Despite many people projecting a breakout campaign from Corey Davis, it’s likely that Rishard Matthews will be the Tennessee Titans’ leading receiver in 2018.
As a small market team, the Tennessee Titans are used to being overlooked by the national media. Players such as Jurrell Casey, Taylor Lewan, and Kevin Byard perform at elite levels with barely a mention from the national media. But, while Titans fans are quick to point out the lack of attention on a national level, they are sometimes guilty of overlooking the contributions of one of their own players. A great example of this is WR Rishard Matthews, who has been quietly impressive during his two seasons in Nashville, with little recognition from fans.
Since Matthews arrived in Nashville it seemed as if his role was set: an promising player on a good contract who could develop into a solid #2 WR. This role was further cemented when the Titans drafted Corey Davis with the 5th overall pick; it was only a matter of time before he fulfilled his destiny as a true #1 WR. And while Davis should improve greatly on a forgettable 2017 season, I still doubt he will eclipse Matthews as the #1 WR in 2018. The reason being that Matthews is incredibly productive and has an established relationship with QB Marcus Mariota.
I doubt many fans realize how productive Matthews he has been in relation to the rest of the league. He is one of only 22 WRs to have more than 750 receiving yards in each of the past two seasons. In 2017, he was 16th in the league in terms of yards per reception among WRs, averaging 15 yards a catch. Not too shabby for a player who is often knocked by fans for being too slow and unable to create separation. He also makes the most of his targets; his yards/target of 9.14 was 14th among WRs with 40 targets or more. He also should get credit for improving in his 2nd year wearing two-tone blue, as his Y/R in 2016 was 14.54 and his Y/Tgt was 8.75.
Interestingly, his target rate actually dropped in 2017. After finishing the 2016 season with 108 targets, his target total in 2017 was 87. Even when factoring the 2 games he missed (he played all 16 in 2016), he still saw an 8% drop in targets. Obviously the additions of Eric Decker and Corey Davis played a role in this, but TE Delanie Walker also saw an 8% target increase from 2016 to 2017.
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Walker and Davis are the Titans top 2 returning receivers outside of Matthews, and their productivity pales in comparison to Matthews. Delanie Walker averaged 7.27 yards per target, while Corey Davis had a measly 5.77 yards per target. It makes you think – why wasn’t Matthews targeted more last season? He only averaged 0.3 targets/game more than Davis (despite being much more productive), and 0.7 less per game than Walker. The Titans were most likely looking to get their promising rookie game reps, but it might have been to the detriment of the team.
But I think there will be a shift in 2018: I predict that Matthews will receive the most targets on the team this season. Why? A couple of reasons. First, I think that we will see a substantial drop in Delanie Walker’s targets. LaFleur’s offense does not figure to have a TE as the focal point of the passing game like Mularkey’s offense did. The last time a team LaFleur coached for had a TE eclipse 90 targets was the 2010 Redskins. Then again, LaFleur probably hasn’t had a TE as talented as Delanie before. But I think Walker ends up getting around 85 targets instead of the 111 he got in 2017.
When comparing the Titans to the Rams 2017, Matthews will most likely play the Robert Woods role. Woods averaged the most targets per game out of any WR on the team, and he had the highest Y/R. Since we haven’t seen the full offense in motion yet, we can only speculate as to what the scheme will actually look like. But Woods and Matthews have very similar skill-sets and measurables, so it is an educated guess that LaFleur will use Matthews similarly.
The Y/Target gap between Matthews and Davis highlights the relationship differences between the WRs and their QB. That isn’t to put all the blame on Davis; the QB-WR relationship is a two-way street, and Mariota provided Davis with a low percentage of accurate passes. I do think that relationship will improve over the year, but the task of learning a new offense may slow the process. Mariota and Matthews (and Walker) already have an established relationship, and QBs tend to fall back on their trusted targets when things aren’t clicking with their other options.
The purpose of this post wasn’t to slight Davis or Walker in any way, but to prop up Matthews. He is always productive when given the opportunity, and I believe that LaFleur will utilize him more than the previous regime. The rapport between him and Mariota will give him a leg up on Davis for the early stages of the season, and I think that Matthews finishes the season with the most targets of any receiver. When you factor in how he has been the Titans most productive receiver the past two seasons, I think all signs point to him being the Titans leading receiver in 2018.