2015 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: WR


SELF-PUBLICITY NOTE: Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, the annual tome previewing all 32 NFL teams, plus the college football season put out by Football Outsiders, is now available. I was a contributor for the sixth consecutive season, writing the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and, yes, once again, Tennessee Titans chapters. The PDF is currently available from the Football Outsiders website, while a print version will be on Amazon soon (based on the past, I’d assume next week at some point). Buy it, buy it, buy it! /end plug

After quarterback, running back, and fullback, the next stop on our trip around the 2015 Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the start of the regular season is a look at the wide receivers.

When I looked at the receivers in the offseason positional analysis, I declared 2015 would be a year of uncertainty and, likely, significant change. It basically had to be, given the Titans spent 2014 with maybe two reliable NFL-caliber receivers and one of them was a free agent who was not resigned. The Titans basically needed to remake the entire position group. And that’s what they in fact did this offseason, adding two veterans who were key contributors to their 2014 squads and then selecting two more receivers in the draft.

The big question is how all this group will shake out. Both those veterans who were “key contributors” only played around half their teams’ offensive snaps and started just six games each. The rookies, beyond being rookies, well, one of them was a seventh-round pick and the other hasn’t played a down of football in a game since January 3, 2014. The additions will certainly help and will be counted on to add quality and depth to the group, but there are still major, major questions that have to be answered.

One thing that has not changed is Kendall Wright. He has had the most receptions on the team each of the first three seasons of his career, and there is no reason to expect that to change in 2015. He had a bit of a rough, or maybe just disappointing, first season in Ken Whisenhunt’s offense. He seems to have accepted the criticism he apparently got from the coaching staff, and should have another highly productive season. I expect him to start outside, move between outside and the slot in three-receiver sets , and catch a lot of passes. Just how many is a big open question; I don’t think the Titans will want to throw the ball a lot this year, which will limit Wright’s fantasy numbers.

Beyond the obvious, one thing that will be very interesting to watch with Wright is whether he is “just” a short-to-intermediate target who gets open and creates yards after catch with his quickness, or if he becomes more of the vertical slot threat he was at Baylor. Jake Locker just could not find him downfield, but will Marcus Mariota?

Now we enter the uncertainty. The second-best receiver on the Titans is probably Harry Douglas, who, to borrow Josh Norris’s phrase, wins in similar areas to where Kendall Wright wins. A big free agency addition from Atlanta, Douglas was mostly the third banana to Julio Jones and Roddy White, though he got more playing time in 2013 thanks to injuries. I didn’t get the chance to watch more of how Douglas played in 2013 when he was starting on the outside, so I don’t have an updated profile on him other than “quality slot receiver, sub-par for a starter outside receiver.” Pencil him in for a Nate Washington-type role, except that his playing time and catch total will be influenced by the development and quality of the receivers below him on the depth chart. His 75% upside barring a Wright injury is probably around the 51 catches he had last year, while a total like the 40 catches Washington had last year is more what I’m expecting. He also has some minor punt return experience, if the Titans are looking to make a change from Dexter McCluster there (which only makes sense to me if they cut McCluster, which I think is very unlikely).

The other veteran addition is Hakeem Nicks, late of the Colts and formerly of the Giants. I’m sort of shifting what I think of Nicks’ likely role. I was not optimistic about him after the Titans signed him, describing him as perhaps a bit of an upgrade on Derek Hagan last year on offense but not as much of a special teams player. My shorthand, like Hagan last year, was “you must be at least this good to make the team, or maybe play.” Reading the tea leaves from the early days of training camp, though, Nicks seems likely to have a consistent role on offense. Among the Titans’ bigger receivers, he is the most experienced and the most reliable. The Titans added a lot of size to a mostly undersized receiving corps this past offseason, and I really doubt the Titans would want to run Douglas and Wright out there in two-receiver sets if they don’t have to. I don’t think Nicks was that good with the Colts, and isn’t the mover he was before his leg injuries, but he’s not facing the stiffest competition.

“Whither Justin Hunter?” was the question at the heart of last year’s preseason positional analysis. The added depth this offseason means he’ll face competition for his role and snaps he did not see last year. I’ve never tried to hide that I’m not a fan of Hunter’s game, mostly because he’s bad at catching the football and particularly making contested catches. Add on to that that he’s still a limited technically, and you have a pretty bad NFL receiver. If you don’t trust my take, I’ll once again point to this analysis by Matt Harmon (now of NFL.com) as part of his Reception Perception series based on an in-depth charting of eight games from 2014.

Despite his arrest for a July bar fight, which depending on Roger Goodell’s Wheel of Justice and whether video of the incident ever surfaces might produce punishment from a sternly-worded statement to ritual execution in a public square, the Titans are sticking with Hunter. I expected they would, since Ruston Webster has spoken of the need to give highly-drafted players three years to show what they can do, and Hunter is heading into just his third season. The improved depth chart means that Hunter could be a deep route specialist fourth or fifth receiver who yo-yos in and out of the lineup based on that week’s gameplan like I think he should be given that he’s not a special teams player, or some of the offseason hype for how he’s finally getting it, plus the potential major upgrade at quarterback, could see him finally turn into a quality player. I’m not counting on it, though.

Now we get to the rookies. Due to my time limitations this offseason, I did not get the chance to give either the sort of breakdown I like to give to each draft picks, and since this positional analysis normally ends up pushing my informal 2,000 word limit, I won’t replicate those posts here. Dorial Green-Beckham was maybe the single prospect in the entire 2015 draft class with the biggest range of uncertainty. I won’t repeat everything here, but he’s incredibly physically imposing, measuring in at 6’5/237 at the combine. In his practice reports, co-blogger Andrew mentioned how he stood out even from a distance, and I’ve noticed the same in photos other people have taken. He was the #1 high school recruit in the country. And he didn’t finish his college career at Missouri, getting dismissed from the team after allegedly pushing a woman down a flight of stairs and with a slew of rumors about other off-the-field issues after he departed Columbia for Norman, Oklahoma, where he sat out 2014 as a transfer before declaring for the draft.

What can we expect from DGB in 2015? Well, I’m pretty confident he won’t be Calvin Johnson, who were much more of a physical freak. I’m not necessarily a big visual guy (as my blogging style indicates), but I think these graphs from MockDraftable are instructive. Here’s DGB’s athleticism in perspective:

And compare that to Megatron’s:

If I had to make a comparison, it would instead be to Plaxico Burress, who I recall coming out of Michigan State as a more polished player without all the off-the-field questions, and was a top ten pick (and was a member of that 2004 Steelers team that I think is how the Titans would like to ease in their rookie quarterback). (For the curious, the aforementioned Matt Harmon also covered DGB and was very high on him, though I’d emphasize much more than he did the limited nature of the film breakdown he was able to do and the impact of facing inferior athletes in those particular games).

Any specific 2015 optimism on DGB is further tempered by the hamstring injury that cost him most of the offseason. Based on what Ken Whisenhunt and Ruston Webster have said (sorry, no specific quotes this time), it seems pretty likely the Titans will ease him into the lineup, ask him to only do a few different things, and keep his role limited until he shows he’s at the point where he’s ready for more. The problem with Hunter playing that limited fourth receiver, no special teams role is that I think the Titans really do want DGB to do just that early in the season, as a bit of a red zone specialist who doesn’t play that many snaps. It’s possible that is in fact how things do shake out, with Wright, Nicks, and Douglas playing regularly and Hunter and/or DGB being up or down on any given week (the Titans kept four receivers active most weeks last year). It’s a fluid situation, but my expectations for him are modest.

The other rookie was seventh-round pick Tre McBride out of William & Mary. My former colleague at Football Outsiders Matt Waldman compared McBride to Amari Cooper in terms of talent, potential, and, to borrow Josh Norris’s phrase, where he wins. Like Cooper, he’s a solidly-built (listed at 6’0/210 by the Titans) player who doesn’t necessarily have standout explosive physical traits but runs good routes, uses them to separate, and has the ability to be a quality NFL receiver. With most seventh-round picks, there’s generally a reason why a player falls that far. Beyond the I-AA background, which doesn’t work for me or most people, I haven’t heard anything too specific on McBride; rather, it seems without a particular selling point he kind of fell through the cracks.

The question is where he fits on the 2015 Titans, if he does. I left him off my initial roster projection, less because I don’t like him but because I’m not sure if the Titans have room for a sixth receiver and I think they like the five players I’ve already listed more. In that case, he could be in a battle not just to crack the top five on the receiver depth chart, but also with keeping a fifth back (something I think is very, very likely) or a ninth offensive lineman. He’s involved in the competition for the open kick returner job; I don’t want to say that winning that would give him a roster spot, but it might, especially if he shows he can be a contributor as a receiver and not just a specialist in a rarely-used job.

The receiver depth chart is always really crowded in training camp. Jacoby Ford and Clyde Gates were signed to futures contracts. Ford has kick return experience, but is probably a worse receiver than Hunter. I never valued Gates. Rico Richardson spent a couple games on the active roster at the end of last year. That the Titans added as many players as they did tells me they aren’t privileging him. 2014 UDFA Josh Stewart spent last year on injured reserve, so he gets another camp invite. Deon Long and Andrew Turzilli were covered in the UDFAs post; Long is apparently in the kick return mix. Tebucky Jones was just added to the roster. I don’t give any of them much of a chance to make the team.

Conclusion-Type Things

The position group almost has to be better than it was last year, from an underwhelming season by Wright to injuries exposing the extreme lack of depth. How exactly the pecking order shakes out behind Wright is an open question; I do think the veteran-heavy Douglas and Nicks, plus Hunter/DGB as fourth receiver approach is a potential one, if not one likely to produce any enthusiasm from fantasy footballers or otherwise. The optimistic one is DGB and McBride show they’re ready to become major contributors quickly and by November and December they’re playing with Wright in 11 personnel; that’s a bridge much too far for me at this point. But, hey, it’s early August, and there’s a boatload of uncertainty with how things really will shake out.

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