Should the Titans give Johnson big money?

The Titans have a decision to make when it comes to the contract of franchise running back Chris Johnson. Jim Brown/US Presswire

The Titans are in a scary place.

In the first season of the Mike Munchak regime, they’ve said they intend to be a run-based offense keyed around Chris Johnson behind an offensive line expected to perform as it did two years ago when he topped 2,000 yards.

But Johnson's heading into his fourth season. Regarded as one of the league’s most explosive players, he’s due to make just an $800,000 base salary. The final two years of his deal can max out at roughly $2.7 million. Last year, he sought a new contract but settled for a shuffling of money he had coming later that boosted his 2010 salary by $1.5 million to $2.05 million.

He indicated that was a one-time deal and he’d expect the team to give him his second contract before 2011. Even if a labor deal is in place, an old rule that could carry over said the team can’t give him a new contract until a year has passed since that 2010 renegotiation, which happened last July.

At the player-organized minicamp practices earlier this month, he largely dismissed the contract issue, saying it wasn’t on his mind, how he was focused on being a good teammate and getting good work in.

He’s also said he’s willing to take more carries as the team works out its quarterback situation, where the team hopes a still to-be-signed veteran will handle things while rookie Jake Locker learns on the sideline. But Johnson expects Locker to be the starter sooner, and knows it means the run game could be even more important than it has been.

If the Titans don’t show a willingness to give him a significant pay increase and he decides to hold out, who will have the advantage?

Let’s look at both sides.

Here’s what gives Johnson the advantage:

The Titans do not have another skill player who approaches Johnson’s explosiveness or dictates what a defense does like Johnson. They’d be looking at Javon Ringer and rookie Jamie Harper as their primary backs.

The other guy they consider a major weapon, receiver Kenny Britt, spent the lockout getting himself into different variations of trouble and is likely to be suspended early on by the team or the league.

Munchak is an unproven commodity as a head coach who could do a lot for himself and the team with some good early results that show that his plan can work. Those are far more likely to arrive with Johnson as the primary weapon than without him.

Reports say the new CBA will force teams to spend much closer to all of the money under their salary cap. Rookie salaries are also in line to be more manageable. The Titans can spread some of that to veteran free agents, but could also use a share of it to extend their best players. Johnson would head the list.

If he’s not one of a kind, he’s close. In any survey about players with breakaway speed and the potential for a home run on any touch, he’s right at the top.

Here’s what gives the Titans the advantage:

While Bud Adams is eager to win a Super Bowl before he passes away and teams can turn things around quickly in today’s NFL, it’s not reasonable to expect the Titans to be very good in 2011. The guy they hope to be the new face of the franchise is Locker, who needs refining. Even with a big free-agency haul, they are likely to lack leaders and playmakers. They could well believe they’d endure life without Johnson more easily than Johnson would endure life without a paycheck.

They went 8-8 with Johnson topping 2,000 yards and 6-10 as he ran for over 1,300. General manager Mike Reinfeldt could tell Johnson the franchise could manage such win-loss records with the other backs on the roster taking the handoffs.

Although Johnson has done well setting standards of production, he has not showed great leadership qualities. He’s not looked to as a guy to be followed, he doesn’t spend his offseasons in Nashville, and although it’s not been with bad intentions, his constant talk about being faster than other speedsters and running for ridiculous yardage totals can amount to distractions the team could be well-served to be without. Those things make the team less willing to open the vault as wide as Johnson is going to want.

Although he had a solid season numerically, Johnson’s want-to was questioned at times last year. Yes, he was getting hit a ton, but there were a good share of runs where he seemed to surrender, and what sort of message does that send?

Money makes guys more of what they are. Does Tennessee have cause to worry about that with CJ? He’s flamboyant and sometimes selfish. Can you shell out big bucks if you expect to see more of that emerge as a result of the puffed up checkbook?

My thinking

The Titans need Johnson. He’s the guy their fans and the league want to see right now, and the biggest cause the franchise has for hope. I don’t see him getting the $30 million guaranteed he spoke of a year ago, but it’s not at all unreasonable for him to expect a big guarantee. Running back shelf lives are short and his time is now.

The new cap rules will force everyone to spend. The Titans invested the 24th pick in the 2008 draft on him. Having struck out with their first-rounders in 2005 (Pacman Jones, sixth) and 2006 (Vince Young, third) and with Britt (30th in 2009) on shaky ground, it’s not like they have a lot of guys in line for big deals.

Does Johnson bring some risk? Yes. It’s fair to wonder how big dollars will affect him when the Titans can’t get him to plant himself in town in the spring and summer and haven’t seen him lead the way they’d like.

He’s the guy they’re pinning a lot on, though, and guys like that cost significant money. Although having him disgruntled may be motivating, having him happy can be far healthier for the franchise.

Tennessee took the gamble on a small school-speedster in 2008 and proved smart. It may be hard to write the check, but the time to reinvest has arrived.