Next up on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position is a look at the wide receiver position.
When I addressed the receivers back in February, I noted the Titans had all seven of their top receivers under contract and queried how much change we would see from a position group that, while disappointing in 2012, could be good. Beyond the usual assortment of mucking at the bottom of the depth chart, the Titans made two roster moves that affected the top seven this offseason. That changes things to some degree, but just how much? And what should we expect from the six of the seven who remain?
The biggest X-factor at the position, as it has been the past three seasons, is of course Kenny Britt. He was awesome in a small sample size in 2011. He was the key to the efficient, low-volume deep passing game that helped the Titans be surprisingly successful the first half of 2010. When he was injured in 2010, the offense wasn’t nearly as good without him. His 2011 performance came in a small sample size because he blew up his knee. His 2012 season was awful by Football Outsiders numbers as he looked nothing like the old Kenny Britt, not moving as well and clearly not used to playing football. Reports on his physical conditioning have been uniformly positive, and an offseason basketball game told him he was back to where he was before 2011’s torn ACL. Now it’s a question of staying healthy and learning the new offense, a task Dowell Loggains simplified for him by letting him learn solely the X position while every other receiver is learning every position.
If Britt does not lead all wideouts in receptions in 2013, then I expect Kendall Wright to be the man who does. (And as I indicated in my catches projection, I actually do think Kendall Wright is likeliest to lead the team in catches.) I’m not sure quite what to expect from Wright. The most encouraging thing is he lost 15 pounds this offseason, weight I wondered if he could and needed to lose (a hard subject to write about from afar, in case you’re wondering why I never wrote “Kendall Wright needs to lose 15 pounds”). The Kendall Wright we saw last year was only slightly more efficient than Britt, and unlike Britt we don’t have obvious and clearly explicable reasons for him to be that unproductive. As I keep harping on, we’re still waiting to see the vertically explosive Kendall Wright from Baylor in the NFL. I’m not trying to be a downer, as Wright showed last year he can be shifty in short areas, but I need to see more than just a player who gets thrown a bunch of short passes. That he had 64 catches in that role means he’s not likely to be in line for an increase in volume, but I’ll be paying attention to usage, DVOA, and yards per catch.
Whither Nate Washington? I wrote in the offseason positional analysis that I expected him to be back for another season of doing Nate Washington-type things but also noted any significant investment in a player could force Washington and his $4.2 million salary off the team. After all, with Britt and Wright in the fold and likely to play a lot (though of course Britt’s health will always be a question mark), is a good insurance policy (and maybe 25 catches) worth that kind of money? That’s the question I think the Titans need to answer in the affirmative for Washington to stick. My questioning of Washington’s roster spot came before Paul Kuharsky’s report the Titans were dissatisfied with Washington’s effort late in the season. By all accounts he’s been a solid citizen this offseason, but for me the core question remains. He’s trying to give one answer, but I think the answer may come as much from other people as it does from him.
If the Titans consider Washington as expendable as I think they might, he’s an obvious trade possibility for a receiver-needy team. The Anquan Boldin trade, where the Ravens got a 6th-rounder for Joe Flacco’s safety blanket, indicates there’s not much of a trade market for non-star veteran receivers making something at or above their fair market value. If I could get a #6 for Washington, I’d take it and run.
One of the people who can help push Washington off the team is Justin Hunter. When I discussed the possibility of the Titans adding a receiver to the top four of their grouping, I noted it would likely be because they identified a trait or traits the player they added had and that their current receiving group lacked. For Hunter, that’s deep speed, with a 4.44 40, including a 1.49 10-yard split and 1.70 flying 20 (per this source). The question mark for Hunter is how much the hamstring injury he suffered early in the offseason program will set him back. My assumption has been only a modest amount, as he’s fully healthy for training camp. He seems to be taking a lot of grief from position coach Shawn Jefferson and defensive players, notably the ever-talking Bernard Pollard, but Dowell Loggains and Mike Munchak have been quite bullish on his future. Obviously it’s easy to overread offseason comments, but if Hunter can respond to physical defensive backs, I think he could play a role as a modestly-used vertical receiver a la Chris Sanders in 1999.
Kevin Walter may be the other man whose presence (or lack thereof) affects Nate Washington’s job security. He’s more or less a different flavor of second/third receiver than Washington, a player with position versatility from his days in Houston who can find soft spots in zones but struggles to win on the outside. Walter is a much bigger man than Washington and showed in his days in Houston he’s a quality blocker, something I believe will be a key attribute as the Titans look to run the ball as much as possible. I compared him to Justin McCareins c. 2008 when the Titans signed him and still feel comfortable with that. As a veteran on a minimum salary benefit contract, he’d certainly be cheaper than Washington. Walter’s problem, though, is his creaky back that flared up in the offseason and is preventing him from practicing in camp. That he had surgery soon before training camp is likely a sign that the problem is more serious than it was originally thought to be. As a veteran training camp for him isn’t as vital as it is for a young player like Hunter, but my guess is he probably needs a couple preseason games for the Titans to take a chance on him.
And what about Damian Williams? His versatility, playing every wide receiver position even before that sort of thing was de rigueur, modest $1.3 million salary, and much better performance in 2012 make him in my eyes a very good fit for a fourth or fifth wide receiver position. I’m not sure he’s more than that, but I definitely see him with a role on a Nate Washington-less Titans. If the Titans do keep Washington, and give Hunter some work, then where is his playing time? He’d be the fifth receiver in that case, and I don’t see many snaps for a fifth receiver. There weren’t many games last year a fifth receiver was even active (5, to be precise), and with the Titans seem poised to give receivers fewer snaps this year. My speculation last offseason was his role could be squeezed down to almost nothing; if the Titans keep Washington, that could actually be true this year, though I still think he’s likelier than not to make the team even if they keep Washington.
Marc Mariani is competing for a return job. If he wins the returner job, he’ll be active on gameday and would play 0-25 snaps on gameday, with health (both overall and in-game) and composition of the 46 affecting those. I’m not sure he would be even fifth or sixth on the overall wide receiver depth chart, but if he makes the team could end up fifth in snaps and catches.
I feel for Michael Preston. By all accounts he’s done nothing but work his tail off. He got a little bit of a work late last season, but the Titans went without him for much of 2011 and 2012 even though it meant without going like a receiver anywhere close to his 6’5″ beyond 6’3″ Kenny Britt. Now they added Hunter, who’s 6’4″, and Walter, who’s 6’3″. I think Preston’s skills-big body, enthusiastic blocking, far-from-great short area quickness-are a better fit for the new offense, but he’s firmly on the roster bubble and may have an even tougher road to playing time. Washington and no Mariani gives him a shot, Walter and Mariani pretty much guarantees no spot for him.
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 Diondre Borel, the newly-signed Justin Hilton, Rashad Ross, Roberto Wallace, or Dontel Watkins. I rate each of them as very, very unlikely to make the roster barring something unusual happening.
It could be a good group, if Kenny Britt is healthy, Kendall Wright improves, and Justin Hunter isn’t set back by missing the offseason. It could be a deeply disappointing group, if Britt remains in and out of the lineup and not often enough in the right spot when in there, Wright can’t build on a rookie season, Hunter is slow to adjust to the NFL, and the Titans are forced to rely on too many passes to a reliable but completely unspectacular Nate Washington. The preseason is generally a time for optimism, and the Titans have an upside in the receiver group. Then again, I began last year’s preseason preview with what I thought was a joke the Titans’ receivers would be as unimpressive as they’d been in 2011 and they pretty much were. The presence of too many question marks suggests 2003’s title of “Best WR Position Group in Nashville” is likely to remain unchallenged for another year, though Jake Locker’s life should still be somewhat easier.
UPDATE (2013/07/31 1324 CT): Added the inadvertently-excluded Damian Williams paragraph.