Do the Titans really let their best players get away?

I hope all of you had a safe and happy holiday weekend with your family and friends.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the Titans “let their best players get away.”  I was one of the loudest critics after the team let both their leading rusher and leading receiver walk in free agency after the 2006 season.
It turned out the Titans knew a lot more than we did when they didn’t make much of an effort, if any, to keep Travis Henry and Drew Bennett. Each of them declined significantly the following year, 2007, which turned out to be Henry’s final season. Bennett would play that season plus only one more game in his career.

So while the Titans were right in those two cases, how did they do in others? I’ve taken a position by position look at the Titans who had the best final seasons at their positions and then went on to play elsewhere in the league, using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) system to examine the following:
  • The player’s highest AV with the Titans/Oilers
  • The player’s total AV over his term with team
  • The player’s AV in his final season with the team
Those numbers are then compared to the player’s AV after leaving the Titans. For example, Henry’s AV was 9 in his final season in Tennessee but only 5 the following year in Denver. Bennett’s AV dropped from 7 to 3.
(Incidentally, I used AV for this exercise since Football Outsiders uses different metrics in ranking different positions. AV measures different things than FO does, and though AV is subjective, it serves well enough for our purposes while providing a standard unit of measure for all positions.)
I also looked at the number of years the player remained in the league after leaving the Titans/Oilers and his total AV for those remaining years.
In order to be included in this exercise, a player had to meet the following criteria:
  • Was a full-time starter (8 or more games) in his final season in Tennessee
  • Went on to play at least one more season elsewhere
  • In his final season had the highest AV among other players at his position in their final season
That leaves out players who left prior to 1997, who were not regular starters in their final Tennessee season, players who retired in Tennessee and those with a lower final AV than others at that position.
First, a look at the offense.
Departing players with highest final yearAV — Offense
Pos Player Years w team Highest AV Total AV w/team Final yr AV w/team Next yr AV Total Fut AV Future years
QB Steve McNair 11 15 115 10 10 11 2
RB Travis Henry 2 9 12 9 5 5 1
FB Lorenzo Neal 2 2 3 1 2 26 8
WR Derrick Mason 8 14 62 10 8 44 5
WR Drew Bennett 6 11 38 7 3 3 2
TE Jackie Harris 2 6 10 4 4 7 2
LG Jacob Bell 4 6 18 6 4 7 2
C G. DiNapoli 2 7 7 7 0 0 1
RG KevinDonnalley 7 7 30 7 5 27 6
RT Jon Runyan 4 12 29 12 7 72 10
Average 4.8 8.9 32.4 7.3 4.8 20.2 3.9
In case you’re wondering why Eddie George is not on that list, it’s because his AV was 8 in his last season in Tennessee as compared to Henry’s AV of 9. Bruce Matthews, Frank Wycheck, Brad Hopkins, Erron Kinney, Zach Piller and Benji Olson were not considered because they finished their careers in Tennessee and did not go elsewhere. I was surprised to find that DiNapoli’s final year AV was higher than that of Mark Stepnoski or Justin Hartwig.
Only ten players are listed on offense because Hopkins is the only former Titan left tackle who was a regular starter. Of those ten, only Neal had a higher AV the year after leaving, McNair and Harris had the same AV the following season and the other seven had a decrease in AV.
Four of the ten — Runyan, Neal, Donnelly and Mason — combined for 29 more seasons after leaving the Titans and five played only one or two additional seasons. (Bell has played two seasons since leaving and is still active.) It would have been nice to keep Runyan, Neal and Mason but they were all salary cap casualties.
Now for the defense:
Departing players with highest final yearAV — Defense
Pos Player Years w team Highest AV Total AV w/team Final yr AV w/team Next yr AV Total Fut AV Future years
LDE Antwan Odom 4 8 18 8 4 8 2
LDT John Thornton 4 11 21 7 6 39 6
RDT A. Haynesworth 7 19 56 19 6 6 1
RDE Jevon Kearse 5 16 49 7 8 33 6
LLB Greg Favors 3 10 16 5 0 12 4
MLB BarronWortham 6 8 29 7 5 5 1
RLB Lonnie Marts 2 7 13 7 9 11 2
LCB Denard Walker 4 7 26 7 6 18 5
RCB Pacman Jones 2 9 15 9 3 3 1
SS Tank Williams 4 7 24 6 2 2 1
FS M. Robertson 10 15 63 8 5 11 2
Average 4.6 10.6 30.0 8.2 4.9 13.5 2.8
It should first be noted that Kearse left the Titans and later returned. In his case, we’re examining his first stint with the team and including his second go-round with his future seasons.
Kearse and Marts both had a higher AV in their first season after leaving and the other nine had a lower AV the next year. Four players — Thornton, Kearse, Walker and Favors — combined for 21 more seasons and 107 more AV points. Odom has played two more years, Haynesworth and Jones one each and are still active, while the other four played only one or two more years.
Several Titans not on this list were better players overall than ones who are on the list. Kevin Carter didn’t make this list because he didn’t play his normal position his final year here, which lowered his AV. Randall Godfrey and Samari Rolle were far superior to Wortham and Pacman but were injured their final seasons in Tennessee, which was reflected in their AVs. Eddie Robinson was better than Marts overall, but not in his final season as measured by AV. Carter, Godfrey and Rolle were all salary cap casualties; Robinson was 31 years old when he left and had enough gas in his tank for just one more season.
Returning again to the question of the Titans letting their best players get away, it’s necessary to make a distinction between those players the team was unable to keep due to salary cap reasons and those the Titans could have tried to keep.
Looking now only at players the Titans could have kept, if they wished to and had been able to reach a contractual agreement, we get this list:
Travis Henry
Drew Bennett
Jackie Harris
Jacob Bell
Gennaro DiNapoli
Kevin Donnalley
Antwan Odom
Albert Haynesworth
Greg Favors
Barron Wortham
Lonnie Marts
Denard Walker
Pacman Jones
Tank Williams
Some of those could be considered as being let go partially for salary cap reasons (2000-2004), but not entirely so. I don’t really have a problem with that last list of players who got away. What about you, how do you feel about the Titans “letting their best players go” for other than salary cap reasons?
Next up in this series, we’ll look at the AVs of the players who replaced the ones who got away to see how well the Titans did in that category.