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How might the Titans target their receivers in 2012?

When the Tennessee Titans selected Kendall Wright in the first round of last week’s NFL draft, one of the big questions was what kind of role he might play in the offense. To get a handle on that question, and what his acquistion might mean for the Titans’ other pass-catchers, I thought it would be a good idea to look at to whom the Titans threw the ball in 2011 and whatthat might mean for 2012.

Let’s start off with the 2011 target data:

Player Targets Pct
J.Cook 81 14.0%
C.Stevens 14 2.4%
D.Graham 5 0.9%
All Tight Ends 100 17.3%
C.Johnson 79 13.6%
J.Ringer 36 6.2%
J.Harper 6 1.0%
Fullbacks 17 2.9%
All Backs 138 23.8%
N.Washington 121 20.9%
D.Williams 94 16.2%
L.Hawkins 77 13.3%
K.Britt 26 4.5%
M.Mariani 12 2.1%
D.Avery 11 1.9%
All WR 341 58.9%

How might that change in 2012?

The first thing that jumps out is that, unlike the 2010 to 2011 transition, at least as of right now, nobody who caught a bunch of passes won’t be back. Before 2011, by contrast, the Titans knew they were going to be without Bo Scaife (4th on the team in targets) and eventually cut Justin Gage (6th). The only players in the above table not under contract to the Titans for 2012 are Ahmard Hall (grouped with Quinn Johnson under “Fullbacks”) and Donnie Avery.

Beyond Kendall Wright, we also have to make room in our projected 2012 targets a role for Kenny Britt. As Britt is still recovering from the knee injury that limited him to only two and a half games last season, it’s difficult to predict how much he’ll be thrown the ball in 2012. One thing we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty, though, is that “if healthy, he’ll be thrown the ball a lot.” I gave season-long percentages in the table above, and those present a misleading picture. In the two full games he played, he was the target of 31% of Matt Hasselbeck’s throws.

That kind of usage pattern wasn’t that much out of line with what he’d done in the past. He played 12 games in 2011, starting 7 of them, missing almost all of the Chargers game and playing sparingly after his return from injury. Because I’d have to do a more fine-grained analysis than I’m interested in, I didn’t perfectly adjust for all of Britt’s missed time in 2010. Over the course of the season, he was the target of 15.6% of Titans targets; taking into account the time he missed, he might’ve been targeted to 25% or more of all targets. To that end, I’m going to do a tentative hedge and put him at perhaps 23% of targets. Based on the same number of passes, that would put him at 135 targets over the course of the season. That’s only a little more often than Washington was targeted last year, and less than a clear #1 like Roddy White has been targeted in the past five seasons (180 each of the past two seasons). Now where do the ripple effects of Britt’s targets fall?

One place I don’t think it’ll fall is the tight end position. Even if Daniel Graham doesn’t make the roster, five targets isn’t going to make a difference. With Jared Cook having another year of experience in Chris Palmer’s system, he might be poised to make a bigger contribution, relatively speaking. More likely, he’ll get thrown the ball about the same amount. My tentative assumption is that the distribution of tight end passes might change a little bit, but the overall percentage of tight end targets is likely to stay fairly close to what it was.

The running back position might seem like a fertile ground for additional receiver targets. After all, 135 is a fair number of total running back targets. Then again, it’s not that exceptional a number. The Chargers, for example, had roughly 160 running back targets on the same total number of attempts. Teams like the Ravens and Saints (obviously) were also well up there. As long as CJ is explosive, he’ll be an attractive target on screens and other passes, especially if he becomes a better pass-protector and learns how to run a route. Javon Ringer was targeted for few designed passes and mostly a recipient of dumpoffs. Some of those passes might go to CJ, but if he retains his role, I expect him to have roughly the same number of targets. My tentative assumption here is similar to my assumption about tight ends, that the distribution of targets among the backs may change, but that the overall percentage of running back targets is likely to stay fairly close to what it is. There may be 10-20 fewer targets here than I am projecting, but not enough to seriously swing any projections.

Kendall Wright will get thrown the ball some. He’s not going to come in and be a #1 like A.J. Green was for the Bengals. The other first-round receivers last year were Julio Jones (95 targets) and Jonathan Baldwin (52 targets). I more or less split the difference and semi-arbitrarily gave him 70 targets. That +/- 20 seems like a good number for me, and would be about as many as Lavelle Hawkins last year, maybe minus a little bit. That doesn’t seem grossly unreasonable.

Between Britt and Wright, that’s 180 extra targets the Titans didn’t throw to them last year, and those are coming from the Titans’ other receivers. Let’s take them in turn.

Marc Mariani: With Hawkins re-signed and Wright in the fold, it’s tough for me to see him being more than the Titans’ fifth receiver at best. With Britt in the lineup, he’ll take over the role of designated wide receiver in 22 personnel, so Mariani’s target total will likely be decreasing or staying the same, not increasing. (I’ll have a broader look at the 53-man roster in the future.)

Lavelle Hawkins: Signed a three-year deal this offseason. It’s not so unreasonable that the Titans couldn’t get out of immediately, but the fact they gave him the deal indicated they valued his services. Roughly $2.4 million per year is not starter money, but it does indicate he’s a valued reserve who might see regular action. I don’t expect him to get the 77 targets he got last year, but he’ll get thrown the ball.

Damian Williams: As the table shows, was second on the team in targets last season. Still, if we give Lavelle Hawkins a nominal fourth receiver-type role (50 targets?), we only have 85 targets unallocated for with Nate Washington also left on the discussion table…

Nate Washington: You might think his 21% target rate reflects the benefit from an increased workload after Kenny Britt went out. You’d be wrong, as he was actually targeted for 24% of passes in the first two games. Yes, small sample size, but it was it is. If the Titans really believed in Damian Williams, I think my immediate post-draft reaction of “Nate’s a goner” would be accurate. I don’t think the Titans should believe in Williams and I think they like Nate enough he sticks around. I think he gets the overwhelming majority of those 85 targets remaining, especially with Britt, Wright, Hawkins, and Mariani all likely active on gameday.

Given the above, here’s what a distribution of Titans targets in 2012 might look like:

Player Targets Pct
J.Cook 75 12.9%
C.Stevens 20 3.4%
T.Thompson 5 0.9%
All Tight Ends 100 17.2%
C.Johnson 80 13.6%
J.Ringer 35 6.1%
J.Harper 5 0.9%
Fullbacks 15 2.6%
All Backs 135 23.3%
N.Washington 80 13.8%
D.Williams 5 0.9%
L.Hawkins 50 8.6%
K.Britt 135 23.3%
M.Mariani 5 0.9%
K.Wright 70 12.1%
All WR 345 59.5%

Regardless of the actual distribution, it’s very hard for me to see a way all of Jared Cook, Damian Williams, Nate Washington, and Kendall Wright get thrown the ball in 2012.

Now tell me why I’m wrong.