The latest in a series of occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. I’ll probably have another Titans post in the next couple weeks looking at the roster heading into free agency, and will definitely have a big pre-draft post along the lines of last year’s.
One of the things you see a fair amount in mock drafts around the interwebz is a tight end, whether O.J. Howard or David Njoku, projected to the Tennessee Titans with the 18th pick. The connection is a natural one. The Titans give a lot of snaps to tight ends. The Titans only have one veteran tight end under contract for 2017. The Titans need weapons in the passing game. The wide receivers they might consider are generally off the board, so project them a tight end. Easy and obvious.
Now, it’s easy to criticize mock drafts, even one with natural connections like that one. I criticize mock drafts all the time, of course, but mostly reserve those thoughts to my head or to occasional mutterings when I’m alone. I wouldn’t be writing this post just to criticize mock drafts or even Howard and/or Njoku as players (for one, I’ve barely started watching draft prospects seriously). Especially in February, I use mock drafts as information on where players might be valued and/or evaluated and to build my own list of players to watch. But those projections of a tight end to the Tennessee Titans do give me an excuse to write about something I’ve been thinking about in general, namely the need to analyze potential Titans tight ends and wide receivers through the filter of roles.
This is something general manager Jon Robinson has expressly stated, that players are evaluated in terms of how they fit roles. While under Ruston Webster player evaluations might have been done free form in a relative vacuum, Robinson emphasized that draft prospects will be fit into the roster and compared to players on it. This means it’s important to look at what roles on the team might be open, and how draft prospects might fit or not fit into particular roles, including potentially at the expense of players currently on the roster.
We only have one draft with him in charge to consider in thinking about how Robinson does things, but fortunately Mike Mularkey brings with him a long history in the NFL in being in charge of an offense and/or a team. We can use that to learn some things, or at least makes some educated guesses.
One thing that’s clear if you look at Mularkey’s history is he tends to concentrate who he targets in the passing game. Among wide receivers and tight ends, the top three targets tend to have a lot more catches, while the fourth, fifth, or later options don’t have many. Look at the 2016 Titans-Rishard Matthews had 108 targets and 65 catches, Delanie Walker 102/65, Tajae Sharpe 83/41, and then Kendall Wright’s down at 42/29. The last offense Mularkey ran, the 2012 Jaguars: 132/64, 105/55, 77/52, then 43/24. The 2009 Falcons were probably the purest example of this-Roddy White was at 165/85, Tony Gonzalez 134/83, Michael Jenkins at 90/50, and then Marty Booker down at 31/16. One of those top three players may or may not be a tight end. Gonzalez obviously was targeted a lot, as was Walker, but Justin Peelle had 23 targets as the Falcons’ lead receiving tight end in Mularkey’s first year there.
Let’s apply this prism to the 2017 Titans. Matthews, Sharpe, and Walker are all back, and could fill the role of top three receivers. Now, it seems likely the Titans would be happy to have Matthews and Walker be focal points of the passing offense again this coming season. That leaves one role potentially up for grabs. The simple question to be asked of any wide receiver the Titans sign or draft is, will that WR send Tajae Sharpe to the bench? If the answer is no, he’s crossed off the list as a potential starter. Whether he could be function in a reserve role is a different question, but I belay that for now.
Now, these mock picks of Howard or Njoku, where they fit? The Titans obviously have a big need at tight end. There are two questions that will dictate whether the Titans potentially have interest in a first-round TE. First, do they like their offense better with that TE than they do their offense with Sharpe? Mularkey has never, ever, not once in his career featured two tight ends in the passing game. In the 12 seasons Mike Mularkey has spent as a team’s offensive coordinator or head coach, the most targets his TE2 has ever had in a season has been 19. (I’m not counting Anthony Fasano’s 42 targets in 2015 because that was Whisenhunt’s offense they installed leading into the season.)
Now, this presents to Mularkey a bit of a tactical problem. Walker’s a solid move tight end, but not somebody they want to put on the line of scrimmage in 21 or maybe even 12 personnel and run the ball with. One of the things that would make Howard and/or Njoku appealing to the Titans is if he could do that and present more of a pass threat in that role than Fasano (now a free agent) or Phillip Supernaw did this past season. But if you’re looking at that player as a Sharpe replacement, then what you’re looking for is a player who can line up on the outside and win 1v1 matchups against cornerbacks on intermediate routes (y’know, that thing Titans receivers had so many problems with this season). There are players who can do one, and there are players who can do the other, but hardly anybody this side of Rob Gronkowski can do both as frequently as he would have to do to fit both needs. So I’m kind of skeptical any TE in this draft fits that first potential justification for spending a first-round pick on a tight end.
Ok, fine, the second potential justification for spending a first-round pick on a tight end. Are the Titans ready to move on from Delanie Walker in the near future? This is almost always an awkward question, but it must be asked. Walker turns 33 before the start of this coming season, and his contract expires after 2018 (when he’s due a $5.4 million base salary). If the Titans are ready to move on from Walker, they could select Howard or Njoku to be their TE2 this season, filling a Fasano-type role with more receiving upside, with the expectation that he’ll supplant Walker as their primary receiving TE and one of their big three receiving options in 2018, or at latest 2019 (similar to Derrick Henry’s likely career trajectory). If this is the answer, though, the pick of a tight end would be in addition to, not instead of, a receiver to supplant Sharpe.
Let’s try putting this into a different format. Here’s what things looked like in 2016:
Starting outside WR, frequently targeted: Tajae Sharpe
Starting outside WR, frequently targeted: Rishard Matthews
Slot WR, occasionally targeted: Kendall Wright
WR4, slot or outside, infrequently targeted, didn’t play ST: Harry Douglas
Marginal WR: Marc Mariani (returner), Tre McBride
Move TE, frequently targeted: Delanie Walker
Inline TE, infrequently targeted: Anthony Fasano
TE3, blocker/special teams, infrequently targeted: Phillip Supernaw
TE4, inactive: Jace Amaro
Now, within the context of what I wrote above, here are your questions as we project those roles going forward to 2017:
1. Do you want Tajae Sharpe to be an 800+-snap player? If yes, fine. If not, then the Titans should look at free agency (not many great options, likely) or the draft (maybe depending on what you think of Mike Williams, Corey Davis, John Ross, etc.) for a player who can be better than Sharpe at this job. If you do this, then Sharpe could potentially fill one of the spots lower on the depth chart.
2. Kendall Wright is a free agent and, in my opinion, quite unlikely to return. This isn’t a big role, but is there a player on the roster you want to fill that slot WR role, even if it may just be a limited one?
3. Harry Douglas is due $3.75 million in the final year of his deal. (a) Do you want him to fill the Wright role, or you can find a better player for that? (b) In his inside-outside flexibility and your degree of trust in him, plus the absence of any cap pressure, such that you’re willing to pay him that much to again do what he did in 2016, or can you find a different, maybe better and/or cheaper player, preferably one who contributes on special teams for that role?
4. Marc Mariani is a free agent. Who’s going to return punts and kicks? I’m skeptical this player was on the 2016 roster. Obviously, this player doesn’t have to be a wide receiver and is quite unlikely to be a tight end.
5. Anthony Fasano is a free agent. Who’s going to fill that role? You could re-sign Fasano to do it, but as an anti-fan of old tight ends, I’d prefer a younger option if there’s a good one available. This player is unlikely to have a big passing game role in 2017, but could have one in future seasons.
6. Phillip Supernaw is likewise a free agent. This could be a good role for a young player with the goal of putting him in Fasano’s role in 2018, or just a marginal veteran.
7. Is there a path from Amaro’s current position to any potential role other than move TE? I really don’t see one, and haven’t since the Titans claimed him off waivers. But if the TE2 and TE3 aren’t credible potential Walker injury replacements, as they weren’t in 2016, Amaro could maintain his 53/healthy inactive status for another season.
Possible answers to those questions likely to come when free agency begins next month, and we should know a lot more about what the Titans are actually likely to do come draft night by the time I do the big draft preview post in mid- to late-April.
UPDATE (2017-02-20 2255): Had some “this season” ambiguity, using it to refer to alternatively 2016 or 2017 at different points, so changed that and some other style stuff that was annoying me.