We continue our look around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2013 offseason with a look at the wide receiver position.
When I wrote the positional analysis during the 2012 preseason, I started with a joke, that the Titans receiving corps would be about as good as it was in 2011. I wasn't that impressed with the group in 2011, aside from Kenny Britt's brief tenure and Nate Washington's reliability, and expected with the return of Britt and addition of Kendall Wright that the position would be much improved. Sadly, my joke proved all too prescient. I pegged Jake Locker as the team's biggest disappointment, but if I had to pick a position group and not a player, it would have been the wide receivers.
As we head into the offseason, the top seven receivers are under contract for 2013. Will the next season bring the same players, and same problems, we saw in 2012, or might we see some actual shake-up at the position?
The cynic in me (and this team does too many things that make me want to listen to my cynical side) makes me think no, of course it's the Titans, hardly anything ever changes. Still, I'll be surprised if all seven players make it to Week 1 2013, and we could see even more changes.
The most important, and most complicated to talk about, player in the position group is of course Kenny Britt. At the start of 2011, he was awesome. Then he suffered a major knee injury in Week 3. And had surgery. And another surgery. And surgery once again. He finally started running some in the offseason, but wasn't yet cutting. Dogged by some questions about his work ethic and judgment (especially judgment) even before his knee injury (which was bad luck much more than anything else), could he get anywhere close to his 2011 form?
We finally had our answer beginning in the second game of the regular season, as his slow recovery kept him out of the entire preseason and suspension for DUI arrest (bad judgment!) cost him the first game of the season. When he did suit up, he moved like a player coming off a major knee injury who'd been running for less than three months and cutting for less than that. Not only did he move poorly, but he also played like he hadn't played football for almost a year. His playing time and role gradually increased over the course of the season. As I chronicled in my snap report, by the second half of the season he was playing as many or more snaps than any other Titans wide receiver. He ended the season ended the season with 45 catches on 90 official targets (plus 6 more on plays wiped out by penalty) for 583 yards and 4 touchdowns, plus 2 fumbles. That kind of production ranked him 83rd (of 86) among receivers in both Football Outsiders' per-play DVOA and total value DYAR metrics. Ranking fourth from last among all receivers in the league is not what I or anybody else expected from Kenny Britt in 2012. Will things change in 2013 as we head into the final year of Britt's rookie deal?
Back in 2010, I described Britt as the Titans' best, most dangerous offensive player. 2013 is a huge year not just for his fate in Tennessee, but his NFL career as a whole. I personally believe he retains that enormous potential he showcased in 2011, but he needs to show that once again. While the New Jersey incident earlier this offseason was complete nonsense and I violently disagreed with anybody who thought Britt should be cut because of it. Still, I don't want to see Britt's name in connection with the police again this offseason. The optimistic take is 2012's lousy season was the result of rusty and injury, and 2013 will be more of the Kenny Britt we've seen glimpses of in the past. Rarely, I'm taking that view, at least for now, but he'll have to show it on the field.
Nate Washington had another Nate Washington-type season. He had 46 catches on 90 targets (plus one wiped out by penalty) and a team-leading 746 yards receiving, plus 4 touchdowns. By Football Outsiders numbers, he once again had a moderately efficient season-not quite as efficient as he was in 2011, but in the same ballpark. Once again, he was by far the most efficient receiving option among Titans wideouts with enough targets to be ranked. Due $4.2 million in the next-to-last season of the contract he signed with the Titans as a free agent in 2009, we should return for another season doing the same things Nate Washington does.
Kendall Wright led the Titans with 64 catches on 104 targets (plus 3 more wiped out by penalty). On those 64 catches, he totaled 626 yards, less than 10.0 per catch, and had 4 touchdowns. I don't quite want to say his role in that offense was the same as that Lavelle Hawkins played in 2011, because Wright spent more time playing on the outside than Hawkins did, at least early in the season when Britt was being worked into the lineup. On the whole, though, their seasons had more than a passing similarity. Both spent a lot of time playing the slot receiver/F role in the offense and caught a lot of short crossers and short hitches designed to give them opportunities to run with the ball in space. Both averaged about 10 yards per catch (Hawkins was right at 10.0), and both put up horrific per-play efficiency numbers that ranked them sixth-worst by Football Outsiders' per-play DVOA value metric. By average depth of reception, he actually came out about a yard behind Hawkins last year, though that's probably the result of more receiver screens thrown his direction.
As I've written about before, it looked last year like Hawkins' lack of quality production was largely a function of his role in the offense-those plays seem to be pretty inefficient. From that perspective, it's no surprise that Wright's efficiency numbers came out similarly lousy (despite their identical DVOA rank, Wright did come out a little better by the numbers). Still, for a player that was a legitimate deep threat in college, it was disappointing to see his lack of production outside the short areas. He only had three plays over 25 yards all year-one a 9-yard pass where the tackler fell down, one a bigger play where his defender fell down before the catch, and one actual deep throw, in the home game against the Texans. It's no surprise to see a rookie receiver struggle, but when the Titans drafted Wright in the first round I'm sure they were hoping for more than "a better version of Lavelle Hawkins." Can Wright be more than that in his second season?
When I did my target projection in May, I wasn't sure if Damian Williams would have a role in the offense. Obviously with the addition of Wright and the return of Britt his role was going to decline some. It did, but not as much as I thought it might. He finished fourth on the team among receivers with 30 catches on 45 targets (plus 5 more wiped out by penalty) for 324 yards. His biggest problem in 2011 was his hands, as he had 5 drops and overall caught over 7 fewer passes than expected given how short his targets were. I don't have comparable numbers for 2012 yet, but it's fair to say his 67% catch rate represented a good improvement in that category. Scheduled to make $1.3 million in the final year of his rookie deal, it's difficult to see how he's more than the WR4 given the presence of Britt, Washington, and Wright. Could the Titans opt to part ways with him? It's possible, but that doesn't make sense to me. His positional versatility (he's played every WR position) and still-modest salary, plus much better year in 2012, make him a good WR4.
If you have noticed Lavelle Hawkins lately, please contact the authorities. When the Titans re-signed him to a 3-year deal with an average per year of $2.5 million in February before he hit free agency, I thought it meant the Titans liked him. Instead, he was a healthy inactive 9 times and only played 51 offensive snaps all year, finishing the season with 5 catches on 11 targets for 62 yards. Due $1.9 million in salary and looking a lot like just a backup slot receiver, it's very hard for me to see Hawkins on the Week 1 2013 roster. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Titans hang on to him through training camp, though they also might just go ahead and cut him early.
Michael Preston was activated off the practice squad prior to Week 14 and played 61 snaps over the final four games. Targeted 7 times, he finished with 5 catches for 59 yards. He gives the Titans another big-bodied receiver, something I think is a definite need for them as the non-Britt players are kind of shrimps. That said, it's hard to diagnose the fate of players at the bottom of the depth chart. If the Titans add another big-body receiver, he could find himself on the way out. If they don't, he ends up on the fringes of the roster, as easily on the active roster as on the practice squad.
Marc Mariani's nasty broken leg suffered in preseason cost him the entire regular season and handed the return job to Darius Reynaud. Heading into the final year of his rookie deal, his fate may depend on what the Titans do with Reynaud, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. A better kick than punt returner, his value was diminished after his Pro Bowl rookie season by the new kickoff rules that result in more touchbacks. He played some wide receivers very situationally in 2011 and seemed like he might challenge for the WR4 role in addition to his return duties until the injury. Broken bones tend to be fairly clean injuries, without the same lingering effects as torn ligaments like Britt's knee injury. Still, it's hard to see the Titans simply handing the return job back to him coming off an injury. I expect another returner competition in training camp. If Mariani shows good development in his receiving ability, that would be a major bonus for him. As of now, though, he may be 50-50 to see the roster Week 1 2013.
Despite their weaknesses at the position in 2012, I expect the Titans to head into 2013 with the same top four of Britt, Washington, Wright, and Williams they had in 2013. It's quite possible internal improvements in that group would be enough to make this the best top grouping the Titans have had since Derrick Mason, Justin McCareins, and Drew Bennett were catching Steve McNair's passes in 2003 (DVOA ranks for the wideouts: 4th, 5th, 7th). Beyond that quartet, the roster picture is somewhat cloudier, aside from that Lavelle Hawkins is pretty much toast. Both Marc Mariani and Michael Preston are about 50-50 to make the roster in my book.
On the whole, I do not expect the Titans to make a major move at wide receiver this offseason. It would not surprise me to see them add a late-round pick, especially a player with some return ability to compete with Mariani. If they do make a significant investment in a player, then it is likely because they've identified traits they would like receivers to have in Dowell Loggains' offense that the current top quartet does not currently possess. In that case, do not be surprised if they cut Nate Washington.