The Tennessee Titans need a new slot receiver if they aren’t going to re-sign Eric Decker. Could Tajae Sharpe be the answer?
At first glance, the Tennessee Titans’ WR depth chart looks pretty barren. Veteran Eric Decker was not re-signed (technically, still a possibility), and the only additions through free agency or the draft have been special teamer Michael Campanaro and newly signed Nick Williams. With new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur coming from a team that utilized 11 personnel more than anyone else in the league, the Titans will surely be running a lot of three-WR sets this season. But which WR on the roster will supplement incumbent starters Rishard Matthews and Corey Davis?
Since both Matthews and Davis figure to play primarily on the outside, the Titans will need to decide on who will occupy the slot (Decker’s old role). The common thought among Titans fans seems to be that Taywan Taylor will be the slot receiver this season, but I’m not so sure. The player many people overlook is Tajae Sharpe, who missed all of the 2017 season with a foot injury. If you factor in LaFleur’s past offenses and Sharpe’s skillset, I think there is a good chance that Sharpe is Tennessee’s primary slot receiver in 2018.
Slot Receiver Cliches
If you were to choose one player who defined the slot wide receiver position, who would you pick? I think many football fans would answer Wes Welker, who really brought the position to prominence through his many successful years with the New England Patriots. Welker is a textbook definition of what we think of as a slot receiver in the NFL: small (he was 5’9, 190lbs), quick, and elusive. Which is why it makes sense that Taylor, who is a smaller player with great quickness, is considered the heir at slot receiver by many. But the reality is that not every team employs this type of player at the slot position.
This old article from PFF does a good job of describing the types of receivers that are used in the slot. Many teams use the stereotypical Welker types, but there are also teams who utilize larger players in the slot to either stretch the field or muscle out smaller corners. Instead of using quickness or speed to beat their opponent, taller and stronger slot players rely on their route running and body positioning. A look at the league today shows that many of the top slot receivers do not fit the conventional slot receiver mold. Players such as Larry Fitzgerald, Adam Thielen, and Keenan Allen all spent significant time out of the slot in 2017. These are bigger receivers who use their excellent route running and size to create windows for their QBs. So while Taylor may seem more like the prototypical slot receiver, Sharpe shouldn’t be ruled out because he doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a slot receiver.
Slot Receivers in LaFleur’s Past Offenses
A quick look at LaFleur’s past seems to indicate that the slot receiver in LaFleur’s past offenses have been big possession receivers. LaFleur was the QB coach in Atlanta under Kyle Shanahan from 2015-2016, and the OC for the L.A. Rams last season. The Falcons had Mohamed Sanu in the slot in 2016, while the Rams started rookie Cooper Kupp there. Sanu and Kupp both have good size (Sanu is 6’2, 210, and Kupp is 6’2, 205), great route running ability, and strong hands. And neither is known for their elite athleticism, with both players running 4.6+ 40s at the combine. Sharpe is very similar to both of these players, also measuring in at 6’2 and being known for his route running and sure-handedness. Just take his word for it:
"“[My best strengths are] route running and my hands — my ability to catch the ball no matter where it’s going,” Sharpe said during a conference call with the Titans after the Draft. “I feel like I’m a very smooth route runner since I came into college. That’s one of the things I work on very hard.”"
If we are just going off of measurables and route running talent, then Sharpe makes the most sense. One of the things that the LaFleur/Shanahan/Sean McVay offense loves to do is get a good route runner in space and let him beat his opponent. This doesn’t necessarily result in huge gains, but it’s effective in moving the ball down the field.
Sanu doesn’t blow past his defender, but his quick footwork gives him just enough space to let Matt Ryan zing a pass into the brief window.
Switching now to the Rams, who are able to get Kupp on an island. He promptly leaves his defender in the dust with a nifty move.
Here is the backbreaking TD from Kupp in the game against the Titans. Forget the fact that Brice McCain is a terrible CB and think about the matchup that McVay and LaFleur were trying to exploit. This is different from the plays above because instead of the receiver being on an island, they use a bunch formation. They are able to get Kupp and McCain one-on-one and the rest is history.
Even if McCain managed to play somewhat competent defense, Kupp still has about five inches on him. Teams are going to like their chances when it comes to these types of matchups; the nickel CB is often the smallest DB, so there are many favorable looks when you employ a larger slot WR.
Why Tajae Sharpe Makes the Most Sense at Slot
This is less of an argument that Taylor is bad and more about Sharpe being a better fit at slot for the new Titans offense (although Sharpe did have 25 more receptions and almost 300 more yards than Taylor in their respective rookie seasons). First of all, Sharpe has more experience in the slot. In their final seasons of college, Sharpe played almost 30% of his total snaps out of the slot, while Taylor ran just 16% of his snaps there. Sharpe is known for his excellent hands, while Taylor had issues with drops and body catches in college. Sharpe also has a bigger frame than Taylor, which will help him running hitch and slant routes out of the slot. Considering that he is basically a carbon copy of Kupp and Sanu, you would think that LaFleur would like him at the slot because that is the type of player he is used to having in that role.
I also feel like it’s necessary to point out that, despite a decent rookie year in terms of stats, Sharpe still had his issues. Advanced metrics, such as PFF score, yards per route run, and catch rate, all shine an unfavorable light on his lone season. But one of the reasons I think Sharpe should play the slot is that I don’t think he’s cut out for playing on the outside. He isn’t big enough, strong enough, or fast enough to be a consistent creator against the big, athletic CBs of today’s NFL. But putting him in the slot will hide some of his weaknesses. He won’t be facing the big CBs as much, and his size will be more of an asset.
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The ball also usually has less distance to travel when throwing to the middle of the field. Since Sharpe isn’t exceptionally fast, CBs usually have enough time to close in on any separation he creates on sideline throws. But when defending the slot, they will have a smaller window of time to close the gap, meaning Sharpe will actually be able to capitalize on the separation created from his route running. I not only think that the Titans would benefit from having Sharpe in the slot, but that Sharpe would benefit from not playing outside.
As for Taylor, I feel like it makes more sense for him to be playing on the outside in this offense. After all, he did lead the nation with receiving yards on deep passes his senior season. He reminds me a bit of Taylor Gabriel in the Falcons 2016 offense; an electric player who can take the top off the defense. The Titans could use his athleticism on the outside, and he is worth a look there considering Matthews will be a free agent next season. And even though some consider Taylor to be small, he is practically the same size as Matthews and should be able to hold his own on the outside.
When looking at Sharpe’s skillset and the type of slot receivers that LaFleur is accustomed to, it’s apparent that Sharpe would be a natural fit at the slot in this offense. Granted, there are still some hurdles, such as his health and whether or not the Titans bring Decker back (which would make some sense). There’s a chance LaFleur has a rotation at the slot position, but considering the fourth WR on the Rams played just 27% of the snaps, I get the feeling he will rely heavily on the top three WRs for this offense. And I think Tajae Sharpe has a decent shot of being the primary slot receiver out of that select group.