NFL free agency: Titans issue loud warning to rest of AFC, division

The Titans had a sneaky-good start to NFL free agency, as GM Jon Robinson made splashes by luring Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis away from his former employer.

If one didn't know any better, one would think the Titans were going all-in on the upcoming season, reaping the benefits of one of the NFL's best front-office hires in recent years.

Of course, if one is saying that in mid-March, one might not be that bright. But Jon Robinson is hitting all the right notes as Year 3 of his tenure as general manager begins.

He has to, of course. One of the up-and-coming powers in the AFC, the team that barely lost to the Patriots in the conference title game and the one slowly shifting the balance of power, is in their division. The Titans have to keep pace with the Jaguars. Don’t be surprised if they catch and pass them. If not now, then soon.

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On paper and at first glance, the Titans' two big free-agent signings, running back Dion Lewis and cornerback Malcolm Butler, are home runs. The backfield tandem of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry worked for two years. It’s now been altered, with Henry clearly the No. 1 option, Murray out and the younger, similarly skilled-but-younger and fresher Lewis in.

And is there a more motivated free agent in the league than Butler, who was benched in the Super Bowl against the Eagles under still-mysterious circumstances?

If any, it’s not many.


The year 2 version of Robinson's Titans — with Mike Mularkey as a lame-duck coach and Marcus Mariota coming off a major injury and struggling through another injury and a midseason slump — went 9-7 for the second straight year, reached the playoffs, rallied to a wild-card win in Kansas City and played the Patriots as tough as anyone should have expected.

Mularkey's now gone, and Mike Vrabel is in as head coach. Of course, the Patriots theme of their three biggest offseason moves is no coincidence with Robinson’s Patriots background. Regardless of where he paid his dues or how he’s gotten his players, his obvious challenge was to build around Mariota, the franchise cornerstone.

How electrifying Vrabel is as a head coach remains to be seen, but what Robinson has done so far has only helped, not hurt.

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How far that takes them, of course, is not entirely in their hands. The Jaguars are not the only AFC South rival for the Titans to watch; the Texans will get Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt back at some point, and the same for the Colts and Andrew Luck, their new coach and second-year general manager. But until further notice, the Jaguars are the team to beat.

And the Jaguars were busy themselves in the run-up to the official start of free agency, adding guard Andrew Norwell, re-signing Marqise Lee and compensating for losing Allen Robinson with Donte Moncrief.

Oh, and they extended Blake Bortles, which, with the help he got on offense, works well for them now.

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The Titans, of course, couldn’t stand pat. The stakes rose precipitously when they made their late run into and through the playoffs last season. They rose further when the Jaguars took off, as well.

But Robinson has flipped the franchise’s fortunes quickly, starting with his wheeling and dealing with what once was the first pick in his first draft in 2016. It’s paying off. Butler and Lewis are now in position to make it pay off more in 2018.

The AFC, the AFC South and the division champion-Jaguars know the Titans are there, very close in their rear-view mirror.