Marcus Mariota became a better quarterback this offseason. Not because the team hired quarterback tutors. Not because they added a quarterback whisperer. They are not simplifying the playbook nor changing their game plan for their young slinger.
Mariota is better because the Titans blew up their wide receiver room. They weren’t as splashy as other teams, but there’s a whole new unit in the locker room.
Start at the top
The only coaching change they made was naming Frisman Jackson to coach the wide receivers. What is it the Titans want from their receivers? “Toughness. That’s the first thing,” explained Jackson. “We want to be the toughest, most physical group on the field.”
That is a tall order when you consider Tennessee’s rough-and-tumble running game. The running backs’ attitude is exactly what offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie wants in his wide receivers, along with consistency, dominance, and no more excuses.
Who was who in 2016?
Rishard Matthews might be the only receiver to return from last year’s squad. But his impressive 2016 performance could be forgotten as he yields depth chart position to new additions.
The Titans’ first offseason player move was to let former first-round draft pick Kendall Wright go. He blamed Tennessee’s coaches for his poor production, although his stats were consistent with preceding years.
Tajae Sharpe was the most-hyped Titans receiver of 2016. He is still highly-regarded, but off-field issues and foot surgery lower his roster appeal. Tennessee also drafted two wide receivers they think can make impacts right away. This does not make Sharpe’s Titans future very secure.
Veteran Harry Douglas’ most memorable game moment was a fight with Denver’s Aqib Talib. Douglas’ role guiding the youngsters is eclipsed by the addition of Eric Decker. Decker offers experience plus the toughness Titans’ coaches are looking for. He has a better pedigree than Douglas, too.
Tre McBride appears squeezed out and fan-favorite Marc Mariani will likely follow. Mariani’s role as a returner will go to another free agent, Eric Weems, who brings playoff experience and better return numbers with him from Atlanta.
Most NFL prognosticators predict first-round draft pick Corey Davis will be the Titans’ top receiver before the end of his rookie campaign. But Tennessee coaches and watchers are talking more about third-round pick Taywan Taylor’s performance so far.
The two combined for 195 catches in their last collegiate season. Both project to be stars for years, but as Tajae Sharpe’s 2016 second-half disappearing act showed, you never know how the longer NFL season and faster defenses will affect rookies.
The most impactful addition may be Eric Decker. He is the proven playmaker. Mariota will quickly realize Decker is a go-to guy for first downs and touchdowns. Decker also blocks well and brings a professional, tough attitude to the huddle.
Weems will handle return duties leaving one slot open. The Titans are high enough on Sharpe’s potential to make him the early favorite, despite his injury and legal issues.
Whether the Titans provide fantasy-relevant receivers will depend on how Mike Mularkey handles his improved passing game. No one expects Tennessee to abandon its awesome running game, so receiving points might be at a premium.
If the team wants their youngsters to watch established veterans Matthews and Decker for a while, those two become potential WR2s. Should the rookies spend equal time on the field, Tennessee has four potential WR3s competing with tight end Delanie Walker.
How Mariota’s preferences develop will ultimately decide if anyone is worth a higher pick. As for Mariota himself, his stock should rise, but the rush-heavy attack keeps him from being elite. Walker’s tight end numbers will drop from his career norms.
All that considered, I would defend drafting Decker as a late WR2. Why? Because of a little-known secret about the Titan passing game. Their 25th ranked passing attack put 29 receiving touchdowns on the board in 2016. That was eighth-best in the league and shows a willingness to throw in the red zone even with their power running game.
Decker will take advantage of that. Put him down for 77 receptions, 882 yards with 12 touchdowns for 2017. That will put him in the top-20 fantasy ranks on the season. The rookies will have their moments, but Matthews is the best WR3 choice, based on consistency and familiarity.
You heard it here first. Check back later to see how it works out.
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