As the Tennessee Titans begin to assess the off-season and rank priorities regarding which of their free agents to try and retain, one position group stands out as a glaring and pressing issue.
Of the four tight ends who were on the Titans 53-man roster this season, three are unrestricted free agents, and the fourth is a restricted free agent.
The contracts of Jonnu Smith, MyCole Pruitt and Geoff Swaim are all expiring once free agency begins, plus Anthony Firkser is also a restricted free agent.
One of the discussions that will be front and center for the Titans this off-season as they discuss the offensive weapons going forward has been the idea that the club likely would have to choose between retaining wide receiver Corey Davis and Smith.
Davis, of course, would be the more expensive option for the Titans to re-sign, but the club might work to keep him, in order to keep the complement to A.J. Brown in place. The Titans could – and likely will – pursue at least one receiver in the draft whether Davis stays or not, given the lack of depth that showed there in the playoff loss to Baltimore once Davis went out of the game with an injury, and with Adam Humphries' future in Tennessee uncertain as well.
But back to the tight end spot. With the salary cap expected to be flat at best and decreasing at worst, Smith might be the luxury the Titans cannot afford this off-season.
Smith finished the season with 41 receptions for 448 yards and scored eight touchdowns, proving to be a valuable red zone weapon. But his production faded over the course of the season. Some of that was chalked up to the loss of left tackle Taylor Lewan and the need for Smith to stay in as a blocker more, but after posting 18 catches for 221 yards and five touchdowns in the first four games of the season, Smith had just 23 catches for 227 yards in his final 11 regular season games. (He missed the Colts game on Nov. 29 with a knee injury).
While Firkser is nowhere near as good a blocker or as versatile as Smith is, the former free agent from Harvard posted solid numbers in a limited role as a possession receiver, basically assuming Humphries role on third downs after Humphries suffered a concussion.
Firkser had 39 catches this season for 387 yards, and just one touchdown. He also added two more catches for 44 yards in Sunday's playoff loss to the Ravens. If the Titans feel Firkser is ready for a bigger role and to be more of an every-down tight end, then Jon Robinson could choose to sign him to an extension probably for a lot less than Smith would command.
As for the blocking tight end situation, Robinson and the Titans made Pruitt one of the guys they wanted to retain last year in the off-season. The guess here is that that could be the case again. Pruitt had some injury issues in 2020, but came back to finish the season. He and Swaim both made nice contributions in the run game and contributed the occasional pass receptions as well. Swaim made a solid impression after being brought in during training camp.
The guess here would be that Pruitt, who has been a Mike Vrabel favorite from having known him in Houston, would probably be the priority in an either/or situation, though it is not out of the realm of possibility that both could be brought back on reasonable, team-friendly, short-term deals.