The Tennessee Titans haven’t done much to help Marcus Mariota become an elite quarterback in the league. The addition of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry is nice, but if Mariota is expected to take the next step as a quarterback, he needs weapons.
A similar situation that Mariota’s can be compared to is that of Teddy Bridgewater. In his first season, Bridgewater’s top two options were an aging Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, who caught less than half of his targets. That was also the year they lost Adrian Peterson and were forced to roll with Matt Asiata and an inexperienced Jerick McKinnon.
In Bridgewater’s second year, the Vikings didn’t add much, but Stefon Diggs surprised and Kyle Rudolph and Peterson played most of the season. While Bridgewater’s numbers were mostly the same, the offense was noticeably better and more potent.
As for Mariota, his receivers are defined by Delanie Walker. He’s a great tight end, but the Titans surely didn’t expect him to catch 94 balls last year.
This year, the Titans’ biggest additions were Tajae Sharpe, a fifth-round draft pick out of Massachusetts, and Rishard Matthews, a cast-off from the Dolphins, who has never had more than 43 receptions and has been oft-injured. Andre Johnson is also there, but there’s no reason to expect him to produce after what he did with the Colts last season.
Yet, with all that said, Mariota has to throw to someone other than Walker.
Last season, the Titans struggled to find a consistent option between Dorial Green-Beckham, Harry Douglas, Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter.
None of them were worth much in fantasy, although DGB did find some relevance late in the campaign.
But the thing is, someone has to produce and it’s unlikely a 32-year-old Walker will get as many targets.
Wright’s days of any fantasy use are about over as he’s simply a slot receiver and has dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the preseason.
The guys to take note of are Tajae Sharpe and Rishard Matthews. No, they are nothing exciting, but one of them will undoubtedly become a fantasy steal at some point this year.
Both are getting ranked in the basement, with Matthews at No. 58 and Sharpe No. 70 in the FantasyPros consensus WR rankings as of late August. For the most part, that also takes into account DGB’s trade.
But does that make sense, even if Walker gets the same numbers as a year ago?
Mariota is in his second season and getting a heavy upgrade at running back, which should help open some passing lanes.
If Mariota plays all 16 games this year, he could easily be at 25 touchdowns, and that number is simply expanding what he did last year in less time.
To predict a floor for Matthews and Sharpe, let’s try and extrapolate last season’s targets to this year.
DGB, Douglas and Hunter combined for 168 targets. Green-Beckham is gone, while Douglas and Hunter aren’t expected to do much on this year’s team. Walker and Wright can be projected to reach last year’s 133 and 63 targets, respectively, but it wouldn’t be surprising if those numbers were smaller. The rest of the targets were split up between running backs and backup tight ends.
Maybe the Titans become a power-running team, but it can’t be forgotten they still ran the ball more than passed a year ago, even with less than average RBs.
So we have roughly 150 targets to break up at the minimum. If Sharpe and Matthews can lock down starting roles (which they have), that’s about 75 apiece. If one of them is Mariota’s favorite, that could be 100 targets.
It took us a long time to get here, but the Titans WRs do have upside.
Sharpe may only be a rookie, but he’s seemingly on the same level as Matthews, yet not being rated as such. Sharpe looks like the better sleeper because of that reason, but Matthews, a constant underperformer on the Dolphins, should not be ignored.
To project 800 yards and five touchdowns (top-40 WR) for one of them and 600 yards and four TDs for the other (top-50 WR) would not be that crazy. One will do better, there’s no way around it.
However, no one is talking about these two in the fantasy world. Kendall Wright is still getting ranked higher (No. 60), even after his extremely lackluster 2015. Sure, he was hurt, but he never surpassed four receptions or 46 yards in his final seven games of the year.
There’s no reason to worry about him. Matthews and Sharpe are the starting WRs and the ones to focus on in the Titans offense.
Sharpe is the guy I’m keeping my eye on. He caught six balls for 68 yards in Saturday’s game, all coming from Marcus Mariota, who had nine completions. The Titans obviously want to get the rookie some work and considering he’s so low in rankings, he’s the one to keep an eye on.
Going back to the Vikings comparison, Sharpe could easily be the Stefon Diggs for the Titans this year. He size and route running fit well with the offense, whereas Diggs’ speed was a key element for Minnesota.
To get a starting receiver this late in a draft, or for this cheap in an auction, can’t be ignored. If Mariota and the Titans offense can take their expected leap, those projections could end up being true to form.