One of the things I've been involved with lately is getting KUBIAK, the Football Outsiders fantasy football product, ready for its release (set for Tuesday no later than noon ET). That includes projecting usage for the various Titans players, including particularly catches for the receivers. Note this post and all projections in it are simply my opinion and is not necessarily the same as KUBIAK's (or anyone else's) projections.
To get an idea as to how the Titans might target their players in 2013, I thought it would be useful to take a look at how the Titans under Mike Heimerdinger targeted their players. All the evidence we've gotten this offseason is this is the best available information we have. Dowell Loggains worked under Heimerdinger for years. Heimerdinger is generally regarded as having done a very good job for the most part. His offenses most years tended to fit how the Titans probably want to play offense this year. Kevin Walter talked about it being the same playbook he used in Houston, because Mike Heimerdinger, like Gary Kubiak, came from Denver.
The first cut I decided to make was to look at catches by position groups. Naturally, this depends on the talents in each position group. Fortunately, Heimerdinger was the Titans' offensive coordinator for 8 seasons, so we have a reasonable sample size to deal with. Some years, the Titans had a pretty lousy receiving corps (see, e.g., 2008). Other years, it was pretty good (2003). Some years, they threw the ball a lot to the tight ends (2000). Other years, not so much (2002).
Before we can get to the positional breakdowns, though, we need to establish a top-line number. In 2012, the Titans completed 318 passes. They very likely will complete fewer this season. Over the 8 seasons under Heimerdinger, the Titans had as few as 262 (2010) and as many as 355 (2004) completions, with an average of 294 per season. Seven of the eight years (all but 2004), the Titans were a pretty run-oriented team. In those non-2004 seasons, they averaged 285 completions. I'm not sure they'll go that low, but a projected difference of 10 catches doesn't matter much for what I'm trying to do here. For that reason, and because it makes the math a little easier, I'm going to assume the Titans end up with 300 catches.
Over those 8 seasons, here's how the Titans tended to distribute their passes and how those numbers would apply to our hypothetical 2013 season.
Now let's apply those numbers to the particular position groups.
I went ahead and combined halfbacks and fullbacks into a single grouping, just because I didn't want to delve too deeply into, say, how many of Robert Holcombe's 19 catches in 2013 came as a fullback and how many came as a halfback. When the Titans carried a traditional fullback, he tended to have 10-15 catches. I don't think Quinn Johnson is going to have that many catches, but I could see a bigger role for him after he had only 5 grabs in 2012.
How it might work: Chris Johnson 45 catches, Shonn Greene 10 catches, Quinn Johnson 10 catches
The thorniest position to deal with, for a couple reasons. First, the Titans targeted their wide receivers a lot last year, because that's what Chris Palmer's offense did. Returning wide receivers caught 190 passes last year, and the Titans added Justin Hunter in the second round. Add in ideas about Kendall Wright getting even more volume in his second season, and Kenny Britt having the sort of season his talent indicates he's capable of having, and Nate Washington sticking around and having another good season, and Justin Hunter making a big impact, and Damian Williams having another useful season… If you took the most optimistic projection for each of those players and used 2012 as your baseline, you'd probably end up with more catches than every Titan combined will have this season. No. Just, no. No. We have to subtract some catches.
The easiest way to subtract some catches is to get rid of somebody, which is why I continue to believe Nate Washington's roster spot is in serious jeopardy. Let's assume the Titans keep Nate Washington. Kendall Wright is probably going to play a bit. Kenny Britt, assuming he's healthy at least some of the time, is going to play a bit. Justin Hunter is going to play some. How many snaps, and how many catches would there be for Washington to come up with? Nowhere close to 2011's 74, and not even last year's 46. Is he worth keeping around for a role like Damian Williams' last year when you have three wide receivers you like better?
If you assume the Titans cut Washington, you're at 144 returning catches with the need to add Justin Hunter and Kevin Walter. My guess is 11 catches is not enough for the two of them. Mike Preston probably won't make the team, which gives you 5 catches. 16, still not enough. Damian Williams will probably not get 30 catches again. The WR4 in the Heimerdinger era never had more than 19 catches, and some years there wasn't even a distinguishable WR4. I think Williams is a better player than about all of those guys, but given the competition for targets I think he ends up around 10 catches. That's 35 catches to play with, which I think is enough.
With a little redistribution to a healthier Britt, here's how it might work: Kendall Wright 60 catches, Kenny Britt 50 catches, Justin Hunter 25 catches, Kevin Walter 10 catches, Damian Williams 10 catches
The Titans have three tight ends who've never caught the ball a lot and who don't seem particularly good at catching (Taylor Thompson and Delanie Walker seem to be bad, Craig Stevens more average when he needs to be very good considering his (lack of) separation ability). Yet, this is an offense that tends to feature a lot of 2TE sets and is very conducive to a tight end as a leading receiver. Heck, Bo Scaife led the team in receptions in 2008. The Titans have also talked a lot this offseason about how changing route distribution of the tight ends is going to help the offense. This could just mean "we're not going to run shallow cross 37 times a game," but I think it's more than that and that means somebody in this group is going to break 30 catches for the first time.
Based on what he's said, Delanie Walker seems pretty sure this is going to be him. Given the contract the Titans gave him and what they've said, I'm inclined to agree with him. The only question is, how many balls will he catch? He's talked about catching 70 passes in multiple media sessions. There are enough reasonable bodies at wide receiver I don't see that happening, but the leading receiver at tight end under Heimerdinger averaged 48 catches a season. I can see Walker around that figure pretty easily. Fortunately, I don't have to get too tricky in assigning catches to Walker, either, as the departed Jared Cook leaves 44 catches unassigned.
With a modest amount of growth from Taylor Thompson in his second season, here's how things might work: Delanie Walker 45 catches, Taylor Thompson 20 catches, Craig Stevens 15 catches
Why Will I Be Wrong?
As you may recall, I tried projecting how the Titans would target their receivers after they drafted Kendall Wright. It did not go as well as I hoped it would. Here's why my catch predictions in this post will be wrong.
1. What Mike Heimerdinger did is a bad guide to what Dowell Loggains will do. Different people, and there's no actual proof Loggains is a Dinger clone. He may throw the ball to the backs and receivers about as much as Dinger did, or he may end up with Chris Palmer-like numbers.
Assessment: Maybe. Given that I'm undertaking this assessment without Loggains telling me exactly what he plans to do, I need to base it on something to get a reasonably grounded projection. As I said, I think Dinger's experience gives us the best available evidence.
2. Loggains stopped throwing the ball to the back when he was the interim offensive coordinator, so I projected too many RB targets.
Assessment: True as far as it goes, but the Titans talked about that aforementioned receiver distribution involving the backs and getting Chris Johnson more involved in the passing game. I think if anything I projected too few RB targets.
3. The Titans have no tight ends who've ever caught the ball a lot, so they're not going to end up with nearly as many catches as I projected them to have.
Assessment: I've pounded that drum since the Titans signed Walker and I decided to update my assessment of how well Stevens catches, and I completely get this. Dinger showed in 2003, for example, that when his wide receiver corps was better than his tight end corps he threw the ball to the wideouts a lot and the tight ends not much. I think between Thompson and Walker the Titans have more potential value in the passing game than a late-career Frank Wycheck provided (Erron Kinney and Craig Stevens is more or less a wash by the same token) and won't target their tight ends that little. Would it shock me if TEs only had 55 catches in 2013? No, it would not, and this is the part of the projection that worries me most.
4. Injuries. It's unlikely everybody's healthy, and this projection doesn't take that into account.
Assessment: True, but see the next point.
5. Kenny Britt has shown he can be awesome when he's healthy. Dinger showed he was willing to target a healthy Kenny Britt a lot. Kenny Britt is healthy, and that means he could end up closer to 100 catches than 50.
Assessment: True, but I think the Titans like their other wideouts a lot more than they did when they were throwing the ball to Britt all the time. The other option isn't Justin Gage, so Locker won't have to throw the ball to Britt every third play. That said, I think a Kenny Britt who's in shape, healthy for 16 games, and put in the necessary amount of work in the offseason probably does end up closer to 80 catches than 50. I just don't, can't, won't trust that hypothetical Kenny Britt until I see it for myself.
6. 300 is a bad number of total targets to project.
Assessment: Yes, but why? I picked it because it's a round number that divides up reasonably. If I had to set an O/U on Titans completions this year, it would probably be about 290 and I'd take the Under on that. For the purposes of this exercise, I don't think being off by 15 total completions is that big a deal. If you want to assume the Titans instead have 285 or 315 completions, that's fine with me and adjust the catch distribution accordingly. 300 suffices for its purpose for this post, I think.
7. The non-primary players have too many projected targets. CJ, Britt, Hunter, Wright, and Walker will catch at least 250 of the 300 passes, not the 225 you project them for, and probably even more.
Assessment: This could be right, but individually I don't think any of the projections are unreasonable. The Titans are talking about Shonn Greene as an every-down block, so projecting him for a modest number of targets is reasonable. Fullbacks in Dinger's offense caught 10-15 passes, as I said. Craig Stevens will play, and Erron Kinney always had at least a few catches as a blocking tight end. I think those players ending up with 75% of the catches is a pretty reasonable number. FWIW, over Dinger's tenure the top five receivers averaged 76% of receptions, with a max of 82% (2000) and a min of 69% (2001).
Now tell me why else I'm wrong and how the Titans will target their receivers instead.