This is Part 3 of a series of articles breaking down the Titans roster heading into the 2019 offseason. Part 1 covered the Titans cap situation and roster decisions and Part 2 covered the offensive line.
The Titans offense overall was a disappointment in 2018, continuing a downward trend on this side of the ball since 2016. If you watched this team you certainly don’t need stats to understand that, but they are useful to get a feel for how bad they were relative to the rest of the league.
- Points Scored: 310 (27th)
- Yards Gained: 4,998 (25th)
- Total Offense DVOA: -5.2% (22nd)
- Passing Yards: 2,975 (29th)
- Yards Per Attempt: 7.4 (14th)
- Passing Success Rate: 45% (22nd)
- Explosive Pass Rate: 8% (26th)
- Passing Offense DVOA: -0.2% (25th)
The passing attack, in particular, struggled throughout the season with few exceptions. Unfortunately for the Titans, successfully passing the football is the characteristic most tightly correlated to winning football games in the NFL. It’s the aspect of the game that this franchise has constantly struggled with since moving to Tennessee in the late 90’s.
The fact that Matt Hasselbeck still holds the “Titans Era” single season passing record at 3,571 yards is a perfect representation of those struggles. In 2018 alone, 17 NFL quarterbacks beat that mark including a rookie who didn’t become a starter until Week 4 (Baker Mayfield) and the immortal Case Keenum. Only four franchises have failed to have a single 4,000 yard passer over the past 20 years — the Titans, Jets, Browns, and Bears — and the Titans have the lowest “best season” of that group.
The Titans have somehow managed to be relatively successful as a team during this time period despite being allergic to passing. The fact that they are ranked 13th in regular season wins since 1999 makes them an outlier in the modern NFL. The teams at the very top of that list — the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, and Packers — have all had an elite passing attack powering much of their success. The single biggest thing the Titans could do to help them break through that 9-7 glass ceiling is to become more effective through the air.
NFL passing games rely on a ton of interdependent factors which can sometimes make identifying the “why” behind a good or bad one difficult. It’s particularly hard to figure out when none of those factors are constants from year to year as has been the case with the Titans recently. Outside of Marcus Mariota — who has been in and out of the lineup and banged up himself — the team has seen near constant turnover at offensive coordinator, wide receiver, and tight end in recent seasons. Even the one static factor — the offensive line — has seen varying levels of play.
How Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel approach this offseason will be telling about what they believe to be the main issues holding this offense back. The first decision — promoting tight ends coach Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator — tells me that they didn’t think the design of the offense was the problem last year. Smith is likely to put his own spin on what Matt LaFleur did in 2018, but expect the foundation to look similar. How Robinson attacks free agency and the draft will give us some hints as to what their thoughts are on the roster. We already covered the offensive line here if you want to check that out, but today we will be focusing on the wide receivers.
Players currently under contract
The Titans don’t have any expiring contracts at the receiver position this offseason so this group will remain intact heading into OTAs and training camp this season. Whether they all make the roster by the end of the preseason is another question, but let’s take a look at the returning talent the team has on the books at this position already.
Corey Davis, WR
2019 Cap Hit: $6.926M
2018 Stats: 65 catches on 112 targets (58.0%), 891 yards, 4 touchdowns, 13.7 YPC
Size/Speed: 6’-3”, 209 lbs
Corey Davis led the Titans in virtually every receiving category, including targets, catches, yards, touchdowns, and yards per reception. He was clearly the best and most consistent target for Marcus Mariota and Blaine Gabbert throughout the season. After a lot of hand wringing from the fan base over the treatment of his hamstrings during training camp and preseason, he was one of just three Titans players on offense to start all 16 games (Ben Jones and Josh Kline were the other two).
Davis’ raw stats aren’t great for a WR1, but they also aren’t terrible. His 891 yards ranked 20th among NFL receivers which is actually pretty impressive when you consider he played on the league’s 29th ranked passing offense. If you take a look at his receiving yards per team passing attempts, his production jumps up to 15th among all receivers. Similarly, PFF’s Yards Per Route Run statistic ranks Davis 20th in the NFL.
Those efficiency stats are important because the environment in which Davis played in 2018 was far from ideal. Blaine Gabbert accounted for almost a quarter of the team’s total pass attempts. When Marcus Mariota was in the game he was often banged up.
Regardless of who was throwing the passes, the Titans weren’t throwing the ball much last season. They finished 31st in pass attempts at 437, a whopping 252 throws behind the league-leading Steelers. The league average was 552 attempts, over 25% more than the Titans total. If Davis could have maintained the same efficiency on a league average passing offense, he would have finished with 1,125 yards.
In addition to the low volume of the passing offense and the questionable effectiveness of the quarterbacks throwing the ball, Davis also dealt with extra attention from opposing defenses all season as the Titans clear top option. With Delanie Walker injured and Rishard Matthews quitting after three games, there was no threatening secondary option in the receiving corps to help draw coverage away from 84 and that was apparent on tape all season. Opponents would regularly roll coverage to his side of the field or track him with their best corner. To me, Davis is currently a top 15 NFL wide receiver with the potential to climb higher as the Titans offense develops around him.
Taywan Taylor, WR
2019 Cap Hit: $1.0M
2018 Stats: 37 catches on 56 targets (66.1%), 466 yards, 1 touchdown, 12.6 YPC
Size/Speed: 5’-11”, 203 lbs, 4.45s 40 (combine), 4.21s shuttle (combine), 6.57s 3C (combine)
Behind Davis, the Titans wide receiving corps is questionable at best. Taywan Taylor was the Titans second best receiver in 2018 and the team’s second most productive pass catcher overall. Taylor missed a little over three and a half games due to a foot injury suffered against the Cowboys so extrapolating his numbers out over a full season would have yielded a little over 550 yards. Better, but still not good enough from a WR2.
Taylor’s strengths and weaknesses are pretty defined two years into his NFL career. He’s got great speed and quickness with the ability to get behind the defense with regularity and is elusive after the catch. However, he struggles to track the ball on deep passes at times and his hands are highly inconsistent. Taylor doesn’t win on contested catches often enough and his route running, while improved, is still a work in progress.
I don’t think the book is closed on the player Taylor can be in the NFL, but he’s certainly not shown enough in his first two years to enter season three as an unquestioned starter.
Tajae Sharpe, WR
2019 Cap Hit: $789K
2018 Stats: 26 catches on 47 targets (55.3%), 316 yards, 2 touchdowns, 12.2 YPC
Size/Speed: 6’-2”, 194 lbs, 4.55s 40 (combine)
Sharpe finished second in snaps at wide receiver (60%) behind Davis, but didn’t manage to turn his opportunity into much production. He also had both the lowest yards per catch and lowest catch rate among the Titans top three receivers which is not a great combination. Outside of one great game against the Chargers he was mostly a non-factor for the Titans offense.
Sharpe is a pretty defined player at this point in his career as well. He’s got good size and hands, but lacks the speed, strength, or quickness to separate from man coverage. Heading into the 4th and final year of his rookie contract, Sharpe could find himself on the roster bubble if the team adds a player or two in free agency this offseason.
Darius Jennings, WR
2019 Cap Hit: $720K
2018 Stats: 11 catches on 15 targets (73.3%), 101 yards, 0 touchdowns, 9.2 YPC
Size/Speed: 5’-10”, 180 lbs, 4.47s 40 (pro day), 4.29s shuttle (pro day), 6.95s 3C (pro day)
Jennings didn’t see much time as a receiver, but led the NFL in kick return average at 31.7 yards per return including a return touchdown. The 26-year old has been on and off practice squads and 53-man rosters for the Browns, Bears, and Jets before arriving in Tennessee in 2017.
As a wide receiver, Jennings caught one of Marcus Mariota’s best throws of the year — a deep strike down the seam between two Cowboys safeties — and dropped another one — another seam route in overtime against the Eagles. However, his impact on the passing game didn’t go much further than that and it’s hard to see him suddenly becoming a major contributor in 2019. His best chance to make the roster again will be continuing to excel as a special teams player.
Cameron Batson, WR
2019 Cap Hit: $570K
2018 Stats: 8 catches on 11 targets (72.7%), 82 yards, 0 touchdowns, 10.3 YPC
Size/Speed: 5’-8”, 175 lbs, 4.35s 40 (pro day), 4.00s shuttle (pro day), 6.69s 3C (pro day)
The undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech was one of the surprise inclusions on the Titans initial 53-man roster coming out of camp. He ended up sticking on the roster for most of the season, even getting some real run at wide receiver while Taylor was out with his injury.
At 5’-8” and 180 pounds with low-4.3 speed, Batson profiles as a speedy slot receiver and special teams contributor. I don’t think the Titans should go into 2019 relying heavily on the former Red Raider, but he flashed some potential last season and I’m high on his potential to develop into a useful slot receiver in the NFL. He was recently spotted hanging out with Marcus Mariota in Hawaii.
I’m an unapologetic Batson believer.
Devin Ross, WR
2019 Cap Hit: $495K
2018 Stats: N/A
Size/Speed: 5’-9”, 192 lbs, 4.52s 40 (pro day), 4.23s shuttle (pro day), 6.94s 3C (pro day)
Like Batson, Ross was among the five undrafted rookie wide receivers the Titans brought in last offseason. Based on rep distribution in training camp, there is a real chance that Ross would’ve grabbed that 6th receiver spot if it weren’t for an ankle injury towards the end of preseason. Instead, Ross was released and then re-signed to the practice squad after he healed. After the season, the Titans signed Ross to a futures contract — a fancy word for a team friendly deal for a non-roster player signed between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the new league year on March 13th — so he will be back for offseason activities in 2019.
The former Colorado receiver is a long shot to make the roster, but he was trending up during camp last season so if you’re looking for a Darius Jennings-like surprise inclusion that’s not on the radar right now, this is your best bet.
Roger Lewis, WR
2019 Cap Hit: $645K
2018 Stats: N/A
Size/Speed: 6’-0”, 203 lbs, 4.57s 40 (combine), 4.45s 40 (pro day), 4.45s shuttle (pro day), 7.58s 3C (pro day)
Lewis spent most of 2018 on the Titans practice squad. The former Bowling Green receiver is known as a deep threat and actually got some playing time on a bad Giants team in 2017. Like Ross, he received a futures contract and will spend the offseason with the Titans hoping for a chance to compete in camp.
Kalif Raymond, WR
2019 Cap Hit: $645K
2018 Stats: N/A
Size/Speed: 5’-8”, 182 lbs, 4.34s 40 (pro day)
Raymond is another practice squad receiver that will spend the 2019 offseason with the Titans. He’s been in the NFL for three years, mostly as a punt/kick returner. At 5’-8” and 182 pounds, Raymond is another small, fast receiver on a roster filled with small, fast receivers. It’s hard to see him sticking on the roster.
How can the Titans improve their receiver room this offseason?
This feels like it has been a question at the top of every offseason needs article since the Titans moved to Tennessee over 20 years ago. It’s just a spot that this franchise has struggled to get right over the years. Corey Davis is a nice start, but he needs a sidekick that’s capable of stepping up and taking over a game when a defense decides to focus on taking him away.
As I mentioned up top, pinpointing the blame for why the passing offense has struggled over the past two years after seemingly breaking through in 2016 is tough. There are just too many variables. Is the passing attack struggling because Mariota has spent the majority of the past two seasons playing through injuries? Is it because DeMarco Murray and Rishard Matthews — two of his top four targets in 2016 — rapidly regressed and eventually were removed from the team? Is it because the offensive line regressed after a stellar season in 2016? Did the broken leg that Mariota suffered against the Jaguars affect his comfort in the pocket? Could it just be horrible playcalling/play design? The likely answer is that it’s really a combination of some or all of the factors above.
The factor that we are focusing on in this post is obviously the weapons available to Mariota at the receiver position and that has to be a focus for Jon Robinson this offseason. Just last season we saw a couple teams get a big boost from revamping their receiving corps. The Bears completely overhauled Mitch Trubisky’s targets last offseason, adding Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, and Anthony Miller which — along with the addition of Matt Nagy of course — helped bump their passing attack from 29th to 20th in passing DVOA. Not where they want to be, but a big year over year improvement. Similarly, the Ravens added Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead, and Mark Andrews to the 26th rated passing attack in 2017 and finished 14th in passing DVOA in 2018.
We even saw a receiver added midseason that turned around a passing attack in Dallas. Dak Prescott’s numbers before and after the addition of Amari Cooper tell the story of the impact Cooper made on the passing game.
- Dak before Cooper: 128 of 206 (62.1%) for 1,417 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs, 87.4 rating, 6.88 YPA
- Dak with Cooper: 228 of 320 (71.3%) for 2,468 yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs, 103.0 rating, 7.71 YPA
The fact that the Titans were reportedly among the teams closest to landing Cooper and were also rumored to be sniffing around Demaryius Thomas at the trade deadline hints at the idea that Jon Robinson wasn’t fully satisfied with his receiver group during the 2018 season. I would take that as a glaring neon sign that at least one significant addition will be coming to this position via either free agency, a trade, or the draft.
Free Agent Options
Golden Tate, 31, Eagles
Golden Tate headlines an otherwise lackluster free agent class at wide receiver. The Eagles cap situation leaves them in a spot where it is unlikely that they will be able to bring Tate back without him taking a serious discount.
The Nashville native coming home to play for the Titans is going to be a fan favorite narrative for the offseason and it makes sense from the team’s perspective. Tate is an established, productive veteran receiver who would lend some much needed experience to what is an unbelievable young room. Corey Davis leads Tennessee’s current receivers in career receptions with 99. A wide receiver room headlined by Davis-Tate-Taylor offers a diverse and dynamic set of skills to work with.
However, I wonder how much sense the Titans make for Tate. Yes, he’s from here, but coming home isn’t always attractive to players. The pressure of being the “hometown hero”, the old friends coming out of the woodwork looking for favors, and other factors can be drawbacks for some guys.
Tate has publicly stated that he wants to play for a contender with limited years remaining at age 31. Will he view the Titans as a contender? I’m not so sure. Yes, the Titans have three straight winning seasons, but other teams vying for Tate’s services could certainly be viewed as more immediate contenders. The Colts, Texans, Seahawks, and Cowboys are all teams coming off playoff appearances with more projected cap space than Tennessee. Teams like the Packers, Chiefs, and Rams also have similar available space and will likely be seen as closer to Super Bowl contention than the Titans.
Even if Tate does view a return to Nashville as a positive and sees the Titans as a contender, there is still the question of whether he would want to come play for a team that’s thrown 14 and 16 touchdown passes the last two seasons. There is certainly opportunity available, but does Tate believe that he can single-handedly rescue the Titans passing attack? Would he want to?
So, yes, Tate makes perfect sense for the Titans to pursue in free agency despite the fact that his price tag will be quite high (he’s reportedly looking for “Jarvis Landry money” which would put him around $15M a year if he can get it), but that doesn’t mean the Titans will make perfect sense for Tate. I tend to believe it’s a long shot.
Jamison Crowder, 26, Redskins
Crowder is the best non-Tate option that could possibly be available for the Titans when March 13th rolls around. A former 4th round pick out of Duke, Crowder is a small-but-quick slot receiver who has been highly productive ever since entering the league, posting 221 receptions, 2,628 yards, and 14 touchdowns in 4 years in Washington.
Crowder already is what the Batson Truther in me hopes Cameron Batson can become. He’s a fully formed difference maker in the slot. The only question I would have is fit with the Titans offense. If the plan is to use a lot of 12 personnel to create mismatches with Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith on the field together, investing in Crowder might not make a ton of sense. However, if Art Smith wants to spread things out a little more than his predecessors have, then paying $8M-plus per year for a really good slot receiver would be worth looking into.
Adam Humphries, 26, Buccaneers
The Buccaneers productive slot receiver is another potential free agent that would make a ton of sense in Tennessee. He was signed in Tampa Bay in 2015 as an undrafted free agent while Titans GM Jon Robinson was the Bucs Director of Player Personnel so there is some familiarity there. Over the past four seasons, Humphries role and production has grown year after year, peaking in 2018 with 76 catches on 105 targets (72.4%) for 816 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The Buccaneers have a glut of talent at the position led by Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans and rising 3rd year player Chris Godwin. They will likely be forced to choose between DeSean Jackson and Humphries this offseason. Tampa Bay can get out of Jackson’s contract with no dead cap this offseason and I would expect them to do just that to free up some cash to retain Humphries. However, if Humphries does reach the market, I would certainly expect the Titans to have some interest.
Tyrell Williams, 27, Chargers
If the Titans want to spend money on a deep ball threat in free agency, Williams would be my preference. At 6’-4” and 205 pounds he’s a different type of speed threat than a DeSean Jackson or John Brown. Williams is incredibly quick for his size, posting a 4.43-second 40 time, 4.17-second shuttle, and 6.74-second three cone to go along with a 39.5-inch vertical during his pro day at Western Oregon. He’s used that athletic ability to post over 2,500 yards in his first four seasons in the NFL, averaging 16.3 yards per reception.
Williams is, at best, a field-stretching WR2, but he figures to cash in for a big $9M-plus per season contract in March. The Chargers seem unlikely to pay that premium for a guy who is no better than a 5th option behind Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry, and Melvin Gordon in LA’s loaded offense. So there is a better than even shot that he’s playing in a different uniform next year.
Should the Titans be willing to pay that much for a guy who can sometimes disappear for long stretches? He would pretty comfortably be the second best receiver on the team so this would be an upgrade, but the cost compared to other free agent options at other positions must be weighed. The Titans are likely to only have roughly $30M in cap space to spend this offseason. Does spending a third of it on Williams make sense? Also, the same questions that I posed about Tate choosing the Titans apply here.
I think Williams is among the top options to consider for the Titans, but I’m not sure he’s going to be worth the price tag. Last offseason we saw guys like Paul Richardson getting $8M per year contracts and that was in a free agency class with more quality receivers. Supply and demand tells me that a guy like Williams is going to get overpaid in a big way in March and I’m not convinced that he moves the needle enough to tie up that kind of cap space.
Randall Cobb, 29, Packers
We are now entering the realm of receivers that I would only have interest in at a bargain price with little long term risk (yes, the receiver free agency class is that shallow). Cobb was hyper-productive early in his career, but age and injuries have seemingly caught up to him over the past three seasons. I often joke on the podcast (check it out here if you haven’t already) that Cobb is the oldest 28-year old in NFL history. Could he still help and lend some veteran wisdom to a young room? Maybe, but I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable counting on him to be a WR2 in 2019.
Cole Beasley, 30, Cowboys
After publicly ripping Jerry Jones for “pushing who they want to get the ball”, it seems highly unlikely that Beasley returns to Dallas for an 8th season. The undersized slot receiver has been highly productive as an undrafted player, peaking with a 75-catch, 833 yard, 5 touchdown season in 2016. The past two years have seen a decline and it’s fair to wonder if Beasley will be able to reach his previous heights.
The Titans could certainly use some production from the slot position. They’ve tried Taywan Taylor in there at times over the past couple seasons, but they seem to prefer him as an outside, vertical threat. Beasley would give them a sure pair of hands as a chain-mover from that spot.
John Brown, 29, Ravens
Some are very high on the speedy Brown as a free agent option, but I’m not going to be one of them. He surged early in the season in Baltimore, but caught just 10 passes total over the final 8 games. Brown’s catch rates over the past two seasons are 38.2% and 43.3%. Part of that is on the quarterbacks he’s played with, but Brown also had the second highest drop rate in the NFL last season — behind teammate Michael Crabtree — and was 21st (out of 103) in drop rate in 2017. Brown is an aging deep ball specialist with a long injury history. Count me out.
Breshad Perriman, 25, Browns
The former 1st round pick was a bust for the Ravens. At 6’-2”, 211 pounds he ran a 4.26-second 40 in 2015 which shot him up draft boards everywhere, however injuries and drops derailed his career almost immediately. Perriman was released by the Ravens at the start of 2018 before catching on with the Browns and actually making a positive impact for Cleveland down the stretch. He certainly shouldn’t be counted on in a big way, but you could find worse high upside gambles on the free agent market.
Other Options: Donte Moncrief, Chris Hogan, Jordan Matthews, Bruce Ellington, Ryan Grant, Jermaine Kearse
Antonio Brown, 31, Steelers
It has to be mentioned even if it’s highly highly unlikely. The NFL’s most dramatic soap opera continues to spin in Pittsburgh. Despite his age and rumored attitude issues, Brown is likely to at least fetch a 1st round pick if the Steelers did decide to trade him. Between that trade cost and the $22M cap hit, adding Brown would essentially eliminate the possibility of making impact additions to the interior offensive line, defensive line, and outside linebackers this offseason.
As much fun as it would be to see Brown in a Titans uniform, I can’t imagine the team making this move. Besides, the latest rumblings seem to be trending towards reconciliation between the star wide receiver and his current team so I don’t think Titans fans should get their hopes up.
While the free agent class at wide receiver is extremely poor, the draft is loaded with talented pass catchers this year. We will get into some of these guys in depth over the next few months, but receivers like D.K. Metcalf, Kelvin Harmon, Deebo Samuel, N’Keal Harry, Riley Ridley, DeMarkus Lodge, A.J. Brown, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Hakeem Butler, and Marquise Brown are all getting some serious buzz along with a host of others. I’ve already developed a pretty unhealthy draft crush on Deebo in particular.
The Titans must find a way to add talent to the wide receiver position in 2019. Corey Davis is a solid piece, but WR2 remains a question mark. While I’d rather see them add a veteran free agent to provide some experience, the options available on the market aren’t terribly appealing outside of Golden Tate and maybe Tyrell Williams. While I would expect the team to pursue Golden Tate and some of the other top options, actually getting them signed may prove tough for a passing-challenged team in a small market. I think the most likely scenario sees the Titans add a mid-tier veteran free agent to the mix and then plan on spending an early pick at the position.