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2017 Titans training camp positional battles: Wide receiver

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How will the wide receiver battle play out?

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The Tennessee Titans take to Training Camp (alliteration, anyone?) this weekend, reporting to facilities on Friday, July 28th, and beginning on-field practices on Saturday, July 29th.

To get everyone ready to follow the hottest buzz out of St. Thomas Sports Park, Mike and I teamed up to preview what we expect to be the most heated positional battles in camp. We start with the wide receivers. Later today we will take a look at the cornerbacks, the offensive line and highlight a couple of other things of interest.

Some players are fighting for their place in the pecking order, while others are fighting just to make the team.


WIDE RECEIVERS

The Titans added a bounty of wide receivers to compete for playing time since the end of last year, turning one of the team’s weakest position groups into a now-crowded room. What can we expect from this collection of players?

THE CONTENDERS:

Returning Players: Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Harry Douglas, Tre McBride

New Additions: Corey Davis (draft), Taywan Taylor (draft), Eric Decker (FA), Eric Weems (FA)

Mike: Last year the Titans kept six wide receivers in the initial 53-man roster cut down: Kendall Wright, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Andre Johnson, Harry Douglas, and Tre McBride (McBride was bumped down to the Practice Squad to make room for Marc Mariani before the season started). I would expect them to keep six this year as well. I suppose there is an outside chance that they only decide to keep five in order to sneak a fourth tight end on to the roster, but given the way we think this offense is headed I’d bet on six wide receivers.

I’d break those eight receivers down in to two groups of four. Matthews, Davis, Decker, and Taylor are virtual locks to make the team. These guys are just competing for snaps and targets. I suppose there is a tiny chance Decker shows up to camp and has lost a step due to age/injuries and doesn’t make the 53, but that’s certainly not something I am expecting based on his history and reports that were coming from Jets OTAs before he was released that indicated he was moving around well and participating in all activities.

The pecking order within that group is going to be fascinating to watch sort itself out. All four guys have experience playing both outside positions as well as in the slot which is an advantage for the Titans offense. In the long term they should be able to mix and match guys based on matchup advantages they want to create against a defense, but I’m guessing we see Davis and Taylor focus on specific positions (probably outside for Davis and inside for Taylor) early on to avoid overwhelming the rookies. If I’m handicapping the snap counts for Week 1 today, I’m going: Matthews, Decker, Davis, Taylor in that order with Davis taking up the top spot by the end of the season.

The next group of four includes Sharpe, Weems, Douglas, and McBride and they will be competing for two roster spots. I know a lot of you feel like Sharpe should be in the “lock” group, but I disagree to some extent. Sharpe hit the rookie wall hard last year, finishing the season with just 7 catches for 69 yards over the last five games combined after a pretty good first half of the season. When I watch Sharpe I see a guy who lacks the tools to beat press coverage and offers nothing when it comes to creating after the catch. That being said, he’s a guy with starting experience on a cheap rookie contract and that’s valuable long term depth. I think Sharpe makes the team as things stand today, but there is too much uncertainty around his legal situation and the foot surgery for me to say he’s a no-brainer.

Weems was signed to be a special teams ace, but he’s listed as a receiver on the roster. Some are discounting his chances to make the team after the Adoree Jackson draft pick, but I’m not sure that’s fair. Weems was really good as both a returner and a gunner on punt return and punt/kick coverage teams for the Falcons last year.

I think Weems makes this team. He would be the best gunner on the roster by far for punt and kickoff coverage, and even if Jackson is the primary return man from day one, having a veteran alternative to put back there in case of emergency is always a good thing.

So my guess is we see Matthews, Decker, Davis, Taylor, Sharpe, and Weems on the opening day roster in that order and that is a pretty darn strong group considering where we’ve been at this position over the last several years.

Justin: I agree with Mike that the Titans will likely keep six receivers again in 2017. Marc Mariani is gone, and I don’t expect Tre McBride to make the roster this time around. We already know that Rishard Matthews is a lock, as are this year’s additions Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Eric Decker.

I think Tajae Sharpe is also a virtual lock. While nothing in this league is guaranteed (and based solely on what we know now regarding Sharpe’s legal situation), I feel safe saying that Sharpe will make the roster. He was extremely productive as a rookie, notching 47 catches for 549 yards, both ranking 5th among rookies. Sharpe had more receiving yards than Tyreek Hill last season. Sharpe is only 23 years old and is only getting better. The only way Sharpe doesn’t make the roster is if something goes extremely sour with his lawsuit.

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Essentially, I think the battle to make the 53 at the wide receiver position comes down to Harry Douglas against Eric Weems. Both players would fill that “good in the locker room, not so good on the field” role, both players played with Mularkey and Robiskie in Atlanta, but only one guy contributes on special teams.

For that reason, I think Eric Weems takes the final spot, not just for his value as returner-insurance, but because of everything else he does on special teams.

The more interesting camp battle in my opinion will be for the starting jobs. Tajae Sharpe is expected to be healthy for the start of camp, and if that’s the case, he comes into camp looking to defend his starting outside position.

Rishard Matthews must feel confident in his role as the team’s de facto #1 receiver, and he should cement his position as the team’s top option to open the season. How long he can hold that claim remains to be seen.

Eric Decker looks pretty healthy heading into camp. He’ll challenge Sharpe for snaps on the outside, and he’ll likely open camp as the starting slot receiver.

Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor don’t need to be good right away, but both enter the league as polished route runners, and reports of Taywan Taylor’s offseason, particularly from Jim Wyatt, are extremely glowing.

Taylor will likely rotate often with Decker and Davis in the slot, but Matthews lined up in the slot on 13% of snaps last year and averaged 20.5 yards-per-catch out of the slot. The Titans have extreme versatility at the receiver position and should be able to mix and match who’s on the field and where they’re lined up with great frequency to confuse defenses.

Davis and Taylor should contend for snaps pretty early on. I expect the team will use a heavy rotation of receivers, with Davis and Taylor getting gradually more snaps each week.

But we know that Mularkey is not afraid to start a rookie receiver, as we saw last season when Tajae Sharpe started against the Vikings and recorded 7 catches for 76 yards. The best players will play regardless of draft status or contract. Regardless, the receiver rotation will be frequent. I don’t expect any one guy to stand out as a go-to target, unless Corey Davis has an Odell Beckham, Jr.-like rookie impact.

Will we see a rookie starting in Week 1 again this year?