Would you cut Chris Johnson?

Do we feel that the production justifies the cost? Can we do better or maintain the status quo for a cheaper price? These are the questions facing the Tennessee Titans front office at the current moment as the franchise decides whether or not to retain the services of running back Chris Johnson for a sixth year.

It’s decision time around the National Football League. With the 2013 Super Bowl in the books, the 32 NFL franchises now begin the process of looking to next season. At the current juncture, that means taking a good, long look at the salary cap and determining which players can be released in order to free up space for upgrades. The Lions have already parted ways with defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Eagles must decide whether or not quarterback Michael Vick has a place in the organization’s future.

The Titans are no different from the Lions or Eagles, save for the fact that their big decision comes with greater financial risk.

Chris Johnson is scheduled to make $10 million in base salary in 2013, $9 million of which becomes fully guaranteed if the running back is still on the roster come February 9.

So if you’re running the show in Tennessee, do you send Johnson packing or pick up the hefty price tag for the 2013 campaign?

The pro-cut contingent will quickly point to the decline in production that followed Johnson’s signature on a $53 million contract extension in 2011. After rushing for 3,370 yards from 2009-2010, Johnson amassed a career-low 1,047 yards in his first season since breaking the bank. Many speculated that the East Carolina product was mailing it in now that he was financially set for life.

Chris JohnsonIf the Titans can't make a serious run at the Super Bowl in the next two years, why spend so much money on Johnson?

But one mediocre season does not a career make. And while Johnson’s 2012 campaign failed to meet the lofty expectations that have followed the running back since his stellar 2009 season, he did rank ninth in both rushing yards (1,243) and total yards from scrimmage (1,475) among running backs this year. And Johnson did so with a sub-par offensive line and a passing game that ranked 25th in the league in yards per attempt average (6.6 YPA). It’s not easy to eclipse 1,500 rushing yards when the rest of your offense fails to meet the league averages, unless you’re born of another planet like Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.

Another argument that supports Johnson’s release would be the low-cost success enjoyed in 2012 by young running backs like Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Stevan Ridley, all of whom outrushed Johnson this past season. The NFL has quickly realized that the running back position carries with it a short shelf life, so rather than place a sizeable investment in the position, teams have begun to target ball-carriers that fit their scheme at a far more reasonable cost.

Of course, you need good talent evaluators and the right system in order to capitalize on this boon offered by the market.

Perhaps the best pro-cut argument lies in the fact that the Titans went 6-10 this past season and have to possess a doubt or two as to whether or not quarterback Jake Locker is capable of guiding this team deep into the postseason. Johnson already has six years and 1,463 rushing attempts under his belt. By the time Tennessee is ready to compete for a spot in the Super Bowl, will Johnson still be a game-changer who plays an integral role in the team’s offense? Remember, Johnson turns 28-years-old in September and could be in his early 30s by the time the Titans are ready to make a run at it.

Just look at the St. Louis Rams, who have been shelling out the big bucks to running back Steven Jackson over the last decade. Jackson has been an absolute workhorse over his nine seasons in St. Louis, but the franchise never succeeded in assembling the right parts around him. That’s a lot of money to spend on a running back who has never started a postseason game in his career.

For me, this is the big question facing the Titans. Does the franchise think they can join the league’s elite within the next two years, when Johnson is still capable of causing headaches for opposing defensive coordinators?

Because if Tennessee can’t, that’s a lot of money that could have been spent on younger players who will be around when the time finally comes.

Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh

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