The Tennessee Titans brought in former San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as their head coach a couple of months ago. His mission? To get Tennessee back to the playoffs long-term, and to try to fix a lethargic offense as fast as possible.
The puzzle started to form when Wiz and the Titans signed former Kansas City Chiefs running back and return man, Dexter McCluster to a long-term deal. It meant the writing was more on the wall than ever for disgruntled back Chris Johnson, and also showed that the Titans were serious about heading in a new direction on offense, overall.
McCluster is far from a traditional running back, but he might be the perfect fit for what Whisenhunt wants to do. After all, Whisenhunt deployed a less than traditional back named Danny Woodhead with the Chargers last year, and he was quite productive in a two-headed committee with fellow back, Ryan Mathews.
Hypothetically, at least on paper, the shifty and versatile McCluster looks to be Wiz’s new Woodhead, with holdover Shonn Greene being his new Ryan Mathews.
The real question is, what can fantasy owners expect of McCluster and just how much value will he have in drafts? Let’s break it down as we continue to prepare for the 2014 fantasy football season:
McCluster Versus Woodhead
If we’re looking at recent and overall career numbers, it’s easy to quickly say Woodhead is the superior running back to McCluster. Truth be told, he probably is, but if we look back, McCluster wasn’t all that bad as a true running back with the Chiefs. In fact, in 2011 (just his second season) he ran the ball 114 times for 516 yards. He wasn’t a good runner in between the tackles and couldn’t be used at the goal-line, but he still popped off a very solid 4.5 yards per carry with over 100 carries. The next season saw far fewer carries for McCluster, but he still ran the ball 12 times for a 5.8 yards per carry average.
Clearly McCluster was turned into more of a true wide receiver over his final two seasons in Kansas City, but the big signing suggests the Titans think he’s much more versatile than that. The good news is that when he was used as a running back, he was much better than a lot of people thought he would be. And on the other side, his time as a receiver shows he can reel the ball in, secure it, and gain some yardage after the catch.
In terms of talent, McCluster actually matches up quite well with Woodhead. Woodhead might be a little faster, but both are smaller backs who are adept at finding creases in the defense and exposing them. Overall, Woodhead is the craftier back, but McCluster should be able to mirror his playing style and production in Tennessee.
The supporting talent isn’t nearly as good for McCluster as it is for Woodhead in San Diego, while he also takes an overall hit in general from moving from KC to Tennessee. Jake Locker is a very talented quarterback with some real upside, but he’s also injury-prone and has proven to be inaccurate and erratic. If Wiz can get the best out of Locker there’s a chance these flaws will be minimized. In fact, it’s even worth noting that McCluster’s actual presence might open things up more for both the running and passing game, while actually making life easier on Locker.
If Locker knows he can freely dump off balls to McCluster or make quicker reads and passes, it could positively impact everyone in the Titans’ offense.
While McCluster has clearly proven his abilities as a receiver and return man, Whisenhunt has already made it pretty clear that he views his new offensive weapon as a running back first, before anything else. With that said, Whisenhunt also admitted how McCluster is used could “vary week to week” and will depend on just how effective he is with the touches he gets.
Starting out, it looks like Wiz has found his Woodhead and will deploy McCluster as a change of pace running back who will also catch a lot of passes out of the backfield. That could still mean early down work here and there, but likely means most of McCluster’s time will be spent on third downs and in obvious passing situations – as well as the hurry-up offense.
So, what can we actually expect? It probably doesn’t take a whole lot more than a quick look at Danny Woodhead’s production in San Diego to get a better idea of what McCluster might do in his first season with the Titans. In just one season with the Chargers, Woodhead reeled in a career high 76 receptions, while running the ball 106 times and scoring eight total touchdowns.
McCluster figures to be used much in the same way, as he acts as a change of pace runner and does most of his damage as a receiver out of the backfield. Assuming he’d simply hit Woodhead’s 70+ receptions right away is a little silly, but based on two straight 50+ catch seasons of his own, we can’t really ignore the possibility of that, either.
Overall, Woodhead is the better talent who had a better quarterback in place in Philip Rivers, and also had a better running back (Mathews) paired with him. McCluster can’t help any of that. All he can do is build on his experience thus far and apply it to his new role. On paper, it looks like he should have no problem doing that. If Woodhead was regarded as a “poor man’s Darren Sproles”, there’s little reason to think McCluster can’t be, as well.
If McCluster’s effectiveness is anything close to what Woodhead was able to accomplish in 2013, he should be seen as a strong Flex play heading into the 2014 fantasy football season.
When/Where to Draft
McCluster still isn’t going to be deployed like a traditional running back, regardless of what Whiz says. He’s a change of pace runner and in all actuality, more of an “offensive weapon”. That could still equate to as much as 180 total touches, though, which should make for enough value to have fantasy owners find a roster spot for him late in drafts. While there is certainly risk involved thanks to the change of scenery, there is also a good amount of upside to be had with McCluster in his new role.
This post comes from Justin Becker of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow the Fantasy Football Overdose Google+ Page, and for more Fantasy Football Rankings and Projections visit Fantasy Football Overdose, a fantasy football blog.