Mike Williams and Corey Davis are the consensus top two wide receiver prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft, but allow me a moment to make a case for why the Titans ending up with Washington's John Ross at 1-18 wouldn't be a bad fall back plan.
What are the weaknesses of the Titans current receivers?
When I watched the 2016 Titans offense this past fall the one negative that constantly jumped off the screen to me was our lack of speed, ability to create separation independent of scheme, and yards after catch ability at the wide receiver position. Speed is something we can get a pretty easily quantify thanks to NextGen Stats from NFL.com. The data is only listed for the top 20 speeds reached by ball carriers for each week of the NFL season so it is not a complete set and it does not measure anyone running without the ball, but we can still get a good read on which Titans were the most explosive with the ball in their hands. Here are the top speeds for Titans players in 2016:
- Marcus Mariota 21.50 mph
- DeMarco Murray 21.44 mph
- Tajae Sharpe 20.54 mph
- Kendall Wright 20.39 mph
- Delanie Walker 20.37 mph
- Harry Douglas 20.35 mph
- Rishard Matthews N/A*
*Rishard never made the top 20 speeds in a week.
A few quick reactions to this. First, Mariota is an incredible athlete. His top speed was almost a full mile per hour faster than the next fastest quarterback on the list. Also, Murray still has lots of juice. But the biggest thing that this data shows is that we don't have any speed on the outside. To put those numbers in to perspective, Tyreek Hill had the fastest clocked speed in the NFL this year at 23.24 mph on a kick return for a touchdown in Week 2 that got called back for holding. Hell, punters Marquette King and Chris Jones both clocked in with a faster speed on fake punts than any of our wide receivers ever hit.
Just for another data point, let's take a look at the 40 yard dash times from the combine for all of those players listed above and see if those match up to what the NextGen stats tell us:
- DeMarco Murray - 4.41 (2011)
- Marcus Mariota - 4.48 (2015)
- Delanie Walker - 4.49 (2006)
- Harry Douglas - 4.51 (2008)
- Tajae Sharpe - 4.55 (2016)
- Kendall Wright - 4.61 (2012)*
- Rishard Matthews - 4.62 (2012)
*Wright also ran a 4.43 and a 4.46 at his pro day, so he may be slightly faster than his combine time indicated, but he will not be a Titan in 2017 so it really doesn't matter to us anymore.
These numbers largely confirm what the NextGen stats indicate above. Murray and Mariota are easily our fastest players in this offense, while the wide receivers are largely below average when it comes to speed. The lack of speed not only impacts our passing game, but it also hurts the running game. DeMarco Murray had over 50% of his carries this season come against 8 defenders in the box which was the most in the NFL. Murray still managed to have a great season, but imagine how much better he could be if he was facing 7 man fronts more often.
This also matches with what I saw when I watched the team play. I remember Matthews and Wright making some excellent catches down the field throughout the season, but they were always pretty tightly covered. I also can't remember a single instance of a receiver catching a pass and then making a big play happen after the catch. That memory is backed up when we look at Yards After Catch (YAC) per reception statistics for our players and how they stack up against the rest of the NFL. I only included players with at least 30 receptions (172 players made this cut) in the rankings so they aren't skewed by guys that had one big catch and run:
- DeMarco Murray - 7.1 YAC per reception - NFL Rank: 34th
- Kendall Wright - 4.3 YAC per reception - NFL Rank: 105th
- Delanie Walker - 4.1 YAC per reception - NFL Rank: 109th
- Rishard Matthews - 3.0 YAC per reception - NFL Rank: 156th
- Tajae Sharpe - 2.3 YAC per reception - NFL Rank: 168th
This is a pretty direct indictment of our wide receivers abilities after the catch. Our two starting wide receivers both finished in the bottom 20 players on this list out of 172. That's a big red blinking light that says "FIX ME!!!" if I ever saw one.
Before we move on, I do want to say that this is not an attack on Matthews and Sharpe as players. I think they are both starting caliber NFL receivers, but I am simply pointing out that they both have the same hole in their game and it shows up regularly when we are playing good defenses.
How Ross Fits
The first and most obvious thing that Ross would bring to the Titans wide receiver corps is elite speed. Ross has been clocked in the 40 yard dash at 4.29 in March 2014 and then 4.25 in March 2016 at the Washington "Husky Combine" event. He missed the 2015 event recovering from a torn ACL. These times were hand-timed and occurred at a Washington event so I understand having some skepticism about their accuracy, but after going back and comparing previous reported results from those events to eventual combine times they appear to be quite accurate. We will see what Ross runs at the NFL Combine in March, but I fully expect him to be under 4.30. Tyreek Hill ran a 4.25 last year and I actually think Hill is a pretty fair comp for Ross in general.
Now 40 yard dash times are not always an accurate reflection of speed on the field, but in Ross' case it appears to be pretty accurate. Take a look at a few plays from this season where Ross' speed shows up in a big way.
Ross' quarterback underthrows him by quite a bit on this play, but you can see the initial separation. He is able to slow down and still make the catch, shake off the tackle attempt, and take it to the house.
Ross does it a second time in the same game here and again Browning underthrows him, but check out what Ross does after the catch:
That's a level of elusiveness that none of our current guys have. Ross gets Cal over the top one more time later in the game.
Better throw from Browning on this play, but notice Ross' ability to track the ball over his shoulder without slowing down. That's a point that Robiskie and Mularkey have hammered on our current receivers about. I remember it coming up after the Browns game when they talked about how they had been working with Wright and the others about not turning too soon so they don't slow down and then running through the catch. Ross does that already. It wasn't just Cal that he burned during the 2016 season too. He got behind the secondary constantly all season.
Notice the safety at the beginning of the play is held just for a moment by the play action fake, but that's all it takes to take away any possible angle for him to get over top of Ross.
Here is another example of him tracking the ball overhead while not slowing down. He blows by the safety here while looking over his shoulder.
Ross also brings great YAC ability as we already saw a couple times in the GIFs above from the Cal game. Here is another example:
This play obviously doesn't go for a big gain, but it does show the kind of elusiveness and quickness he brings in the open field.
Ross is also a plus route runner at this point in his career and is able to use his quickness effectively to create separation and beat press coverage despite his smaller frame at 5'-11" 190 lbs.
Watch him set up the corner, get him to flip his hips, and then immediately knife back inside to give Browning a target at the goalline. He also does a good job of shielding off the corner and going down to make a tough catch.
Here he is matched up man-to-man with Adoree Jackson on a 3rd and 4. The subtle head and shoulder fake to the outside gets Jackson to bite on the out while he cuts back to the slant. This play also sets the stage for a bigger play later in this game.
Here is the play that was set up by the previous play. This time Ross jabs inside like he's running the slant again and then takes off deep. Jackson again is in press coverage and is fooled so bad that he stumbles and Ross is gone.
Here he is against press coverage again. The corner tries to get a jam on him, but Ross does a good job of using his hands to win a free release inside.
There is one last aspect of the game that Ross can help with besides adding much needed speed, separation, and YAC to our receiving corps. He is also an extremely dangerous kick returner who has taken 4 kickoffs back for touchdowns in his 3 year career at Washington. He only returned kicks part time this year due to his importance to the Washington passing game, but he still managed to take one back all the way.
Ross ends up taking this all the way back for the touchdown. The Titans return game has not been dangerous since Pacman was run out of town almost 10 years ago. This year Mariani was fine as a safe and sure-handed returner, but did not represent a threat to opposing teams whatsoever. Ross can change that immediately. His combination of vision, speed, and agility will make him a nightmare for opposing teams in the kicking game.
Ross does have two primary concerns among most fans and draft analysts. The first that is brought up is usually his size. At 5'-11" 190 lbs he doesn't have that prototypical size that Corey Davis and Mike Williams do. This is not something that concerns me though if I'm GM Jon Robinson. The two situations where receiver size comes in to play most often are in the red zone and on 3rd downs where the ability to box out a defender and make a contested catch is critical because zones are tight and congested. The Titans excelled in these two situations in 2016 finishing 1st in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage and 2nd in the NFL in 3rd down conversion percentage. This indicates to me that our current group of players can get the job done in these critical situations. Ross isn't a slouch on 3rd downs or in the red zone either. He had 17 receiving touchdowns in 2016 with 12 of those coming in the red zone. We also tend to overrate receiver size as a qualification for being considered a "#1 WR" despite the fact that 3 of the top 5 receivers in the NFL in 2016 were Ross' size or smaller (T.Y. Hilton, Odell Beckham Jr., and Antonio Brown). Smaller players can be dominant wide receivers in this league.
The second concern often raised with Ross is a little more bothersome to me. Ross tore his meniscus in his right knee during the 3rd game of the 2014 season, but gutted it out and played through the injury for the rest of the season (you can now check the box for toughness if you're keeping score at home). After the season was over he had surgery to repair the meniscus and also had to undergo microfracture surgery on the same knee. He tried to come back the following spring and suffered a torn ACL and meniscus on his left knee while trying to return too quickly from the other knee surgery. Those surgeries cost him the 2015 season, but because he was hurt in the spring of 2015, he was able to enter the 2016 fully healthy for the first time in 2 years and it showed. The fact that he ran a 4.25 second 40 just 14 months removed from having surgery on both knees is incredible, but the medical evaluation from NFL teams will be absolutely critical for his draft stock.
I think John Ross could be the best fit of all the wide receivers available for the Titans if his knees check out. His speed, separation, and dynamic YAC-ability all bring things to this offense that it is sorely missing as it is currently constructed. The respect that teams will have to give his speed will force safeties out of the box for DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry while also opening up the middle of the field for Delanie Walker to wreak havoc against linebackers. With Mariota showing in 2016 that he can throw the deep ball accurately giving him a proper target to use is a must this offseason and John Ross is the best homerun threat in this draft.