All the buzz from Titans camp this year centered around new receivers Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Eric Decker. Rightfully so. Those guys are huge additions to a team that was in desperate need to dynamic playmakers on the outside. However, a side effect of all that attention on the new, shiny receivers was a lack of attention on the Titans two best receiving options from a year ago: Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker.
Matthews played over 50% of the snaps against the Raiders last year, although he was still working his way in to the receiver rotation and hadn’t quite developed the outstanding chemistry with Mariota that he found later in the year. However, Walker sat out that game with a hamstring injury forcing Jace Amaro to fill in as the primary pass catching tight end. Amaro is #notgood as evidenced by his release last weekend, but he still ended up finishing as the Titans leading receiver on the day with 3 catches for 59 yards. Walker, on the other hand, is one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
Amaro wasn’t the only tight end to succeed against the Raiders last year. The Raiders ranked 23rd in the NFL in DVOA vs. tight ends last season, and while that’s not disastrous, there is reason to believe it might get worse for them in 2017. The Raiders changed out two-thirds of their starting linebackers from last year. Veterans Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley are gone, replaced by 2016 6th round pick Cory James and rookie 5th round pick Marquel Lee.
While no one is going to mistake the departed Smith or Riley for Luke Kuechly, they at least had experience on their side. James and Lee do not. James actually started and played almost every snap at MLB against the Titans last year, but the Raiders quickly signed Riley off the street to replace him and he was relegated to special teams duty for the majority of 2016. He is the more athletic of the two, but both profile more as run stopping thumpers than coverage linebackers. That is a problem for Oakland since Bruce Irvin is also more pass rusher than a coverage linebacker. The safeties are both pretty good in coverage, but Oakland generally likes to cover tight ends with linebackers so the safeties can sit deep in cover 2. Jason Witten absolutely torched these linebackers during preseason game number 3, going for 6 catches, 74 yards, and a touchdown in the first half alone.
That seems like a problem against a guy who is coming off 3 straight 800+ yard receiving seasons and back-to-back Pro Bowls at tight end. Walker does not appear to even be in danger of losing a step heading in to season number 12. He is just an incredible athlete, and a no doubt top 10 tight end in the NFL. The Raiders know that and will likely want to take him away, but that’s where the shiny, new toys start to create issues. They could stick jumbo corner Sean Smith tracking Walker, and that would probably be their best bet at stopping him, however that takes Smith off a receiver and leaves David Amerson, T.J. Carrie, and probably either Dexter McDonald or Antonio Hamilton watching Davis, Matthews, and Decker. I like the Titans chances in all of those matchups. If they bring safeties Reggie Nelson or Karl Joseph up to work against Walker, that leaves them exposed downfield and pushes them away from the defensive schemes they like to run. Walker is simply a matchup nightmare for the Raiders.
My guess is that the threat from the new receivers push the Raiders safeties back and open up the middle for Walker to work against a set of linebackers that are both inexperienced and out of their element in coverage. This is the Titans biggest mismatch for this game and I expect them to exploit it early and often.