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Marcus Mariota's wide receivers were bad last year.
Hakeem Nicks started for the Tennessee Titans through training camp and the preseason, yet he was released when the franchise trimmed its roster to 53. The Titans kept just four receivers before claiming others on cutdown day. Kendall Wright was the top receiver of that quartet. Wright is a good player when healthy but he has too often played at less than 100 percent throughout his career and he wasn't healthy last year. Justin Hunter was next in line because of his combination of talent and experience but Hunter has never lived up to his potential and he landed on IR midway through the year.
That left Mariota throwing to Dorial Green-Beckham and Harry Douglas. Douglas remains on the roster despite being incapable of creating his own separation, he caught a touchdown this past week against zone coverage after play action. Green-Beckham was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a backup offensive lineman because despite his reputation coming out of college, his hype could never overcome his complete inability to be in the right place at the right time.
Douglas, Wright and Hunter remain on the roster, but only Wright is close to the starting lineup. Of course, he's injured right now with a hamstring tear too so Douglas is taking over his reduced role in the slot.
Wright has been moved to the slot because the Titans signed Rishard Matthews to start outside and drafted Tajae Sharpe. Sharpe wasn't expected to be a starter. He was a late-round pick but immediately established himself as one of the Titans' best receivers. Or at least, the receiver the Titans coaching staff trusted the most. Sharpe, Matthews and Andre Johnson all arrived in the offseason to alter the identity of the Titans receiving corps. Each is expected to make the roster with Wright and Douglas beating out Tre McBride and Hunter for the final spots.
Sharpe is the most interesting of the group though. In the Titans run-heavy offense, only Delanie Walker is really an attractive starter for the purposes of fantasy football but Sharpe has a chance to take targets away from one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
Not a huge amount is known about Sharpe. He played college football at Massachusetts where he caught 277 passes for 3,486 yards and 16 touchdowns over four seasons. His combine performance didn't stand out, nor did his tape, and most common phrase you hear uttered about him is "He has small hands." A fifth-round pick because of talent rather than character concerns shouldn't be drawing the reviews that he has to this point, but the 21-year old has forced his way into the spotlight.
The NFL has plenty of receivers who have developed from overlooked into stars. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the league and he was a sixth-round pick. Doug Baldwin had one of the better years in the league last year and he went undrafted. The receivers who overachieve are typically smaller guys who were unfairly judged because of their size. That's not the case with Sharpe. Sharpe measures in at 6'2" and 194 lbs. He's not heavy but he's long, something that his quarterback appreciates.
Mariota doesn't have a ball-winning wide receiver. Hunter and Green-Beckham were supposed to be those types of receivers but neither could manage it. His size helps, but only because his route running and ball skills allow it to. Mariota spoke on this to the team's official website recently, "He makes it easy. He is a very versatile athlete and he's done a lot for us already. He creates separation in and out of his routes and we are going to continue to expect those kinds of things out of him."
While Mariota has seen a lot more of Sharpe than the rest of us, he's also in a position where he is expected to oversell guys. Even with that said, it's hard to argue against Sharpe's quality based on the small sample we have seen so far.
Sharpe's best play from the past two weeks came against the Carolina Panthers. On Third-and-14, Mariota dropped back in the pocket and held the ball while looking away from Sharpe's side of the field. The receiver was running an in-breaking route from the wide left receiver slot. Once Mariota brought his eyes across the field, he located Sharpe and threw a pass that led him downfield. Sharpe made a good reception between two defenders, holding onto the ball for a first down.
A couple of things stood out on this play. Sharpe's route was good, he positioned his body between the ball and the defender while staying on the right side of the first-down line. It's also important that he kept working through his route even though he wasn't the first read on the play. Most importantly though, Sharpe held onto the ball and maintained possession to the ground even with a defender in close proximity.
Mariota didn't have a receiver who would make that play for him last year. If Delanie Walker was the first read on the play and he turned to the backside because Walker was covered, he couldn't bank on an accurate pass being caught.
For his first catch in the NFL the previous week, Sharpe made a similar play against contact that Mariota couldn't expect to be made last year. Again, Sharpe lines up on the left side of the formation. The cornerback across from him is lined up off the line of scrimmage but Sharpe needs to create a path downfield by manipulating him. He attacks the cornerback's outside shoulder before smoothly transitioning back inside to accelerate past his inside shoulder. Mariota attempts to hold the safety while Sharpe works through the early stages of his route but ultimately has to try and fit the ball into a tight window.
Mariota's throw isn't perfect, it hangs in the air too long forcing Sharpe to adjust. It's a catchable, but not neessarily a precise pass.
Last year this thro would go to Green-Beckham or Douglas. Green-Beckham would struggle to get open because he wouldn't have known how to move the cornerback when he established in his initial position. Douglas wouldn't have got open because he no longer has the speed to take advantage of the subtleties in his routes. If, hypothetically, both players did manage to get to the point that Sharped did, Green-Beckham would have had a chance at catching it but you couldn't be certain while Douglas would have assuredly lost the ball against the contact from the safety.
To be an improvement over the receivers the Titans had last year, Sharpe doesn't need to be spectacular. He just needs to be consistent.
None of the three plays in the gifs above are necessarily difficult plays to make. They all come against off coverage and result in short, underneath gains. These aren't plays you put on highlight reels or use when arguing for one receiver over another, but they are plays that build the foundation of a receiver's production. These are the plays that create trust with the quarterback and sustain drives to grow your snap count, and in turn your opportunities to produce.
In the Titans offense, Sharpe won't catch 100 passes. The Titans have repeatedly reiterated their desire to run the ball since hiring Mike Mularkey as their head coach. Mularkey's offense will feature multiple tight ends and a full back as often as it will spread the field with four and five receivers. His passing game will focus more on the vertical than the horizontal, meaning catches will be harder to come by.
The benefit of playing in a run-heavy offense with a mobile quarterback is the defense will be less inclined to play press-man coverage.
All of Sharpe's catches so far have come against off-man or zone concepts where he is given a free release from the line of scrimmage. He hasn't had an opportunity to work against press-man and prove that he can beat it so his evaluation is still incomplete. What's promising is that he can make difficult plays once he gets into his route. This third-down conversion from this week's game against the Carolina Panthers shows of fhis ball skills as he extends fully to snatch the ball out of the air.
If Sharpe can consistently put himself in these positions and catch the ball within his catch radius, he will offer Mariota a margin for error that none of the wide receivers he has played with to this point have. He won't be beating the very best of the best cornerbacks for huge yardage, but he can become an integral piece of the Titans passing game.
For fantasy purposes, Sharpe is going to be a value play. He shouldn't ascend too far up drafts but once you get out of the first 10 rounds he is a name to look for. He can be a lesser version of Marques Colston. Colston was never a great receiver but he could win in specific ways, against zone or off-man, and offered Drew Brees reliable hands and a wide catch radius. Where Colston and Sharpe diverge most is situationally. Colston played in a pass-heavy, intelligent offense whereas Sharpe is tied to Mike Mularkey.
The hype is probably a little bit too strong right now for Sharpe but there is no doubting he is an intriguing option as a latter-round flier.