015, but it didn’t happen.
This time around, the free agent market could offer immediate help at wide receiver. With so many issues across the board, Chicago may not be able to keep Alshon Jeffery. Although he has a troubling injury history, Jeffery is just 26 and would give the Titans the kind of play-making ability on the perimeter that would maximize the talents of quarterback Marcus Mariota.
If Cleveland can’t lock down Terrelle Pryor, the Titans should take a look. He is coming off a 77-reception season after making the quarterback-to-wideout transition. At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, he is the kind of big-body receiver that is becoming fashionable in the modern NFL.
Wide receiver isn’t the only position of need for the Titans. Cornerback play was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses last season, which could put A.J. Bouye in play for the Titans.
Bouye is by far the best cover corner in the free-agent field. Opposing teams generally avoided him and threw to the other side of the field. If the Titans could get him, he would immediately be their No. 1 cornerback, and it also would mean they had weakened division rival Houston.
There’s also Trumaine Johnson, who played under the franchise tag for the Rams last year. Johnson did not have his best season but a change of venue might help. At 6-2 and 208 pounds, he has the size to match up with bigger wide receivers.
Elsewhere, it’ll be interesting to see how New England handles Dont’a Hightower, a 26-year-old every-down linebacker. The Patriots’ history with high-value defensive players makes this unpredictable. Hightower is the kind of enforcer at inside linebacker the Titans have lacked for years.
Another possibility is Dontari Poe. If Kansas City spends heavily to keep safety Eric Berry, Poe could be on the market. He is the kind of big, mobile nose tackle that could prosper in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defensive scheme. And he’s just 26 so he has time to improve after a couple of average seasons with the Chiefs.
Although the offensive line improved dramatically last season, the Titans still could use help at guard. Green Bay’s T.J. Lang would be an upgrade.
There are other free agents out there who could make an impact for the Titans. It’s up to Robinson to identify them and make offers.
Although the Titans have a fairly lackluster track record in free agency, there have been some noteworthy hits. For my money, here are the top five free agent signees since the franchise moved to Tennessee turf in 1997:
-- Delanie Walker, 2013: He never caught more than 29 passes in seven seasons at San Francisco, but Walker has not caught fewer than 60 in his four years with the Titans, including 94 in 2015. At age 32, he still has plenty of tread on the tires.
-- Kyle Vanden Bosch, 2005: After four injury-marred years in Arizona, Vanden Bosch made an immediate impact on the Titans’ pass rush with 12.5 sacks in his first season. He was known for his determination and relentless playing style.
-- Nate Washington, 2009: He averaged 61.4 receptions in his five seasons with the Titans and matured into a leader on the field and off.
-- Kevin Mawae, 2006: He had already played 12 NFL seasons when he signed with the Titans but Mawae continued to compete at a very high level. He brought consistency and an edge to the center position.
-- Chris Hope, 2006: Sometimes overlooked, Hope was a quality safety in his six seasons in Nashville. He also was a strong presence in the locker room.
There are other notable pickups in free agency. Offensive tackle Fred Miller and linebacker Randall Godfrey were immediate starters after signing in 2000. Linebacker David Thornton was well worth his money in 2006. Craig Hentrich, who signed in 1998, was an outstanding punter for 12 seasons.
If last year was any indication, we can expect Robinson to spend wisely – and efficiently.
Reach David Climer at email@example.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.