Extending Tennessee Titans cornerstones A.J. Brown, Jeffery Simmons will come at steep price

Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2022 season unless the franchise gives him what the market suggests would be a massive contract extension. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The 2019 draft class from top to bottom is one of Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson's best accomplishments. Five out of the six players he selected are starters.

Now Robinson has to figure out a way to retain them, especially wide receiver A.J. Brown and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, who have become cornerstones of the franchise.

Brown has been the subject of offseason trade rumors; NFL Nation New York Jets reporter Rich Cimini named him as one of the pass-catchers the Jets will have an eye on. The recent free-agent contracts for wide receivers will likely push Brown's annual salary above the $20 million-per-year range.

Brown has established himself as one of the Titans' best offensive weapons and a safety net for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has targeted Brown 272 times since he became the starter in Week 7 of the 2019 season.

Tennessee's 20-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers last season showed just how valuable Brown is to the Titans' offense. Brown finished the day with 11 receptions for 145 yards and a touchdown.

Whenever the Titans needed a big play, Brown was there to provide it. Eight of Brown's 11 receptions in that game came on third downs. That's the most by any player in a game over the past 30 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Brown accounted for 69.4% of the Titans' receiving yards against the 49ers, the highest percentage by any player whose team threw for at least 200 yards in a game last season. Brown has accounted for three of the five highest percentages last season, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

"I love throwing the ball to A.J. [Brown]," Tannehill said after the game. "He has a natural ability to get himself open. He has his size and his strength. There are some guys that they are just easy to throw to. He is one of those guys."

The fourth-year receiver has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in two of his three NFL seasons (1,051 yards in 2019 and 1,075 yards in 2020). Before Brown, Kendall Wright (1,079) in 2013 was the last Titans wide receiver to surpass 1,000 yards in a season, though tight end Delanie Walker had 1,088 in 2015. Brown has 869 yards in 13 games in 2021.

The Titans had an 11-2 record in the 13 games Brown suited up last year. At 24 years old, he is both the present and the future of the Titans' offense. He's also in the last year of his rookie contract.

It will be expensive to re-sign Brown, given how the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Christian Kirk to a four-year, $72 million deal, along with the three-year, $60 million deals that Mike Williams signed with the Los Angeles Chargers and Chris Godwin signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason. And Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs signed a four-year, $104 million contract with $70 million guaranteed. That will push the value of Brown's contract up even more.

Brown is represented by Tory Dandy, the same agent as Godwin and Williams, so it's reasonable to expect their contracts to be the floor for a new deal with the Titans. Dandy also represents Seattle Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf and 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel, both of whom will be up for a new deal that could influence Brown's contract.

But the Titans have full intentions of keeping Brown in Nashville for a long time.

"A.J. is an important part of what we do," GM Robinson said at the owners meetings. "A.J. is a Titan, and we want to keep A.J. a Titan. And that’s part of our goal this offseason, or whenever that manifests itself, to come to an agreement to keep him around."

The Titans are just as bullish on keeping Simmons, their 2019 first-round pick who is also in the last year of his rookie deal. But Tennessee intends to pick up his fifth-year option at a bargain rate of $10.7 million. They have until May 2.

Simmons hit his stride last season when he finished with 8.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits and 12 tackles for loss. The Titans' front four has become one of the team's strongest units with Simmons as the ring leader.

A lot of ways that Simmons impacts games don't show up in his individual stats. Take Week 9 against the Los Angeles Rams, for example. The defensive lineman got pressure on Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford in the end zone, causing him to make an ill-advised throw to avoid being taken down for a safety.

The throw was intercepted by Titans linebacker David Long Jr., setting up a first and goal for Tennessee. Tannehill hit Geoff Swaim for a 2-yard touchdown pass on the next play to take a 7-3 lead.

The Titans were at a disadvantage that week because it was their first game without running back Derrick Henry. Simmons responded by leading the defense with three sacks en route to a 28-16 win on the road.

However, Simmons' signature game came in the Titans' 19-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the divisional round of the playoffs last season. He dominated the Bengals' interior offensive line and harassed quarterback Joe Burrow throughout the game.

Simmons finished with three of the Titans' nine sacks, which tied the previous playoff record held by four teams: Bills vs. Kansas City Chiefs (1966), 49ers vs. Chicago Bears (1984), Cleveland Browns vs. Jets (1986) and Chiefs vs. Houston Oilers (1993). Simmons had two more sacks eliminated due to non-related pre-snap penalties.

The Bengals game was a sign of what Simmons is capable of. It was the kind of outing the Titans envisioned when they selected Simmons with the 19th overall pick in 2019 despite suffering an ACL injury that February.

Simmons has shown improvement from his rookie campaign in each of the past two seasons.

"I know how much I've grown as a player," Simmons said during locker clean-out day. "I'm going to work my tail off to be even better this upcoming season. But, I didn't have a strip-sack. That's where I can take my game to the next level."

Keeping Simmons in a Titans uniform is paramount to their success. Simmons' extension may not come this offseason, but the arrow is pointing up for him. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for Simmons' contract extension to reach the $100 million plateau.

If Tennessee gets a deal done with Brown, they can focus on Simmons next.