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What should the Titans do at wide receiver beyond the top two of Corey Davis and Adam Humphries?

There are three real options here. Let’s evaluate them.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Every NFL team seems to have a cursed position somewhere on the roster that they just can’t get right no matter how many different approaches they try. For the Bears, that position has been quarterback. For the Buccaneers, it’s kicker. The Lions can’t ever find a good running back (post-Barry Sanders obviously). For the Titans, that position is wide receiver.

Since the team became the Titans in 1999, they’ve had exactly seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Four of those came from the same player and just two of them have happened in the past 15 years.

  • 2003 Derrick Mason (1,303 yards)
  • 2004 Drew Bennett (1,247 yards)
  • 2004 Derrick Mason (1,168 yards)
  • 2001 Derrick Mason (1,128 yards)
  • 2013 Kendall Wright (1,079 yards)
  • 2011 Nate Washington (1,023 yards)
  • 2002 Derrick Mason (1,012 yards)

To give some context, there are eight individual wide receivers that have more 1,000 yard receiving seasons over that same time span than the Titans do as a team.

  • Larry Fitzgerald (9)
  • Randy Moss (9)
  • Marvin Harrison (8)
  • Torry Holt (8)
  • Brandon Marshall (8)
  • Terrell Owens (8)
  • Steve Smith (8)
  • Reggie Wayne (8)

It’s just a position that has consistently eluded the franchise. Heading into 2019, receiver is once again a hotly debated position among Titans fans. Former 5th overall pick Corey Davis has shown some real promise, and probably would be more highly thought of if the team simply passed the ball more often in 2018. Davis accumulated 891 yards — good for 21st among all NFL receivers — despite playing on a team that attempted just 437 passes (2nd fewest in the league). If the Titans had passed the ball at a league average volume, Davis would have ended up near 1,125 yards receiving (14th among receivers) assuming he maintained a similar rate of production. It would be a disappointment if Davis didn’t become the fifth player since the team moved to Nashville to top 1,000 yards next season, but he needs help.

The team started to acquire some of that help with one of the top wide receivers on the free agent market (the top receiver according to some) in Adam Humphries.

I covered my thoughts on what Humphries will bring to the team in depth here, but the short version is that he will be a reliable player who will thrive in the slot when the Titans go with 11-personnel — a personnel package the team used on 58% of snaps in 2018 per Sharp Football — and play some snaps outside as well.

However, after those two, things get a little more dicey. Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe have both had their moments as Titans, but neither young receiver was able to step into the number two role behind Davis in 2018. So what do the Titans do behind Davis and Humphries at the receiver position? I think there are three options, each with their pros and cons.

Option #1: The Status Quo

The Titans essentially stick with what they’ve got. In this scenario Davis gets a similar snap share to the 88.4% number he saw in 2018, Humphries handles the slot and splits snaps on the outside in two wide sets, and then some combination of Taywan Taylor, Tajae Sharpe, Darius Jennings, and Cameron Batson split up the rest of the outside receiver snaps. The team probably throws a mid-to-late round rookie in here as well, but not necessarily a player that’s going to start right away.

This option is effectively a vote of confidence in Taylor and Sharpe. The current Titans coaching staff clearly view Taylor as an outside receiver. He played in the slot on just 16% of his total offensive snaps last year — a rate very similar to his college usage at Western Kentucky — rather than the primarily slot-based role he saw under Mike Mularkey during his rookie season.

Sharpe had the most snaps in the slot of any Titans receiver in 2018 with 254 — just ahead of Corey Davis’ 240 — as the Titans rotated guys through that spot in the absence of a true dedicated slot receiver. I would expect that to change with Humphries on board. Davis and other receivers will certainly see some snaps in there — it can be a good way to create mismatches for a big-bodied receiver like Davis — but I would expect Humphries to dominate the snap count at this position.

So where does that leave Sharpe? I would say that in this scenario he is likely competing with Taylor for snaps outside, and I would give the edge to Taylor here. There are a couple reasons that I would suspect Taylor to be ahead of Sharpe for an outside role opposite Corey Davis. First, are the numbers from last year.

  • Sharpe: 592 offensive snaps, 26 catches, 316 yards, 2 TDs (catch rate of 55.3%)
  • Taylor: 444 offensive snaps, 37 catches, 466 yards, 1 TD (catch rate of 66.1%)

Sharpe provided far less production despite being given far more opportunity. This is further reflected in PFF’s Yards Per Route Run (YPRR) metric where Taylor actually led the team in YPRR at 1.87 — just ahead of Corey Davis’ 1.83 — while Sharpe checked in at 0.96. In fact, Taylor’s YPRR is quite good even compared to the rest of the NFL. He ranked 28th out of 108 qualifying receivers while Sharpe checked in at 99th.

The second reason that I think Taylor would have an edge here is that he simply fits better as a puzzle piece in the Titans offense than Sharpe does. Tennessee has their do-it-all receiver in Davis and a couple chain movers over the middle in Humphries and tight end Delanie Walker. What they don’t have is that vertical speed threat that can keep opposing safeties from playing on their toes all game. Taylor provides that element.

Taylor’s drop rate in 2018 was concerning. He failed to haul in 11.9% of his catchable targets according to PFF charting, the 17th highest rate among 108 qualifying receivers. Inconsistent hands and body catching were the two most common knocks on Taylor coming out of Western Kentucky in 2017 so this shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the question is whether A) he can improve his hands and technique through training or B) if what he does well is enough to overshadow the occasional drop. So far, it hasn’t been and that’s the reason that most fans want to see him pushed down the rotation, but Taylor is still a young, developing wide receiver.

The upside to this solution is that if Taylor does emerge, you get a dynamic deep threat for just a $1M cap hit in 2019 and a $1.1M hit in 2020 and you get to spend your top draft picks on the offensive and defensive lines or maybe even grab an heir apparent to Delanie Walker to either compete with or supplement Jonnu Smith once Walker’s playing days are over. Maybe you still grab a developmental receiver on day three of the draft for depth, but you get to spend your higher picks on positions that have lower bust rates (i.e. anywhere but receiver).

The downside is that Taylor might not turn the corner and in the most critical season of Marcus Mariota’s career, that would mean the Titans fail to provide him with more than three reliable targets. If Davis, Humphries, or Walker were to go down with an injury, things would get pretty dicey pretty quick.

Option #2: Add a Veteran

After Rishard Matthews abruptly quit after Week 3 last season, the Titans receiver room suddenly became super young. Darius Jennings was the oldest at 26, while Tajae Sharpe was the most experienced with 10 career starts heading into 2018. Adding experience to this group was always going to be a priority this offseason. Adam Humphries certainly helps to some degree, but at 25 years old, he’s not exactly a grizzled veteran himself.

Could the Titans decide to add more experience here to help their young receivers while also giving Marcus Mariota another reliable target? It seems possible, maybe even likely, after this piece of news about Jordy Nelson from yesterday.

This could just be another case of the Titans keeping tabs on guys, but it would make a lot of sense for this to be real interest on a lot of levels. Nelson at age 33 (he will actually be 34 before the 2019 season starts) is clearly not going to be the same Jordy Nelson that we saw dominating the league with Aaron Rodgers from 2011 to 2016, but he was still pretty effective last season for the Raiders, catching 63 passes on 88 targets for 739 yards and 3 touchdowns. His best stretch of the season came at the end of the year when he ripped off 38 catches for 386 yards over the final five weeks, a 16-game pace of 1,235 yards.

Nelson isn’t the only option to consider for this type of role either. Guys like Pierre Garcon, Mike Wallace, Chris Hogan, and Ryan Grant are still out there as well. I know it’s not going to be popular, but I actually think Hogan makes a lot of sense out of that group. He gives the Titans the deep speed to take the top off of defenses along with plenty of experience. In 2018, he ranked 19th in the NFL in yards per reception (15.2) among receivers with at least 20 catches.

Hogan doesn’t need a ton of targets to be effective which works well in this case, because this is a role that likely isn’t going to be targeted a lot. The Titans passed the ball 27 times per game last season. I’d fully expect that to be on the rise in 2019 due to a multitude of reasons, but I think it would be pretty shocking if the team ended up attempting more than about 35 passes per game (which would put them right around league average). Davis averaged 7 targets per game last year and I would expect that to be on the rise, particularly if the Titans are throwing the ball 20% more often so let’s say Davis gets 9 targets per game, Humphries and Walker each get 7, and the running backs combine for 6. That’s 29 targets already and you’re still going to see some other wide receivers and tight ends get some opportunities outside of the top three. So that’s going to leave maybe 3 or 4 targets for this third receiver most weeks.

The upside to this route is that the veteran experience could be helpful for the young receivers, particularly from a guy like Nelson who had a ton of success in his career. A veteran should also be able to come in, pick up the offense quickly, and reliably be in the right spot at the right time to catch the football. That’s something that Marcus Mariota has rarely had from his receivers in his four year career outside of Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews. The Titans could also choose to wait later in the draft to take a receiver with this option too. The veteran would give them a little longer look at Taylor without the pressure of needing him to be a big time contributor in 2019 and if things don’t work out, they could dip into the 2020 draft class at receiver which is expected to be filled with elite prospects like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs, Laviska Shenault, and Tee Higgins.

The downside is that you’re likely getting a less dynamic option than you might be able to find in the draft and it’s going to eat up a chunk of your remaining cap space. The Titans certainly have plenty of space to get a deal done, but any money that you spend now also takes away from the amount of unused cap space the team can rollover into 2020. So essentially a one year contract would reduce the Titans available cap space in both 2019 and 2020. Obviously we aren’t talking about a bank breaking deal — my guess is Nelson would probably cost around $5M for a one year contract — but every million counts when you have the contracts coming up that the Titans do.

Option #3: Draft One Early

The third option is to plan on spending an early pick in the draft on a receiver that could step in and play that third wide receiver role right away. This is certainly an interesting wide receiver class in 2019. The top player on most boards, D.K. Metcalf, is one of the most polarizing players in recent memory. Some see the 6’-3” and 228 pound size combined with the mind-numbing 4.33 speed and eye-popping muscles and picture the next Calvin Johnson/Julio Jones type NFL player. Others see the 7.38-second three cone time, the 4.5-second short shuttle, and the injury history/lack of production at Ole Miss and see a player with a huge bust potential.

Beyond Metcalf, the draft is filled with all different types of receivers. Guys like Hakeem Butler, N’Keal Harry, Kelvin Harmon, Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Riley Ridley, Marquise Brown, Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, DeMarkus Lodge, Andy Isabella, and Emanuel Hall could all hear their names called on day one or day two of the draft and bring different skill sets to the table.

The idea here would be to replicate what the Falcons did last season, drafting Calvin Ridley to play opposite Julio Jones with Mohamed Sanu playing in the slot. While the Falcons had a very bad season overall, the offense wasn’t really the problem and Ridley turned out to be a fantastic complement to Jones. If the Titans could pair an elite, young wide receiver with Davis and Humphries, it could suddenly have the type of dynamic receiving corps that they’ve never had in the past.

The downside to this option, though, is that rookie wide receivers are a crap shoot. This is a position with a massive bust rate in the first and second rounds as the Titans have found out many many times (hello Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Dorial Green-Beckham, Justin Hunter, Tyrone Calico, Joey Kent, and Kevin Dyson). Regardless of how excited you might be about a draft prospect right now, there is a really good chance that half the guys I listed above turn out to be awful pro receivers. Even the best evaluators miss on receivers high in drafts — Bill Belichick’s only two highly drafted receivers in the last 15 years are Aaron Dobson and Chad Jackson — so this isn’t even a matter of “bad” GMs versus “good” GMs. It’s just a hard position to project.

They also have to consider the opportunity cost with drafting a receiver in the first two or three rounds. Unless Jon Robinson makes a significant move between now and then, the Titans will be looking to add a potential day one starter on the offensive line and still need to find help in the pass rush along the defensive line or on the edge. Those positions will be hard to fill late in the draft and those are spots — especially at the offensive line — that make a bigger impact on game day than a third wide receiver would. The performance of a right guard, for example, will have a major impact on nearly every offensive play regardless of the call. A third wide receiver will only play a portion of the snaps and probably only be targeted 3 to 4 times. Of course a receiver also contributes as a blocker on run downs and can be important to drawing coverage away from other receivers when they aren’t catching the ball, but those tasks certainly aren’t as critical as keeping your quarterback clean and making room for running backs.

My Preference

I certainly think there is some merit to each of these routes — which is what makes this such an interesting topic to me — but if forced to choose one I’d probably add the veteran receiver. It’s not sexy by any means, but I don’t think this has to be a sexy move. Adding a guy like Jordy Nelson would give Marcus Mariota a big step up when it comes to reliability and could help him be a more confident quarterback in 2019.

That move would push Taywan Taylor down to a rotational role as a fourth wide receiver where the team could still use his speed from time to time, but be less reliant on him on a snap-by-snap basis. The team could still nab a young receiver to develop somewhere on day three of the draft who could push Taylor and Sharpe for the fourth and fifth spots and contribute on special teams, but it frees up the early picks to build through the offensive and defensive lines.

This will be one of the more fascinating spots to watch with this team as we continue towards the 2019 season.