Programming Note: Last year, I picked a special teams MVP. I'm not going to do that this year. If I did, it would probably be Darius Reynaud given the Titans ranked first in the league in Football Outsiders Punt Return value. More on that and related matters in a future post.
.Last year, this was a very difficult choice, as there were four members of the rookie class who had highly productive seasons and could stake some sort of claim to the honor of rookie of the year. I ultimately chose Jurrell Casey, but Akeem Ayers, Karl Klug, and Colin McCarthy all had some sort of argument in their favor. This year, only two rookies became starter-level contributors, which meant they were the only two rookies I considered for this award. (Sorry, Beau Brinkley, I don't consider long-snapping a starter-level contributor.) Of the two choices, I had to pick a winner, and decided to go with outside linebacker Zach Brown over wide receiver Kendall Wright.
Brown, a second-round pick out of North Carolina, picked up his first NFL start in Week 2 at San Diego and would end up starting 14 of 16 games. The early start notwithstanding, it took him until midseason to solidify his status as a major contributor. As late as the Week 7 contest against the Bills, he played only 7 snaps on defense as the Titans spent the majority of the game in the nickel package and they did not yet trust Brown to play weakside backer in that role. That changed the next week against the Colts, and the change was confirmed a week later against the Bears, when he played more snaps than any other linebacker. I broke down his play against the Bears in some detail and was pleasantly surprised by the improvement even from earlier in the season. While he still made plenty of mistakes due to inexperience, that kind of elevation from afterthought to major contributor and the improvement I noticed in his game was enough for me to make Brown my rookie of the year.
As for Wright, the best argument for him is how much the Titans threw him the ball. He led the team in targets with 107, 11 ahead of Kenny Britt, and in catches with 64, 18 more than Nate Washington. He did not, however, lead the team in yards, as he averaged less than 10 yards per catch. Instead, his volume was the result of an inordinate number of short, unproductive passes. Last year, these went mostly to Lavelle Hawkins, and he was one of the least valuable receivers in the league as a result. This year, they went to Wright, and he was one of the least valuable receivers in the league. While I downplayed concerns over his 40 at the combine, he nevertheless didn't display the speed he showed at Baylor, and was rarely open deep on the relatively few times the Titans asked him to run deep. Only one of those 107 targets was a completion more than 25 yards downfield.
Moreover, the volume argument is unconvincing to me. Wright finished the year playing 557 snaps. Brown played 739, an average of over 10 snaps a game more, even though he didn't play much later in the season. Yes, the defense was on the field more, but Brown played 65% of defensive snaps while Wright played 56% of offensive snaps. Moreover, Brown played a bigger role in his position group. Wright actually ranked third among wideouts in snaps, and played only 70% as much as Nate Washington, the leader in that category. Brown ranked second and played 85% as much as Akeem Ayers. Yes, wide receiver and linebacker substitution patterns are different, but those numbers make me think a hypothetical playtime production edge to Wright is illusory.
I'll be writing more about Brown, Wright, and the rest of the rookies later in the offseason.