Do the Titans miss Kendall Wright?
I know, it’s a weird question to ask as we
patiently anxiously await the start of training camp next week. Wright is widely remembered among Titans fans as the team’s failed first round pick from the 2012 NFL Draft. A guy who flashed briefly in 2013, but then came crashing back to earth like so many Tennessee receivers have before him.
To be honest, I’ve barely thought about Wright since he left the team following the 2016 season. He spent one forgettable season with the Bears in 2017 and then failed to find his way onto an NFL field last season. Wright currently isn’t on a 90-man roster and appears to be done with professional football at this point, at least at the top level.
So how could the Titans possibly miss a guy who’s not even in the league anymore?
Well, let’s start with the tweet and article from Pro Football Focus that got me started down this strange, dark rabbit hole.
Check out which Quarterbacks are the best at targeting which positions ⬇️#TitanUp— PFF TEN Titans (@PFF_Titans) July 16, 2019
: https://t.co/JokMGeO30c pic.twitter.com/eOoL6Ortc2
Within the linked article, you can find a chart that ranks 22 current quarterbacks who are projected to be starters in 2019 and have at least 800 pass attempts in the past decade. Marcus Mariota’s numbers overall fall about where you’d think they would — a little below the middle of the pack — but his rating when targeting two specific positions standout.
When passing to running backs Mariota is among the best in the NFL, boasting a passer rating of 104.5, good for 4th among this group of quarterbacks. However, when targeting slot receivers the Titans quarterback ranks dead last with a passer rating of 81.7.
There are some inherent flaws with passer rating as a statistic — it overvalues completion percentage, touchdowns, and interceptions while undervaluing passing yards — so let’s take a look at the raw numbers compiled by slot receivers by season in the Mariota era as charted by PFF and with DVOA stats from Football Outsiders.
- 2015: 30 of 51 (58.8%) for 420 yards (8.2 YPA) and 1 touchdown
- 2016: 50 of 79 (63.3%) for 775 yards (9.8 YPA) and 6 touchdowns
- 2017: 58 of 91 (63.7%) for 614 yards (6.7 YPA) and 2 touchdowns
- 2018: 47 of 74 (63.5%) for 574 yards (7.8 YPA) and 4 touchdowns
One of those seasons should clearly jump out to you and it just so happens to coincide with Mariota’s best year as a professional quarterback: 2016.
Of course there is a bit of a chicken-or-egg argument to be made here. Did the Titans passing offense perform well because the slot receivers performed well or was the performance of the slot receivers a reflection of the overall success of the offense?
There are also some other factors that include Mariota’s health and the effectiveness of the running game, but I believe the yards per attempt (YPA) numbers suggest that the success Mariota found in the slot played a significant role in driving the overall performance of the offense. The quarterback’s overall YPA checked in at 7.6 during that season — just 0.1 above his career average and the exact same number he produced in 2015 and 2018 — but his YPA when targeting slot receivers (9.8) was much better than it has been in any of his other seasons.
His second most efficient season when targeting the slot came in his rookie year in 2015. The common thread between those two seasons? Kendall Wright serving a defined role as the primary slot receiver.
Part of what made the 2016 season so effective in the slot was the combination of Wright and Rishard Matthews. Matthews saw far fewer snaps inside than Wright did, but he was extraordinarily effective when he was in there, with Mariota averaging a blistering 11.6 YPA when targeting Matthews in the slot. Wright was no slouch himself with the quarterback checking in at 9.3 YPA when looking his way. Mariota’s DVOA when targeting slot receivers was +15.9 in 2016, third best in the NFL.
Matthews remained somewhat effective inside in 2017, but Eric Decker was brought in to pick up the majority share of slot snaps and failed to match Wright’s productivity. Mariota averaged just 6.8 YPA when targeting Decker in the slot and his overall DVOA when targeting slot receivers plummeted to +2.1, good for just 22nd among NFL QBs.
That brings us to last season. The front office and coaching staff had planned on giving the slot role to Matthews and given his prior success there, that made sense. However, an offseason injury that lingered through training camp led to a slow start to the season and very little production from Matthews despite him dominating the early reps in the slot. Through the first three weeks, Matthews had seen 43 snaps in the slot on passing plays and Corey Davis (20) was the only other receiver who had reached double figures. Matthews’ sudden departure after Week 3 forced the Titans to scramble. They had lost Michael Campanaro to a training camp injury which forced them to keep Nick Williams as a backup slot receiver — we all know how that worked out.
The team eventually settled on trying to jam Tajae Sharpe into the role, giving him 149 snaps in the slot from Week 4 through Week 16 (Mariota’s final game of the season). Davis had the next highest snap count inside at 119, followed by Darius Jennings with 55.
The result was disastrous. Sharpe managed just 10 catches for 75 yards on 21 targets in the slot between Week 4 and Week 16, yielding an anemic 3.6 YPA for Mariota when he was targeted. By comparison, Davis went 20 of 29 for 241 yards — and 3 touchdowns to boot — when he was targeted in the slot over that same time period, good for a solid 8.3 YPA. Other receivers that saw some time in the slot after Matthews quit — including Darius Jennings, Taywan Taylor, and Cameron Batson — combined for a YPA of 9.9 when Mariota targeted them.
Simply put, Tajae Sharpe was a terrible fit in the slot in 2018.
This is where Adam Humphries comes in. The Titans clearly made him a priority target this offseason, winning a fierce bidding war with the Patriots that included a last ditch effort from Bill Belichick before the former Clemson Tiger inked a four-year, $36M contract with $19M guaranteed.
Despite going undrafted in 2015, Humphries rose to become one of the most coveted free agents on the market thanks to his dominance in the slot. He ranked 5th in the NFL in receiving yards in the slot last season, pulling in 59 of his 81 targets for 666 yards from that alignment. No wide receiver converted more first downs from the slot than Humphries’ 42. Jameis Winston had a passer rating of 111.3 when targeting Humphries last season, a pretty big leap from his overall passer rating of 90.2.
On paper, Humphries is the best slot receiver that Marcus Mariota has ever played with and I’d say that his tape from Tampa Bay backs that up as well.
However, the Titans didn’t stop there. After failing to have another palatable alternative at this critical position in 2018 when Matthews self-ejected, Jon Robinson went out and drafted one of the best slot receivers in college football in A.J. Brown with the 51st overall pick.
Brown proved that he could win as an outside receiver down the stretch of his final year at Ole Miss when he filled in for an injured D.K. Metcalf, averaging 134 receiving yards per game over the final five games of his career. However, his ability and experience in the slot is important as well. It gives the Titans insurance at that critical spot and guarantees that they won’t be left trying to square-peg-round-hole the position like they did in 2018 anytime soon.
Besides, it’s not as if the team will just use one slot receiver for the entire year. In the hyper-productive 2016 season Kendall Wright led the way with 201 passing play snaps in the slot, but Rishard Matthews (110) and Harry Douglas (112) both got quite a bit of work in there as well. I would suspect that we will see something similar in 2019 with Humphries leading the way, but Brown and Davis — who has already proven to be very productive in that spot — getting some work inside as well.
Will that be enough to put Marcus Mariota’s career back on the path many thought he was heading down after the 2016 season? That remains to be seen — and certainly his own health will be the biggest piece of that puzzle — but Adam Humphries and A.J. Brown give him the best combination in the slot that he’s had since that year and the numbers suggest that’s a big deal.