It feels like a period of transition for the Titans receiving corps. That's a bit of an odd feeling, considering the Titans' top three receivers in snaps played in 2013 are all under contract for 2014. Yes, the next two most-used receivers are free agents, but potentially losing your fourth and fifth receivers is just par for the course in the NFL. At the same time, though, two of those three receivers were high draft picks the past two years, while the third player under contract is a high-priced veteran whose salary may be deemed excessive (or who may be deemed too valuable to lose even if at an inflated salary).
As I did with the fullbacks, it's worth taking a brief look at Ken Whisenhunt's history with receivers. His later Cardinals teams used three- and four-wide receiver packages as or more frequently than any team in the league. That was true even after Kurt Warner retired, as the Cardinals ranked first or second in frequency of 4WR packages in 2010, 2011, and 2012. For comparison's sake, the Titans hardly every played four of their wide receivers on the field at the same time (note that's personnel, not alignment). Whisenhunt's Chargers last year couldn't find four credibly wide receivers and had a wide receiver usage pattern much like the 2013 Titans had, albeit with slightly less one wide receiver sets (generally 22 personnel-two backs, two tight ends), thanks to one premium and multiple credible tight ends, something not quite true in Arizona. Consider it possible, but far from certain we see a lot more 4WR sets and wide receiver snaps in general for the Titans. Their preferred personnel packages will affect the Titans' personnel strategy at receiver this year, particularly with how many quality bodies they look to add to what they already have under contract.
Since it has been a mini-theme, what with Jake Locker at quarterback and Chris Johnson at running back, I will begin with a player under contract for 2014 but whose future is uncertain. I was not sure Nate Washington would have a role on the 2013 Titans, but he not only made the team but led all wide receivers in snaps with 885 (82% playing time) in the latest step in his career transformation from a player best suited to a third wide receiver to a solid veteran and good presence in the locker room, notwithstanding some reported questions about his effort late in 2012. He finished with 112 total targets, 58 catches for 919 yards (15.8 ypc) and three touchdowns. By Football Outsiders numbers (I write for FO perma-disclaimer), he had solid value on both a per-play DVOA and total value DYAR basis, coming slightly ahead of 2011 by DVOA and slightly behind it by DYAR.
Subjectively in my mind, there's no comparison between Washington's value this past season and his (much greater) value in 2011. It's hard to pick out signature Nate Washington plays for me beyond the catch and run for the 77-yard touchdown against the Jets in Week 4 where he won a jump ball against Antonio Cromartie. That was one of his three hundred yard games, with the others against San Diego in Week 3 and in Jacksonville in Week 16, where he caught the game-winning score and five of his six completions were five of the six longest gains the Titans had on offense on the day.
Washington, who will turn 31 just before the start of the regular season, is due $4.8 million in salary in 2014 in the final year of the deal he signed when he joined the Titans back in 2009. His signing bonus has been prorated, so there would be no dead money associated with his release. I had the Titans cutting Washington last offseason because I didn't think he was worth the $4.2 million he made in 2013, and even the improved version of Nate Washington we saw last year is not worth $4.8 million in my view. But, life is not what you wish it would be. The Titans could approach Washington keep Washington at his base salary, acknowledging that they might ideally wish to pay him less, approach him for a salary reduction, or just part with him altogether. Most of Whisenhunt's receivers in Arizona tended to be bigger, particularly thicker, than Washington, so that could play a role. Gun to my head, I guess he's back.
I covered Kendall Wright in some detail when I named him the Titans offensive MVP and biggest surprise, so I follow the links if you want more on him. He played the second-most snaps at wide receiver, 807 (75%). He led the team with 94 catches and 1079 receiving yards. Losing 15 pounds made all the difference in his game. He'll continue to play a lot, including probably a lot in the slot in three wide receiver sets. If Eddie freakin' Royal can average 13 yards per catch and score eight touchdowns, as he did in San Diego last year, Whisenhunt has to be salivating at what Wright can do. I'm not saying Wright will catch eight touchdowns this year, but if Jake Locker can do what Ryan Fitzpatrick did and find him more than 10 yards downfield, he could and should have another big year.
Whither Justin Hunter? He seemed to be the popular choice as Titans rookie of the year; I chose Chance Warmack for his overall volume of contributions (Hunter only played 334 snaps, 31%) and because I have a lower view of Hunter's overall body of work than most people. There's no question he had some great catches, most notably the winning touchdown against the Chargers. He had 18 catches on 42 targets for 354 yards and four touchdowns.
What made his play so tantalizing was how great he looked on some catches and how many of the incompletions could have been positive plays. I'll give Hunter a post or two of his own later in the offseason, but you could make the case at least a third of his incompletions could and perhaps should have been caught. Hands, an issue coming out of Tennessee, were a bit of an issue as he combined the acrobatic grabs with some body-catching. The Titans are probably looking for him to get thicker in the offseason; Mike Keith mentioned that in the season review for him on the official site, and ideally you'd like him to get up to 210 or 215 instead of around 200 as he was as a rookie. This is a big offseason for him, as it is for most players coming off their rookie year. He has a lot of potential, but he needs to grow if he's going to be more than a taller Chris Sanders.
Kenny Britt had 11 catches for 96 yards on 37 targets. He played 298 snaps (28%). A free agent this offseason, I hope he is able to resolve whatever mental issues seemed to affect his game, most particularly his ability to catch the ball cleanly, in 2013. He seems to be at the stage of his career where he desperately needs a fresh start, and he will get it because he is not coming back to the Titans.
Damian Williams finished fifth on the team with 232 snaps (22%). Like Britt, he is a free agent. By FO numbers the most efficient of the Titans five receivers this past season, albeit in the small sample size theater category. He was thrown only 24 passes (one negated by penalty) and had 15 catches for 178 yards. He settled into a valuable role as a utility fourth receiver, able to step in at any of the three wide receiver positions if need be but behind other players at each of them. He also provided some return ability, though the improvement when Leon Washington came in suggested that asking somebody to return when they haven't done so regularly for a couple seasons is maybe not the best idea. He'll have an NFL job somewhere in 2014, doing something along the same lines as what he did in 2013. Will it be Tennessee? It's possible, but as I said when discussing Nate Washington my guess is Whisenhunt wants to get bigger.at the position. My random late night guess is Williams follows former OC Dowell Loggains to Cleveland.
Michael Preston was the sixth receiver. Unsurprisingly for a team that normally dressed four, he did not see many snaps, only 60 (5.6%). He had five catches on seven targets for 37 yards and two touchdowns, both against the Cardinals where he got so much work because of the comeback and Hunter and Williams' suspensions for a violation of team rules. A willing blocker and special teams player, he fits the mold at 6'5" and is willing to play physical. I think his problem is he doesn't run well enough to be more than a marginal NFL wide receiver. Marginal players are where you tend to see the most changeover from staff to staff, but I think Preston can compete for the fifth receiver job again, potentially a more important role in a Whisenhunt offense.
After his body did not let him play at all in 2013 and turning 33 next preseason, Kevin Walter is probably getting retired if he does not retire on his own. After attending every wide receiver meeting this past season (unheard of for an injured player), perhaps he will join Loggains and his old coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland as a pseudo-player/assistant position coach, though probably at a much lower salary than Ed Reed got from the Texans last year for playing that role.
Marc Mariani has not played in the regular season since 2011, which means he will be in competition for a returner job somewhere, probably at a minimum salary. That could be Tennessee. His presence will depend on what general manager Ruston Webster and wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson thought of his work in the past, as he has no history with Whisenhunt. On the other hand, Jeff Fisher would probably find a home for him in St. Louis.
The Titans also added Lamont Bryant and Isaiah Williams to futures contracts after the end of the season. Bryant spent 2012 on the Panthers practice squad after signing with Carolina as a rookie undrafted free agent. and spent 2013 out of football, possibly with the injury that led Carolina to waive him from the non-football injury list. A pseudo-TE at Morgan State, he has good size at 6'5, 225-ish. Williams, who played at Maryland, also has good size at 6'3, 200 pounds and spent time on the Cardinals practice squad when Whisenhunt was the head coach. He's bounced around the very fringes of the league since 2009 without ever making a 53-man. My expectations for them are the same as they are for all players on futures contracts, namely none.
With Kendall Wright, there is a bright future and I'm sure Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Jason Michael are making plans for what he can do. Justin Hunter will assuredly have a role. Kenny Britt is gone. Beyond that, the depth chart is murkier. I think Nate Washington is likely to be back, but that's not guaranteed. My guess is the Titans are likely to add a player with the potential to be a significant contributor, but unless Washington is cut that player is unlikely to be a significant addition, if that makes sense. In other words, I'm not expecting the Titans to go after Eric Decker or James Jones. A Whisenhunt reunion with Andre Roberts or a player like Brandon LaFell seems more likely. I do expect the Titans to make a move like that, given the need for depth and that other positions will likely be a higher draft priority, especially given the picks invested in Wright and Hunter. Further tinkering at the edges, for the fifth and sixth wide receiver spots, also seems likely to me, though you could see some familiar names there.