While the media and fan spotlight remains fixated on Corey Davis — and rightfully so — but there is a bit of a mystery forming around where Rishard Matthews will fit in to the receiver rotation once he returns from injury. Matthews has led all Titans wide receivers in targets, yards, and touchdowns for two straight seasons so the assumption was always that he would start opposite Davis in 2-wide sets with Taywan Taylor entering the game as a slot receiver in 3-wide sets. However, that assumption is
Taylor has just recently started to get some snaps in the slot this week, but he was almost exclusively used as the starting “X” over the first few weeks of camp with Corey Davis sliding over to the “Z” spot. If you’re comparing Titans receivers to 2017 Rams receivers, Taylor has been playing the Sammy Watkins role while Davis plays the Robert Woods role. When the Titans have gone to 3-wide sets, it’s generally been either Nick Williams or Michael Campanaro coming in to play the slot — or Cooper Kupp role — while Davis and Taylor remain outside.
That raises several questions about where Rishard Matthews fits in when he returns from his mystery ailment. Does he force Taylor back in to the slot in 3-wide sets and back to the bench in 2-wide formations? Or has Taylor done enough with a very strong camp to hold off the veteran when he returns? Can Matthews play in the slot effectively, or would Matt LaFleur rather use his slot-specific players like Williams to fill that role leaving Taylor and Matthews to fight for outside snaps only?
In recent days, the rotation has been changed up a bit with Tajae Sharpe getting some looks with the first team alongside Davis. It will be interesting to see if that carries over to preseason game number two. Sharpe has been good in camp as well and reportedly had one of his best days earlier this week so this could be a reward for that performance. Sharpe’s entrance in to the discussion for starting reps only further clouds the situation.
Sharpe is the receiver most similar to Matthews on the current roster in my opinion. He’s more of a chain-moving, possession type receiver than a burner or a big time playmaker. If you follow me on Twitter or read a lot of my work here, you probably know that I prefer Taylor to Sharpe in this offense. The reason is simple. Many of the passing concepts used in the Shanahan/McVay/LaFleur system call for a receiver to run clear out type routes designed to pull safeties out of the way and stretch the defense vertically. This player likely won’t put up huge numbers over the course of the season — see 2017 Sammy Watkins — but they open up the middle of the field and create space for others to catch the ball and have room to work after the catch. Taylor and Davis are the only Titans receivers that present a defense with real problems over the top and you would really rather not ask Davis — your most talented receiver and certainly the strongest after the catch — to spend his time clearing out space for a player like Sharpe who is among the weakest run after catch receivers on the team. It’s just a bad use of his talent.
I think you could apply a similar logic to Taylor versus Matthews, but Matthews is both better after the catch than Sharpe and a far more proven commodity as an overall receiver. Matthews also offers value as the best blocker among the team’s wide receiver corps. I would say that the best case scenario for the Titans offense would be for Taylor to advance to the point that he and Davis are the clear 1-2. That combination puts a lot of speed and run after catch ability on the field and that’s when this offense is really at it’s most dangerous.
Matthews has missed valuable install time with the new offense and with the team just over 3 weeks from the first regular season game, there isn’t a ton of time left for him to get ready from a conditioning, timing, and mental aspect. The strong camps from Taylor and Sharpe have left me doubting whether Matthews’ starting spot opposite Davis is still the lock that it originally seemed to be. I still think that Matthews is easily one of the top 3 receivers on the roster, but will he play in the slot? He’s played there before, but it’s probably not his best fit. The team could use Davis extensively in the slot — something he did a lot in college — but to this point they’ve shown a preference for putting a Williams/Campanaro/Deontay Burnett type player in rather than bumping in guys like Sharpe or Davis.
If that remains the case after Matthews comes back, then he will likely find himself in a battle with Taylor and Sharpe for snaps opposite Davis in both 2-wide and 3-wide sets. With the battle for the left guard spot appearing to end before it really ever began and the running back rotation largely being locked in, this is the biggest remaining question about the Titans offense as the regular season approaches. Unfortunately, we won’t get any answers to this question until Matthews comes back and there is no telling when that will be. He’s at least been seen running routes and looking uninhibited on the practice field before warm ups so hopefully that return comes sooner rather than later. Each day that passes without his return increases the odds that Taylor and/or Sharpe could take that job.
Who do you think begins the season as the Titans starting receivers?