I continue my 2011 Tennessee Titans postseason awards with a look at the player who provided the most pleasant surprise. With all due respect to the defensive rookie class headlined by my Titans rookie of the year Jurrell Casey, I think this one is an easy call for wide receiver Nate Washington.
Before the Titans signed Washington as a free agent before the 2009 season, Nate had been the Steelers’ number three receiver behind a couple pretty good wideouts in Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. As you might expect, Washington had not been a particularly high-volume receiver and had never put up big numbers, with career highs of 40 catches and 631 yards, both in 2008. With the Titans, Washington was thrust into the unfamiliar starters’ role, but his numbers the first two seasons with the team (47-569, 42-687) were pretty similar to what he’d done in Pittsburgh. In the Titans’ run-heavy attack, he had only slightly more passes thrown his direction, but his catch rate was pretty low and advanced statistics weren’t much kinder to him.
That all changed in 2011, though. Chris Palmer came in with his much more advanced passing game, in terms of routes and reading, and as you’d hope from a veteran receiver, Washington caught on to the scheme pretty quickly, emerging almost immediately as a valuable second option taking advantage of the attention teams paid to Kenny Britt. He was most effective working in the slot, often against a safety, third cornerback, or even a linebacker in zone.
Then, of course, Britt went down, lost for the year, and life got a whole lot harder for both Washington and the Titans’ passing attack as a whole. He had to shoulder the role of the Titans’ top receiver, and without much consistent help. It was a difficult role for him, and the results (and numbers) weren’t always what I’m sure he and the Titans wanted. When I wrote late in the season about how the Titans’ base offense some games simply didn’t work, Nate Washington as their top wideout was part of that.
Nevertheless, Washington did his best to shoulder the burden, put in the work to learn the offense and get on the same page. He ended up as the key target for both Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, who looked to him early, often, and with regularity, and blew away his career highs with 74 catches for 1,023 yards, while also putting up his best efficiency numbers with the Titans, much better ones than his fellow non-Britt wideouts.
Honorable Mention: That aforementioned defensive rookie class, four members of which (OLB Akeem Ayers, DT Jurrell Casey, MLB Colin McCarthy, and DT Karl Klug) saw extensive action without looking out of place.