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How the Titans targeted their receivers in 2012

Selecting Kendall Wright in the first round of last April's NFL draft gave the Tennessee Titans a problem. It was probably a good problem to have, but it was still a problem. Between the acquisition of Wright and Kenny Britt's return from injury, the Titans were adding two potential very big pieces to the passing game at the same time they were returning almost every player who'd been thrown the ball in 2011. How would the Titans distribute playing time and targets in 2012, when they weren't suddenly going to throw the ball a lot more?

The rest of the time until the 2012 season began would see the competition for targets lessen a little bit, but only a little bit. Added to the pre-draft departure of Donnie Avery to the Colts were Daniel Graham's release and Marc Mariani going on injured reserve. Still, those were fundamentally irrelevant, as they represented all of 31 of the Titans' 606 total targets in 2011. 

I took a stab at answering the problem not long after the Titans drafted Wright, making predictions for how things might go. Over the bye week, I took an interim look, noting some of my projections looked pretty good and others were rather off. Now that the season is over, it's time to take a final look at how the Titans targeted their receivers in 2012 compared to how I thought during the offseason they might.

Chart? Chart.

Player Proj. Targets Proj. Pct Actual Targets Actual Pct
J.Cook 75 12.9% 76 13.6%
C.Stevens 20 3.4% 35 6.3%
T.Thompson 5 0.9% 13 2.3%
All TEs 100 17.2% 124 22.1%
C.Johnson 80 13.6% 50 8.9%
J.Ringer 35 6.1% 5 0.9%
J.Harper/D.Reynaud 5 0.9% 11 2.0%
Quinn Johnson 15 2.6% 8 1.4%
All Backs 135 23.3% 74 13.2%
K.Britt 135 23.3% 96 17.1%
L.Hawkins 50 8.6% 11 2.0%
M.Preston 5 0.9% 7 1.3%
N.Washington 80 13.8% 91 16.3%
D.Williams 5 0.9% 50 8.9%
K.Wright 70 12.1% 107 19.1%
All WRs 345 59.5% 362 64.6%

Minor housekeeping notes: Michael Preston's target projection was actually for the man I thought would be WR6 before the season, Marc Mariani. The Jamie Harper/Darius Reynaud target projection was for Reynaud alone. On the whole, where did I go wrong and right?

1. The Titans stopped throwing the ball to running backs so much. I noted this at the bye week, but it's been huge this year. It was true when Palmer was the offensive coordinator, and it was even more true when Loggains was the offensive coordinator. Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer's target projection was basically assuming things would be the same as they were in 2011, when they combined for 119 targets. It most emphatically was not. At the bye week, all backs had combined for just over 15% of targets. It dropped a further 2% over the course of the season as the Titans under Dowell Loggains did not throw the ball to the running back. The Jets game was the first regular season game of Chris Johnson's career where he was not the target of a single pass, and he was targeted only once in the season finale against the Jaguars. No, the Titans didn't attempt a lot of passes in either game, but there had been plenty of games before where they hadn't and they'd still targeted Chris Johnson.

2. I assumed the Titans re-signing Lavelle Hawkins meant they liked Lavelle Hawkins. No, it wasn't for a boatload of money, but three years, $7.5 million is not complete chump change, especially for a player who may not have drawn much interest in the free agent market and played a terribly inefficient rule on the team. Even if you only look at the games he was active, he was only targeted 5.5% of the time. That's less frequently than any of Michael Preston, Javon Ringer, or Craig Stevens was in the games they played.

3. Kendall Wright played an even bigger role in the offense than I thought he would. He led the team in targets. Even if you limit it to the games the player played in, he led the team in targets, just edging out Kenny Britt (20.2% to 19.7%). Even late in the season when he wasn't playing as many snaps overall, he was targeted as much as or more than any other receiver.

4. I correctly predicted Nate Washington's role in the offense to decline. In 2011, Nate Washington was a huge part of the offense. His 21% of targets was more than any other Titans receiver has had in the past four seasons (as long as I've bothered to keep track of target data). Despite the value he had last season and the good efficiency numbers he put up this year, Washington is who he is, a not great outside receiver better in the slot and not as his team's primary target. Throwing the ball to Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright is, generally speaking, a better idea than throwing the ball to Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins. Yes, Washington's target projection was a bit low, but I'm still counting it.

5. I was a bit over-optimistic on Kenny Britt's return. As I noted at the time, the big question mark was how often Kenny Britt would be targeted. It's hard to overstate just how much Britt meant to the Titans' passing game in 2010 and 2011 in the games he was in the lineup. He was targeted over 26% of the time in the games he wasn't injured in 2010 and was targeted even more frequently in his very brief 2011 campaign. Coming off major surgery, I had no idea what would happen. If healthy, he could have easily been targeted as frequently as he'd been in the past. I didn't expect him to be quite at 100%, but thought he'd play a bigger role than he did. Even if you limit it to the games he was healthy, he wasn't targeted as frequently as he'd been in either of the past two seasons.

6. My expectation for Jared Cook was pretty close, but a touch too modest. Obviously, his injury shortened his season, but in the games he played, he was targeted 15.4% of the time, about 20% more than I expected him to be targeted. I feel like my projection was probably a little better than most people's, who were assuming some sort of quantum leap in his game after a pretty productive 2011 (and especially end of the season, just like in 2010). The one area he did make strides in 2012 was in consistency. In 2011 he was a complete yo-yo in terms of his targets and production, while in 2012 he had at least four targets in 12 of the 13 games he played (3 targets against Miami).

What does this tell us about 2013? Well, later this offseason I'm going to do my darnedest to figure out why the Titans stopped throwing the ball to running backs. Beyond that, every major target except Cook is under contract for next year. In the limited sample size we saw from the Dowell Loggains era this year, Britt, Washington, and Wright were targeted with pretty close to the same frequency. Will the Titans do the same next year? My thinking once again is that a healthy and ready to play Kenny Britt is clearly a way, way, way, way, way better option than anybody else on the roster. Now that the latest New Jersey news, something that I was 99% sure was a complete non-story blown out of proportion with the active assistance of a police department playing hardball for some reason, is out of the way, hopefully he'll get down to the serious business of practicing football and getting back to 100% so he can go back to playing like Calvin Johnson.