WARNING: You’re probably not going to like this article.
Yesterday Graver wrote a great piece about Tajae Sharpe and why he thinks he is a lock to make the Titans roster. Today, I’m going to present the argument for why I think there is a real shot that Sharpe is not a Titan when cut day comes on September 2nd. Before we get in to it, I want to say that I don’t hate Sharpe as a player. He was a revelation last year in camp and he absolutely outperformed his draft slot. He is, by all accounts, a hard working guy who wants to get better and make his team better. I like the guy. I just don’t think he’s a guarantee to make this roster and here are some reasons why.
I’m not saying that any of these stats below are the be-all-end-all measure of a good receiver, but each of them provides a little point of data that can help paint an overall picture of a player.
Wide Receiver Rating: 77.9 (73rd out of 96 in NFL with at least 25% targets)
This stat is simple. It is the QB rating for the team on throws to this player. This stat measures both the QB and the WR so you do end up with some good players towards the bottom of this list who are being dragged there by their QBs — guys like DeAndre Hopkins (91st), Allen Robinson (87th), and Terrelle Pryor (79th) all ranked very low — but I don’t think any of us think that was the case with Sharpe. Even if we did, it would be pretty easily refuted by pointing out that Rishard Matthews finished with a Wide Receiver Rating of 104.8, good for 27th in the NFL.
Yards Per Route Run: 1.08 (79th out of 96 qualified WRs)
This is one of my personal favorite stats for receivers because it cuts to the core of what a good receiver does: get open, make the catch, and generate yardage. There can be some noise in this stat as well though. For example, if a receiver is regularly designed to be the 2nd or 3rd option on most passing plays that can artificially suppress his YPRR, but you simply don’t find good receivers at the bottom of the list with this stat.
PFF Grade: 50.3 (96th out of 115 qualified WRs)
I know PFF isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but again, you just don’t find good receivers below about 40th in their rankings.
DVOA: -9.2% (69th out of 94 qualified WRs)
Football Outsiders describes DVOA as a number that “represents value, per play, over an average WR in the same game situations.” The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance.
TOARS: 4.09 (81st out of 89 qualified WRs)
This is a metric from Sharp Football Stats. TOARS stands for Target & Output Adjusted Receiving Success and it intends to combine a wide receiver’s passer rating when thrown to, success rate, and quantity of targets in to a single overall metric for receiving success.
Catch Rate: 53% (84th out of 96 qualified WRs)
This metric is simply catches divided by targets. It typically favors the possession receivers and slot guys in the NFL — Cole Beasley was #1 in the NFL in this stat last year at 82% — guys that are going to catch passes at or near the line of scrimmage most of the time. The problem here for Sharpe is that he wasn’t usually asked to be the deep threat in the Titans offense last year. That role belonged to Matthews, but he finished with a catch rate of 62.5% despite being targeted further down field. Matthews had an ADOT (Average Depth of Target) of 14.3 yards versus Sharpe’s ADOT of 13.5 yards.
RAC: 2.1 yards per catch (119th out of 130 qualified WRs)
This was a real problem for the Titans offense last season as they were among the worst teams in the NFL in generating yards after the catch (Rishard Matthews was 85th in the NFL at 3.4 yards per catch). Part of that is the design of the offense, but I think the bigger problem was the skillset of the players running that offense. Sharpe likely never going to be a huge RAC guy. He broke just 3 tackles in 2016 for a broken tackles per touch rate of 7.1% which is not good. Your elite RAC receivers in the NFL — guys like Odell Beckham Jr. and Tyreek Hill — were around 35% broken tackles per touch and your more average RAC receivers — think Michael Crabtree or Terrance Williams — fall in to the 15-20% range. Matthews landed at 10.8% for 2016.
The stats above suggest that Sharpe probably wasn’t as good as we want to give him credit for last year, but he was a rookie wide receiver facing a massive leap in competition level so that’s sort of understandable. I would also argue that Sharpe may already be near his ceiling as a receiver though. He was able to win the starting job last year on the strength of his technique, route running, and reliability which are all great attributes, however they are also the attributes that are most easy to improve upon in the league. While you can certainly work on your body and improve speed and quickness to a certain degree working with NFL trainers, Sharpe’s testing suggests a guy who would have to improve just to reach average NFL level athleticism.
Being a great athlete is not a requirement to being a good NFL receiver though. Just ask Antonio Brown.
However, Brown is very clearly the exception and not the rule. If Tajae Sharpe turns in to Antonio Brown 2.0 feel free to waive this article in my face from now until the end of time, but it is hard for me to see Sharpe ever becoming more than a 3rd or 4th receiving option on a good NFL team. That’s not a bad thing. You need those types of players, but I think that’s his ceiling (although I would love to be proven wrong).
His slight build and average-to-below-average speed and quickness make it tough for him to create separation against press coverage and that really showed up as the season went on. Over the final 5 games of the 2015 season he totaled 7 catches for 69 yards and no TDs. It is hard to say whether that is the famous “rookie wall” or if it was just defensive coordinators figuring out how to take him out of the game. Either way, it isn’t an encouraging trend line.
This is another problem with keeping Sharpe. He offers you nothing on special teams. He does not profile as an athlete that would be good on a punt or kick cover unit and he’s not going to return punts or kicks either. This means Sharpe, if he makes the team and the top receivers are healthy, is almost certain to be a healthy scratch on gamedays.
Meanwhile, in addition to being an above average punt/kick returner, Eric Weems is an elite kick and punt coverage gunner who offers tremendous value there even if the team chooses to use Adoree Jackson to return punts and kicks. Tre McBride is also a plus on special teams in addition to being a viable option at receiver. Even Harry Douglas could return punts in a pinch if needed (please don’t let this happen though).
Special teams is something the team has focused on this offseason and it is the reason that I think Weems is going to be on this roster. On the first kickoff on Saturday when the Titans pinned the Panthers back at their own 9 yard line, Eric Weems was the first man down who forced the returner to slow down and allowed Brynden Trawick to get down there to make the tackle. That is very valuable and it is something that the Titans haven’t had in years past.
I want to reiterate that I don’t think Sharpe is a terrible player because I know that I’m being hard on him here, but I just think he’s very very limited in what he brings to an offense. He’s a plus route runner and has great hands, but he’s not dynamic after the catch and his frame is too slight to hold up against more physical corners. I think the stats and the tape both point to him being “just a guy” last year and his athletic profile makes me think he’s already maximizing his physical talents.
The question then becomes whether the coaching staff feels like Sharpe’s long term value in 2018 and 2019 are worth more than Harry Douglas’ leadership in the receiver room. While things like “leadership” are easy to dismiss as fans because we don’t experience it watching the games on TV or in the stands, it still counts for something in an NFL locker room, especially when you have some really young, talented players for that leader to help. Its precisely the reason that Matt Cassel is still in the NFL.
I expect Weems to make the roster based on his contributions on special teams which certainly colors my opinion on this topic because it likely leaves 1 spot for Sharpe, Douglas, and McBride to fight over. I just don’t see the Titans keeping 7 WR’s. That leaves the team cutting down to either 7 OL, 5 CB, or 9 LB and likely cutting someone like Demontre Hurst, Corey Levin, or Erik Walden/Daren Bates. I think those guys bring much more value to the team than a 7th wide receiver would (even though Weems is barely a receiver). I’d still peg Sharpe as the favorite in that battle with Douglas and McBride, but I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion by any means.