SELF-PROMOTIONAL ITEM: Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, a.k.a. “the annual Football Outsiders preview” or “that thing that kept me away from here from post-draft until a couple weeks ago,” is available for purchase. You can get the book in PDF form at Football Outsiders, while the print copy is currently available through CreateSpace and on Amazon proper. I did the Broncos and Raiders chapters, while my FO colleague Rivers McCown did the Titans chapter. (As I noted on Twitter, I didn’t do the Titans chapter because I’d done it three of the past four times and we like to switch things up.) /end plug
After quarterback, running back, and fullback, the next stop on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2014 regular season is a look at the wide receiver position.
When I did the offseason analysis, I described it as looking like a time of transition for the wide receiver group. Six months later, that doesn’t feel like the right question, with the three receivers who played the most in 2013 back and in line to be the three receiver who play the most again this season. Instead, the two big questions surrounding the position group concern the development or continued development of the recent high draft picks at the position and depth beyond the clear top three.
Before I get to the players, a brief note on Ken Whisenhunt’s usage of wide receivers. For each of the past five seasons, he has used three or more wide receivers on between 54 and 60% of all snaps. As the NFL has evolved around him, that’s gone from top six (60%, 2011) to middle of the pack (56%, 2013). For comparison’s sake, the Titans last year used three or more wide receivers on 56% of all plays (18th; teams were tightly bunched). Whisenhunt’s Cardinals frequently used four or more wide receivers, ranking first or second in the league each of 2009-2012. Whisenhunt’s Chargers last year almost never used four wide receivers (31st in the NFL at <1%). Possibly related: Whisenhunt’s Cardinals struggled to field a worthwhile tight end, while Antonio Gates plays for the Chargers. Given the respective depth and quality at wide receiver and tight end, my guess is the 2014 Titans look a lot more like the 2013 Chargers than any of Whisenhunt’s Cardinals teams when it comes to personnel usage.
One player who will certain play a lot is last year’s most productive player and one of those recent high draft picks whose further development is at issue. I named Kendall Wright the Titans’ biggest surprise and offensive MVP for his performance in catching 94 passes last year. My FO colleague Rivers McCown wrote about Wright’s play last year in some detail and noted the possibility for better production by Wright, especially if the QB play improves. I won’t turn this into Yet Another Jake Locker Post, though, since this isn’t the QB positional analysis.
There are a couple specific areas of Wright’s game to pay attention to in 2014. First, can Jake Locker find him downfield? As I noted in the comments section of Rivers’ column, Locker has gone just 4-for-23 when targeting Wright more than 10 yards downfield. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Hasselbeck have had more success finding Wright down the field, though even so he hasn’t been the vertical seam threat we saw at Baylor and expected him to be in the NFL.
The second thing to watch for Wright is his continued work on reshaping his body. He dropped 14 pounds last offseason to get to 187, which seemed to lead to better movement on the field. He noted earlier this week (video link) the new coaching staff had asked him to drop a little additional weight to improve his speed and his endurance and ability to stay on the field. He noted he’s now at 184 pounds and his belly is gone.
The other thing to come from that interview, beyond his weight, is his role in the offense is likely to change. He noted he’s learning every wide receiver position, which is something Dowell Loggains talked about about every receiver doing last season. More importantly, though, he noted the new coaching staff (though position coach Shawn Jefferson is a holdover) is asking him to be more disciplined in his routes instead of giving him the opportunity to freelance and adjust his route like he had from the old regime last year. It’s interesting to get confirmation of that, which I wondered about at times watching them, and will be interesting to see if Wright can be as productive in a more disciplined system. I’m confident that unless he gets hurt Wright will play a lot and catch a lot of balls in 2014. I don’t know if that will end up meaning 70 catches (the low end) or over 100 (the higher end). My guess is that however many catches he ends up with he’s more likely to be closer to 12.0 yards per catch than the 15.4 in Jim Wyatt’s projections.
Nate Washington is back for another year of what Nate Washington does. He seems to have developed into a real leader in the locker room and a solid veteran citizen. He’ll play a fair amount, with the precise amount likely determined by Wright’s improvement and ability to take more snaps, Whisenhunt’s preferred offensive personnel groupings, and the development of the players behind him on the depth chart, including not just the player I’ll get to in a minute but also whether any of the fourth (and) beyond receivers can play well enough to demand a bigger role. I wish I had something more interesting to say about him, but I don’t; he’ll probably play a fair amount and catch between 40 and 60 passes.
If I had to just ask one question about the Titans receiving corps this year, it would be “whither Justin Hunter?” Time pressures and the like prevented me from getting to writing up the multiple posts on Hunter this offseason I wanted to, but I did spend some time watching him and commend to you Rivers McCown’s column on him. The name “Randy Moss” has been mentioned a lot with Hunter, dating back to his college days. Let’s get past that Moss is one of the five best receivers in NFL history and not burden Hunter with those expectations and just note the stylistic similarity. Both are tall, vertically explosive wide receivers with outstanding leaping ability and demonstrated they could make acrobatic, twisting catches over receivers.
It’s a loaded subject, but there were times last year Hunter reminded me a lot of Randy Moss, only it was the Randy Moss that played for the Titans in 2010 rather than the Moss who did such spectacular things for the Vikings (first stint) and Patriots. That Moss was a player who needed physical separation from a defensive back to create a catch and struggled when it came to making contested catches. Indeed, Hunter may have had only one “pure” drop, but I counted seven other plays that may have fit Dowell Loggains’ (overly expansive) definition of a drop. Those four or so catches he should have made and didn’t are the difference between an inefficient receiver with a 43% catch rate (as Rivers noted, only one of those incompletions was of the “basically a throw away” variety) and one of the league’s best deep threats. There’s a lot of room for growth and improvement in his game, and he needs to show it. My tentative expectation is he’ll show some of that growth but not as much as some people are hoping for. FYI, Wyatt had him at 44 receptions for 690 yards; I’ll take the under on the receptions and the over on 15.7 yards per catch, though I don’t expect him to match last year’s 19.7.
Beyond those top three, the depth chart gets incredibly murky. As I noted in my roster prediction, Whisenhunt has kept 5 or 6 receivers in the past five seasons. That includes a couple years where he played a boatload of 4WR sets, so don’t assume there are automatically at least six, maybe seven jobs here. There may be, but players will have to earn them. The two players I picked to make the team are the two most familiar and the two I might characterize as sentimental favorites. With so few NFL receptions (10 and 5, respectively), it seems like Michael Preston and Marc Mariani are incredibly young players when they actually turned 26 and 27 this offseason. Former Pro Bowler Mariani may well figure in the returner decisions, which I’ll cover fully in the special teams analysis, and seemed to show growth as a receiver the past couple preseasons before suffering those season-ending injuries. Just how much growth is difficult to say and will be the key question this year. At 6’5/213, Preston definitely fits Whisenhunt’s general predilection for more size and his special teams ability and willingness to block are somewhere between plus traits and absolutely required for a depth receiver. As I keep saying, I’m not sure he’s a good enough mover to be more than a fourth or fifth receiver, but he does a lot of what you want from a fourth or fifth receiver.
The Titans didn’t make any major additions at wide receiver in the offseason. In terms of veterans, they added two. I think of Derek Hagan and Brian Robiskie as kind of like the reserve price in an auction. While Hagan seems to be the leader of the two based on early reports from training camp (I’m 494 miles from St. Thomas Sports Park, or else I’d add my firsthand gleanings), I think of them similar. Both are bigger (6’2/210 and 6’4/212 listings) veterans with long but not notable NFL careers who began last year out of the league (though Robiskie would spend some time with the Falcons). They provide a useful baseline for the other receivers to strive to meet or exceed, but if either made the team I’d consider it more a negative reflection on the players they beat out than either of them displaying some heretofore hidden talent. That’s certainly a useful role, but please don’t think too badly for me for not getting excited about it.
As usual, there’s a bunch of flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of the roster. I have nothing particularly interesting, even to me, to say about Julian Horton, Jaz Reynolds, Rico Richardson, Derel Walker, or Isaiah Williams. To continue to repeat what I said about the bottom of the roster guys in last year’s preseason positional analysis, I rate each of them as very unlikely to make the roster barring something unusual happening. There may be one or more practice squad spots available for them, though, so there’s still potentially a competition there.
This could be a pretty good group, if Wright and Hunter take the expected and hoped-for steps forward in their games. This could be a bit of a disappointing group if Wright fails to thrive playing a more structured style and Hunter fails to make the improvements expected of him in his second season. Depth is a big question mark, and it’s one the Titans could choose to address with an addition from the waiver wire or the street should they find someone more to their liking let go by another team. Like last year, there’s enough upside to be optimistic but there are enough question marks a glass-mostly-empty type like me could see the Titans playing a lot of two tight ends sets whether they want to or not. We’ll get some preliminary answers to at least some of the questions when the preseason kicks off, though of course plenty will remain unanswered until the regular season.