How does Marcus Mariota’s established rapport with familiar receiving weapons factor into the utilization of new pass catchers?
Quarterback Marcus Mariota will enter his fourth season as the Tennessee Titans signal caller in a new offensive system in 2018. A healthy offseason will be critical for Mariota to create chemistry with new teammates.
Mariota has built rapport with reliable receiving targets to this point. One of his most trustworthy targets has been a weapon since Mariota’s rookie season: TE Delanie Walker.
In his sophomore season, Mariota learned to utilize new offensive additions in RB DeMarco Murray, RB Derrick Henry and WR Rishard Matthews. Rookie fifth round pick WR Tajae Sharpe impressed in preseason and emerged in the starting lineup as a fresh set of hands for Mariota.
The trio was available for Mariota’s third season, but the team also added veteran receiver WR Eric Decker and drafted three pass catchers in the 2017 NFL Draft, adding WR Corey Davis in the first round while and doubling up in the third round with WR Taywan Taylor and TE Jonnu Smith.
Decker didn’t do enough to arouse the Titans’ interest in bringing him back following his one-year deal. His end zone snag in Arrowhead that helped propel the Titans into the divisional round could not erase the costly drops he had throughout the season.
Mariota is the centerpiece in OC Matt LaFleur’s offensive concoction. For Mariota, his primary returning weapons include Walker, Matthews, Davis, Taylor, Sharpe and Henry. RB Dion Lewis will be the flashiest new piece that Mariota will have at his disposal.
Of the seven offensive players listed above, Mariota is familiar with six. Granted, WR Michael Campanaro could work his way into a more defined role outside of special teams – and other recent free agency pick ups and undrafted talents currently on the 90 man roster may pan out could surprise – it is a safe to say Mariota’s arsenal is all but set in stone.
Let’s examine Mariota’s rapport with the receiving talent he has familiarity with.
"Seasons Played with Mariota: 3Receiving Yards: 2,310Receptions: 191Touchdowns: 10"
Walker has been Mariota’s go-to target since entering the league in 2015. The veteran tight end’s role will not diminish, and neither will his offensive production.
Mariota and Walker have connected 191 times for 2,310 yards and 10 touchdowns. Roughly a quarter of Mariota’s career passing yards belong to Delanie.
No matter what the final product of LaFleur’s offense looks like, Walker will resume his dirty-work duties in making the tough catches, piling up yards and contributing as a force in run blocking.
As Walker himself stated, he wasn’t pleased with his overall performance throughout the year. His uncharacteristic drops were puzzling, but no one is losing faith is Walker as Mariota’s most familiar weapon.
An offense aiming to increase the number of screens and play action passes will create more opportunities for Delanie to make big plays down field that could translate to offensive points.
"Seasons Played with Mariota: 2Receiving Yards: 1,635Receptions: 111Touchdowns: 11"
Mariota’s next most familiar target is Rishard.
Matthews has been sidelined thus far due to an undisclosed injury. From a position stand point, Matthews is the most experienced and reliable pass catcher not named Delanie.
In two seasons, Mariota and Matthews hooked up 111 times for 1635 yards and 11 touchdowns. Nine of those touchdowns took place in 2016. Matthews and Mariota were nearly able to replicate the 2016 totals in terms of receptions (56 in ’16, 55 in ’17) and yards (831 in ’16, 804 in ’17), the duo were unable to put up points, dropping from nine touchdowns to three.
The length of offseason work Matthews will miss may or may not impact the established rapport with Mariota. As the default number one option, Matthews must recover and continue to be a chain-mover in the new look offense.
"Seasons Played with Mariota: 1Receiving Yards: 498Receptions: 40Touchdowns: 2"
Sharpe is next on the list with the highest combined totals in working with Mariota.
Mariota and Sharpe have connected 40 times for 498 yards and two scores. Having played in one more game than the next guy on the list, Sharpe proved to be a reliable option despite not having the burner speed or size to his advantage.
A fifth round selection used his knowledge of route concepts and discipline to be in the right place, right time to bread his butter. Sharpe was forced to sit out the 2017 season, stunting the growing chemistry he had built with Mariota.
Now, Sharpe finds himself trying to work his way back from injury and back up the depth chart. He earned reps against the bolstered starting secondary with the absence of Davis and Matthews, but struggled to separate.
Sharpe will benefit from a returning Davis and Matthews – especially if the two top targets can stretch the field. As a third option, Sharpe can be very effective. As mentioned above, he won’t ever take the top of the defense, but he could find the holes in the zones to be a viable option underneath.
"Seasons Played with Mariota: 1Receiving Yards: 473Receptions: 43Touchdowns: 2"
Like Matthews, Davis has also been limited up to this point in the offseason. He’s worked individual drills, but the Titans are being cautious and have been reluctant to put the former fifth overall pick in team activities.
The connection between Mariota and Davis is the most important QB-WR relationship on the team. Davis has to become the number one option he was slated to be.
Mariota and Davis weren’t always in sync, but when they were, the results were what the team desired. Mariota and Davis combined for 43 receptions for 473 yards. Davis and Mariota couldn’t connect in the end zone until late in January – but they did so, twice.
Davis’s health concerns remain a mystery. The offensive design – unlike the previous scheme – should afford Davis the opportunities and space he needs to impact games.
"Seasons Played with Mariota: 2Receiving Yards: 374Receptions: 30Touchdowns: 2"
The self-proclaimed “King” sits at number five in terms of offensive production as a receiving weapon for Mariota.
Mariota has connected with Henry 30 times for 374 total yards and a pair of touchdowns. Henry’s 66 yard scamper on a screen pass helped the Titans thump the division rival Jaguars and earn a spot in the playoffs.
The screen game will be a point of emphasis, and this will benefit Henry tremendously. Henry has been critiqued for sub-par pass protection, but has continued to work to improve that hole in his game.
Incorporating a respectable screen attack will afford Henry the space he needs to build up steam. With Lewis demanding attention due to being a dangerous receiving weapon out of the backfield, expect the Titans to employ two-back sets in which both Lewis and Henry are receiving options.
The receivers must force defenses to respect their ability to stretch the field in order for there to be options underneath – whether via misdirection or exploitation of mismatches – which will give not only Henry space, but Lewis space to do damage as well.
"Seasons Played with Mariota: 1Receiving Yards: 240Receptions: 18Touchdowns: 1"
Taylor’s rookie season can be defined as trying to fit a square peg in a circle hole.
The third round pick was the hot topic during mini camp. The buzz was justified after making some big splash plays in the preseason.
Despite having a fiery start, the excitement of Taylor fizzled as he was mishandled by OC Terry Robiskie. The Titans did not incorporate Taylor into the offense as much as they should have. Instead of trying to force Taylor to contribute from the backfield or in some form of “Titans Trickery”, the offense should have designed plays in which Taylor would use his speed and acceleration to become a downfield target.
Clearly, Taylor’s confidence was affected by his misuse in the system. He finished the season connecting with Mariota for 18 receptions, totaling 240 yards and one touchdown.
LaFleur should – and will likely – find ways to inject Taylor into the designed offensive attack. His production – like Sharpe – is linked to the overall effectiveness of Davis and Matthews.
Seasons Played with Mariota: 1
Receiving Yards: 155
Smith rounds out the list. The “Delanie-clone” has the build part down, but needs to work on the production.
There is no substitute for Delanie Walker. However, Smith will benefit from working in concert with Walker throughout the offseason. The relentless effort Walker displays in practice is a key point to take notes on.
Smith, to the surprise of many, was the first player to catch a touchdown from Mariota for the 2017 season. Smith flipped two of his first three receptions into touchdowns. However, his production dipped and was not able to build off of his two touchdown start.
Mariota connected with Jonnu for 155 yards on 16 completions, with his lone two scores coming near the beginning of the year. Smith with have to polish his blocking skills while learning how to expose mismatches downfield.
If Smith becomes half of what Walker is this season, it will be a drastic improvement. LaFleur will likely use sets featuring both Walker and Smith as play action threats, and it will be up to the tight end duo to establish a reputation of exposing the middle of the field.
Collectively, the receiving group wasn’t nearly what many expected it to be last season. The argument could be made that many didn’t believe in the offense and lost confidence as the year progressed.
What LaFleur’s offense will look like is not clear at this point. What is clear is that the team needs to establish an identity sooner rather than later. If Mariota’s offseason dedication to improving his footwork can help him out-produce his 2016 play, the offense as a whole will be worlds better.
Mariota has many familiar faces to look to when executing the offense, which will help. Learning how to use his new RB Lewis, avoiding lapses in judgement and utilizing his legs when the play breaks down will help Mariota and the offense cast a shadow over the “Exotic Smashmouth” era.
The offensive line production will determine exactly how balanced the offense is in terms of run vs pass.
One thing is evident – expect the Mariota’s numbers through the air to improve in a system tailored to his strengths.