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2012 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: WR

We continue our trip around the Titans position by position as we approach the start of the 2012 season with a look at the wide receivers.

The Titans return five of their top six wide receivers from last season, and only departure, Donnie Avery, was replaced by Kendall Wright. That’s basically a lateral move, so expect exactly the same thing from the Tennessee Titans receiving corps that you saw last year.

Sorry, but I just had to get that out of my system. Despite the joke, there’s an element of truth there. The Titans bring back everybody who saw significant action at wide receiver last year. As I noted last year, without a healthy Kenny Britt, that group wasn’t really good enough, and despite my trepidations, the Titans selected Kendall Wright in the first-round of this year’s draft. Beyond how the incorporation of Wright changes things, there’s the big question of how much the Titans will have Kenny Britt available, and just how healthy he’ll be this year.

The Titans’ wide receiver depth chart isn’t that complicated, but figuring out how that translates to the field will be an interesting exercise this year, and one with few obvious answers.

Many of the questions obviously resolve around the status of Kenny Britt. He’s heading to New York on Monday to meet with NFL officials, likely including Commissioner Roger Goodell, for what I’m assuming is the inevitable multi-game suspension. How many games will he miss? Two is the absolute minimum I see him getting, and four to six is more likely in my estimation. Then again, with Roger Rex, you never know.

Before tearing his ACL last year, Britt was, in a word, awesome. He was efficient. He was productive. He got open. He produced yards after catch. He was the target on the majority of Titans’ red zone throws. He just wasn’t on the field much before tearing his ACL. After he missed time in 2010, and given that he’s still on the Physically Unable to Perform list, his ability to play even beyond the discipline issue is an open question. I expect him to play on at least a limited basis, but there’s a difference between a healthy Kenny Britt playing almost every snap and a recovering Kenny Britt playing 20 snaps a game.

Nate Washington emerged last year after a couple seasons in Tennessee where he still looked like a third receiver struggling to adjust to a heavier load. He’ll line up at the Z position and be a reliable target for the QB, whether it’s Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker. Don’t expect his 2011 numbers, even with Britt isn’t fully healthy, but he’ll still have some numbers.

Kendall Wright I’ve covered in some detail. I addressed him when the Titans drafted him and the day after, then looked at his potential role in more detail more recently. He’s slated to play the X position normally occupied by Britt and also the non-Washington wide receiver position, the F, in what I just termed the Jared Cook Offense.

Lavelle Hawkins played that F position for most of last season, mostly catching short passes. He was slated to his unrestricted free agency this year, but the Titans re-signed him before that happened. I wrote about his role in more detail as well. There’s no question in my mind he’ll lose a lot of work to Wright, unless Britt misses the entire season and/or Wright is very slow to pick up the offense (early reports are completely to the contrary, but yaneverknow). He’ll still play some role, but I wouldn’t necessarily even expect last year’s 46 catches.

Damian Williams was the jack-of-all-trades of the Titans’ offense last year, filling in on an as-needed basis. He’s not really an NFL X, but the Titans didn’t have one after Britt went down, so Williams had the job by default. He’s a more natural player at Washington’s Z slot, but he’ll play where he needs to play. Drexel speculated he could be the Titans’ #3 wideout, but I think he’s more likely to be the Titans’ utility receiver once again.

Marc Mariani will likely once again be primarily the returner. He’s still a work in progress as a receiver and played only a limited number of snaps on offense last year, many of them when the Titans had two backs and two tight ends on the field. Barring injury, I’m not sure when he’s on the field over any of the players I’ve already mentioned.

Beyond that, to me, relatively clear top six is a number of players. Britt’s likely suspension and possible slow recovery seems to create at least the possibility one of them could grab a roster spot for a while.

I’d say the early favorites are the players with a little more experience in the system. My (semi-arbitrary) preference is for Michael Preston, who at 6’5″ would bring size to a receiver corps that is sorely lacking in it without Britt. The other player to spend last year on the practice squad was James Kirkendoll, who’s more of the waterbug mold that fits Washington, Hawkins, and Williams better. Beyond Preston and Kirkendoll are a quartet of undrafted free agents, Devin Aguilar, Chase Deadder, LaQuinton Evans, and D.J. Woods, plus recent roster addition Marcus Harris. Harris was likely added just to give the team more numbers, while the Titans’ history suggests the four rookie UDFAs are all extreme longshots.

The top six is mostly set. There’s not likely a full-time job for anybody else. The more interesting question to me is how the Titans might target their receivers. I took a look at that question back in May; aside from Kenny Britt’s targets maybe being a little too high (depending on his health and suspension length). To get his number, though, I took what I thought his full-season targets might be and reduced them by 25%. I’d decrease his numbers a bit more and throw some targets Damian Williams’ direction.

The other big question is just how quickly Wright adapts to the NFL. Can he be the X? Can he beat press coverage? Can he beat man coverage? Is he able to translate his speed into getting separation from NFL defender? He could be the answer the Titans need if Britt isn’t on the field or is only a shell of his former self. I’ll be watching him closely in preseason games for answers, as well as to which of the non-top six receivers manage to emerge.