No tag for Cook ups ante for Titans as FA approaches

Posted March 07, 2013 @ 2:56 p.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

The Titans needed a free-agent haul capable of making an instant impact before they decided not to franchise TE Jared Cook.

With Cook now unlikely to return to Nashville, it not only adds another position of need for Tennessee, it magnifies the pressure on the Titans to improve their roster beginning next Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, when the free-agent market opens for business.

I understand the Titans’ reasoning for not franchising Cook, who had indicated he planned to play hardball in concert with the NFLPA to try to be classified as a wide receiver instead of a tight end — a difference of over $4 million in 2013 salary.

With the size and athleticism of Jimmy Graham but the production along the lines of Dwayne Allen or Tony Scheffler, Cook has been far too great of a tease for the Titans to make him their highest-paid player in 2013, which the WR franchise tag would have done.

That much I get.

However, when PFW correspondent and Tennessean beat writer Jim Wyatt reported the reasoning for letting Cook hit the open market was because the Titans didn’t want to be sidetracked in free agency for the second season in a row, the first thing I thought was, well, they’re certainly putting themselves out there now.

Remember, the distraction last season was owner Bud Adams' mandate to his front office to acquire Peyton Manning at all costs. Of course, Manning eventually chose the Broncos, leaving the Titans alone at the altar.

In turn, their original free-agent targets, perhaps guys like Mario Williams and Scott Wells, cashed in elsewhere rather than waiting around for the Titans.

Again, I understand Ruston Webster, Mike Munchak and Co. not wanting to risk putting all their eggs in Cook’s underachieving basket while going to battle in front of an arbitrator. But they’re going to look awfully silly if their biggest free-agent acquisitions this offseason aren’t bigger difference makers than Steve Hutchinson and Kamerion Wimbley.

I’m not naïve to think the Titans have went hog wild in free agency in years past; instead, they have taken a conservative, measured approach, mostly waiting until the big-ticket players sign before going bargain hunting.

That won’t cut it this season.

Indications are that the club is prepared to address its myriad needs, beginning with an edge rusher and interior O-line, with some bigger brand names next week.

Guys like Cliff Avril and Andy Levitre, both of whom have plenty of production already under their belt but are young enough that they’re still ascending players, won’t come cheap, for sure. But with $19 million in cap space and a “win in 2013 or else” ultimatum for both Munchak and Webster, these are the types of moves Titans fans should expect.

I thought Tennessee did good work in getting a head start on the competition by signing S George Wilson shortly after he was released by the Bills last month. A veteran, vocal presence on defense and sound tackler are two things that were sorely lacking on the Titans a season ago and Wilson fills the bill in those areas. It wasn’t a sexy move, but one I expect will provide a major upgrade in 2013. Beyond that, it is hard to say, as Wilson is on the wrong side of 30 and entering the back nine of a solid career. Translation: The Titans would be foolish to cross safety off their to-do list once the draft rolls around.

Of course, a defense that is coming off the worst season in franchise history in terms of points allowed can use upgrades pretty much across the board. But the decision not to tag Cook actually means what was once a position of strength on the other side of the ball is suddenly another need area.

The 2013 season isn’t just a make-or-break one for Munchak and Webster; QB Jake Locker is entering a pivotal campaign. And while I think Craig Stevens, suddenly the lone TE on the Tennessee roster with any significant experience, is an underrated football player, I don’t think he can stretch the field and create mismatches the way Cook did. Kenny Britt still has that type of ability, but neither I nor folks within the Titans organization actually believe they can count on him at this point.

With few other tight ends on the free-agent market with Cook’s unique skill set, perhaps the Titans wait until April, when an intriguing and deep TE crop is in play. Maybe that was part of the Titans’ thinking in risking letting Cook get away.

If the Titans’ sole reason was to be ready to pouce when the clock strikes 4 p.m. ET next Tuesday, they better be ready to make a splash. Otherwise, there is a strong likelihood we’re pointing to two failed free-agent signing periods when writing about what went wrong in the Munchak-Webster era at this time next year.