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What will the Titans receiver rotation look like without Rishard Matthews?

Tennessee’s leading receiver from 2017 is reportedly leaving the team.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With AtoZSports Nashville reporting that Rishard Matthews is requesting to be released from the Titans after becoming unhappy with his role in the offense, there are immediately a ton of questions. First, it should be noted that the Titans haven’t done anything official with Matthews just yet.

My guess is that the team will look to see if they can get anything for him in a trade. Chances are teams aren’t exactly going to be leaping at the opportunity to give up valuable assets for a guy who was getting passed in the rotation by Taywan Taylor and promptly quit on his team because of it. Don’t expect much in return if the Titans do swing a deal. Also, the chances of them trading Matthews for another receiver are extremely slim. If a deal doesn’t materialize — I would be surprised if one did — then I would expect them to negotiate a settlement with Matthews on his contract and release him.

The most important question coming out of this situation — at least to Titans fans — is how does the team replace him in the passing game? The answer to that depends somewhat on which Rishard Matthews you’re talking about. The guy from 2016 and most of 2017 who led all Titans receivers in yards and touchdowns or the guy from 2018 who somehow turned 95 offensive snaps in to just 6 targets, 3 catches, and 11 yards?

The Matthews from early in his time in Tennessee was a reliable chain-mover who also offered a surprising amount of ability as a down field threat despite not having the speed of a true burner. He was an outstanding run blocker and willing to fight for a ball in traffic.

However, the 2018 version of him has been nothing close to that level. Since returning from injury shortly before Week 1 kicked off, Matthews has looked slow and lethargic on the field. He’s struggled to create separation or put himself in position to be targeted more often. It’s not like No. 18 has just been running wide open and the quarterbacks haven’t been able to get him the ball. He’s had a defender stapled to his jersey pretty much every time he headed out on a pass route.

Replacing that version of Matthews will be relatively easy for the Titans. In fact, it sounds like a possible reduction in his already limited snaps may have been the cause of his sudden departure.

Looking back, there has been some smoke around this situation for a while now. First, there was the mystery injury — later revealed to be a torn meniscus — that held him out of OTAs and then pretty much all of training camp. Then there was the sudden firing of his agent and Matthews signing a strange team-friendly contract extension that he negotiated on his own.

You also had the strange comments from Mike Vrabel when called out Matthews in the media for not practicing well enough. Vrabel followed that up this week when asked about Taywan Taylor’s increased role, saying that reps are distributed based production in games (and, to a lesser extent, practice).

Reading between the lines, those comments very much seemed to hint at a bigger role for Taylor moving forward as he had clearly been the most productive wide receiver outside of Corey Davis. That could also be read as a slight at Matthews who has contributed virtually nothing despite a pretty significant share of snaps. My guess — and this is pure speculation, but it’s the most plausible scenario in my opinion — is that the Titans started installing the game plan for the Eagles game and Matthews wasn’t happy with his role in that plan, complained about it, and things escalated from there.

However it went down, the Titans must now find a way to create a dynamic passing offense without their two most reliable returning targets in Matthews and the injured Delanie Walker.

If there was any doubt before — there shouldn’t have been — it’s been erased now. Corey Davis is the focal point of this Titans passing attack for the 2018 season. He was already leading the team in snaps, targets, catches, and yards by a landslide and that will continue moving forward, but all of those things were going to be true regardless of whether Matthews stuck around or not.

Taylor, as I mentioned above, has easily been the most productive Tennessee receiver outside of Davis through three weeks and as a result his snap share has grown each week. He jumped from 13% in Week 1 to 41% in Week 2 to 52% (second highest on the team) in Week 3. It seems highly likely based on Vrabel’s comments that Taylor was the player who was squeezing Matthews out to begin with and with No. 18 taking himself completely out of the picture, that will only add more to Taylor’s plate.

I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for the Titans either. He is clearly one of the most dynamic athletes on the team — as evidenced by the weaving touchdown run after catching a quick screen against Houston — and putting the ball in his hands more often is a good thing for this offense.

Tajae Sharpe is the guy who was losing snaps as Taylor’s role grew over the last two weeks. He dropped from 84% snap share in Miami to 47% against Houston to 39% in Jacksonville. However, he figures to see his role bounce back to some extent in the wake of Matthews’ departure.

The guy to really watch though, in my opinion, is Nick Williams. Matthews ran over 70% of his routes from the slot during the first three weeks according to PFF, compared to just 31% for Taylor, 24% for Davis, and 16% for Sharpe. While Matthews was out during preseason, the Titans were running Williams as the first team slot receiver when the team went to 11-personnel with Davis and Sharpe or Taylor lined up outside. Matt LaFleur told the Midday 180 guys during camp that he preferred having a dedicated slot receiver rather than rolling multiple guys through that spot and Williams now stands as the only “true” slot receiver on the Titans roster. There is a real chance that he gets some serious work at that spot.

Darius Jennings has consistently been getting 6 or 7 snaps on offense in addition to his heavy lifting as a key special teams player. I don’t think he sees a whole lot more work on offense based on Matthews’ departure, but he’s just an injury away from possibly having a pretty significant role on the team now.

Some will clamor for the Titans to bring in a veteran receiver, but I’m not expecting them to add one. I think it’s more likely that they bring back someone like Deontay Burnett or Cameron Batson who already knows the offense and can add depth to the group rather than shaking up the top of the depth chart even more.

My guess is the snap distribution breaks down something like this:

Davis 80-90%

Taylor 60-70%

Sharpe 40-50%

Williams 40-50%

Jennings <10%

With Vrabel telling the media that Marcus Mariota will start and “have no restrictions” yesterday, the time is now for the young wide receivers to start producing for the Titans.