A completely revamped offense has helped turn the Tennessee Titans into a legitimate contender in the AFC South this year. The team solidified its backfield by bringing in star-studded running backs Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray. But perhaps even more intriguing has been the significantly improved talent at the wide receiver position.
It’s out with the old and in with the new in Tennessee.
The old Titans were a team overly dependent on its Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker, who was targeted 133 times last year. That was 13 more times than New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. He finished the season with a career-high 94 receptions, 1088 yards and six touchdowns.
All of the rest of the passes were divvied up between an inconsistent receiving corps filled with the likes of Kendall Wright, Dorial Green-Beckham, Harry Douglas and Justin Hunter.
But that was last season. The new look receiving corps for the Titans haven’t had any issues with being consistent so far in the offseason practices and training camp. Even at the scrimmage held by the team on Monday, it was a pleasant surprise to see all of the new faces running down the field and making plays.
The trickle-down effect has been a calmer and more accurate version of quarterback Marcus Mariota. It’s easier to relax in the pocket when receivers are consistently getting open and making plays.
That’s something Mariota is already finding in Tajae Sharpe and Rishard Matthews that he didn’t have a year ago.
Sharpe, a fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Massachusetts, has looked like the best receiver on the field at times even as a rookie. He looks like he’s been playing professional football for years with his smooth route-running and reliable hands. The Tennessee crowd popped during Monday’s scrimmage when he hauled in a corner touchdown pass from Mariota after making his way behind two defenders.
Sharpe making plays with Mariota throwing the football is nothing new to Titans players. He has consistently been one of the top playmakers throughout training camp. It’ll be a tough pill to swallow for the 31 other teams that passed on him multiple times in the draft if he continues to trend upwards. For now at least, he definitely looks like a steal for the Titans.
“Tajae Sharpe made some plays,” Titans Online reporter Mike Keith said after the scrimmage. “He has Marcus Mariota’s confidence. Marcus knows where he’s going to be; he’ll turn the ball loose and let Tajae go get it. Those two guys jumped out to me.”
Mariota is also finding a connection with Matthews, a former Miami Dolphin.
Matthews was clearly one of the more underrated free agent acquisitions this offseason. He’s shifty and smart, and he has good hands. His ability to eat up yards in the middle of the field, while Sharpe does damage on the outside will put stress on opposing defenses. Mariota has only played with Matthews for a couple of months, and he is already forming a good chemistry with the fifth-year receiver.
At Monday’s scrimmage, he hit Matthews for a touchdown pass at the end of a beautiful two-minute drill.
Obviously, things aren’t perfect. Penalties have popped up a little too often on offense, and there is the occasional Mariota turnover. But considering where the Titans were at this time last year, things are definitely starting to look up for Mike Mularkey’s bunch. Mariota has the talent around him to win a lot of games.
Even 35-year-old wideout Andre Johnson was surprised by the talent the Titans had at receiver after signing with the team over a week ago.
“As far as talent, the talent is there, there is no doubt in my mind,” Johnson told the official team website. “Those guys can go out there and make plays with anybody.”
Those are high accolades coming from a seven-time Pro Bowl receiver and a two-time NFL receiving yards leader. Perhaps he’ll be able to contribute to the party as well.
One can dream.