Welcome to another installment of “Tennessee Titans Strengths and Weaknesses.”
This time out, we’ll dive into the Wide Receivers. I analyzed this group somewhat a few weeks ago, but changes have reshaped the landscape. Currently, the Tennessee Titans have 12 receivers on the roster. Expect that number to be cut in half for the regular season.
First up is Robert Woods.
The man known as Bobby Trees was acquired from the world champion Los Angeles Rams for a 2023 6th-round pick days after the Tennessee Titans released Julio Jones.
At the time, it was thought Woods would provide the complement to A.J. Brown that Jones was supposed to be, but Brown was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles on the first night of the 2022 NFL Draft, setting off a 9.0 earthquake on the Richter Scale in Middle Tennessee, with the 50 yard-line of Nissan Stadium serving as its epicenter.
Woods brings plenty to the table, with experience, leadership, and production the most important. Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Woods played 4 seasons for the Bills before signing with the Rams in 2017. While his days in Buffalo were productive, it was with the Rams that Woods truly shined, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019. Woods has 570 career receptions for 7,077 yards and 35 touchdowns. That works out to 12.4 yards per reception.
While the yards per catch doesn’t pop, it’s important to remember his role throughout his career. Woods moves the sticks. Of those 570 receptions, 358 have gone for first downs, a healthy 62.8% clip. As for leadership, Woods is not only a veteran of nine NFL campaigns but also contributed to two Super Bowl runs for the Rams. Woods was injured last November and missed playing in the team’s Super Bowl LVI win over the AFC Champion, Cincinnati Bengals.
Despite checking all the boxes, the combination of that knee injury and his age will keep Tennessee Titans fans up at night this summer. By all accounts, Woods has looked great in OTA’s, and his rehab is coming along nicely. But Titans fans have heard this too often the last few seasons. Taylor Lewan tore his ACL in 2020; it obviously bothered him last season, as he was nowhere near as effective as in years past. Julio Jones arrived in camp with a nagging hamstring issue and was ineffective all year. Bud Dupree looked like an absolute waste of money until the last few games of the season due to an inconsistent recovery from the same injury.
Now, with Woods in the fold, we’re again playing a game of wait-and-see.
In a previous article, I outlined the Titans’ lack of success bringing in aging receivers who have been highly successful elsewhere. But the Woods situation is different. He absolutely has to produce. The ship sailed on the Robert Woods-A.J. Brown pairing. The Titans need him to step into the WR #1 role immediately. Behind him are… well, we’ll get there in a minute.
Back to Woods. He’s the only receiver on the team who can claim north of 50 catches in his career. But he’s also on the wrong side of 30 and coming off that previously mentioned ACL tear. That’s not who you want to lean on for the bulk of your passing game.
Which Tennessee Titans will compete for a starting spot next to Robert Woods.
Treylon Burks was chosen in the 1st round of this year’s draft to replace A.J. Brown. The team can dress it up any way they like, but that’s the bottom line. They are desperate for him to seize the reins as the team’s #1 wideout from Woods. Not only would his ascendance allow Bobby Trees to fully recover and slide into a more natural role, but it would also ease the sting of losing Brown.
Make no mistake, Burks is a talented football player. But rookie wide receivers traditionally run hot and cold. Some get it right away and take the league by storm, while others take longer to develop.
The team will tow the company line about allowing him time to learn the game and remind us that every player is different, but they know as well as anyone that this has to work, and it has to work now, or they will end up with pie all over their faces, (though urgency is not something that Mike Vrabel has ever shown when it comes to rookies).
Contending teams have a championship window arc. The Tennessee Titans’ window opened in 2019 when they unexpectedly rolled through the playoffs before falling in the AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl Champion, Kansas City Chiefs.
The Tennessee Titans have stumbled in the playoffs the last two seasons, going one-and-done each year. How long their championship window remains open depends on their ability to balance the roster with new talent and existing pillars of the roster. Brown was a vital piece of the puzzle that was supposed to be a fixture for years, a face of the franchise. Losing him was a significant step back in both talent and optics. Burks has to step up and be the guy, or the team risks that window slamming shut in a hurry.
Working against Burks is a lack of experience on the outside. In college, he often operated much like the 49ers use Deebo Samuel, an everyman that attacked defenses from anywhere on the field. Can he transition to an outside receiver in the NFL? Will the Tennessee Titans develop the playbook to take advantage of his natural skills? Both remain to be seen.
And, of course, it’s impossible to mention Burks without the “Inhaler-Gate” issue surfacing. As I stated in a previous article, this is an issue I hope we can put to bed. Asthma hasn’t stopped him thus far in his career. Whether he succeeds or fails in the NFL, I doubt the disease will play a role.
Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was never supposed to be “the man.” At best, he was supposed to make the squad on the strength of his special teams play and contribute sparingly as a receiver. The 2020 undrafted rookie out of Indiana caught just 3 passes on 8 targets during his initial NFL campaign.
With the new talent coming in last year, there were questions about whether or not he would even make the roster. No one would have believed it in mini-camp if they were told NWI would be the team’s second-leading receiver in 2021, catching 38 balls for 476 yards and 4 TD on 58 targets. It wasn’t supposed to work out that way, but it did.
How much the team will rely on him this year? That’s the $64,000 question. (That’s the name of an old game show from the Golden Age of television for the youngsters out there). Ask around the NFL, and scouts will tell you NWI is an excellent complimentary piece to have stocked away in the cupboard if you need him, an excellent third or fourth option, but not someone to build a passing game around. I would feel better knowing he’s the team’s fourth option, but for now, he’s the #3 receiver. I wouldn’t bet against him finishing second in receiving again, though.
The Tennessee Titans hope last year’s 4th round pick, Dez Fitzpatrick, takes a leap forward this season. At 6-2 and 210 lbs., he possesses the size and has good enough speed to play outside. But he failed to make the roster last season coming out of camp and was a non-factor that had many labeling him with the dreaded B-word (bust) early.
To Fitzpatrick’s credit, he stepped up and did what he had to do. He could have whined about his plight or taken the diva route many receivers embrace, but instead, he worked hard to improve. The coaching staff seems to have noticed, and they hope it will carry over into the season. If so, Dez will be a more active contributor in year two.
Also drafted last year was Racey McMath in the 6th round. The LSU product ran a blazing 4.39 40 at the combine, and Tennessee Titans fans were ecstatic to add that speed to the roster. Whatever visions they had of the strong-armed Tannehill hitting McMath over the top while teams stacked the box against Henry quickly dissipated. He caught 2 passes for 8 yards. One was a 9-yarder, meaning the other catch went for negative yardage. McMath played primarily on special teams but proved effective there.
Despite his speed and athleticism, McMath never managed to emerge while at LSU. Granted, he was buried behind Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, but Joe Burrow completed 402 passes for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns in that incredible championship season on the Bayou. McMath managed to snag just 17 balls for 285 yards and 3 TDs of that Heisman-winning total. He struggled in college with lazy route-running and questionable hands but tightened up the route-running last year.
Besides Burks, the Tennessee Titans also selected Kyle Philips out of UCLA in this year’s draft, nabbing him in the 5th round with the 163rd pick overall. According to those in attendance at the OTAs, Philips played a starring role. At 5-11 and 189 lbs., he’s projected to play in the slot, where he excelled in college. He possesses soft hands, runs crisp routes, and is one of those guys who always seems to be open, despite a lack of high-end speed (4.58). Barring injury, Titans fans will see a lot of this young man this season.
Common wisdom says 5-10, 198 lb. receivers out of tiny Berry College don’t stick on NFL rosters. Such players are stockpiled as camp bodies before leaving their football dreams behind and returning home to work a 9-to-5 and wonder what might have been. True to script, Mason Kinsey didn’t stick with the Tennessee Titans his first time out, getting cut early. But he returned last year and led the team in receiving in the preseason. His efforts and hard work convinced the Titans to retain his services on the team’s practice squad. Philips is his main competition for a roster spot this season, but Kinsey has experience in the system and coaches like him.
At first glance, Josh Malone looks like one of those guys a team kicks the tires on and later releases. After all, multiple franchises have kicked those tires and decided there was no place for him to park on their lot. But Malone has legitimate talent and seems to realize this may be his final shot at a professional career. If he can put it all together in camp and show some flashes in the preseason, he may secure a roster spot, given the thin state of the Titans’ receiving corps.
Another guy who has hung around with the Tennessee Titans for longer than anyone expected is Cody Hollister. The former Arkansas Razorback has bounced around the NFL since 2017, spending time with the Patriots and Titans. He and the Titans have broken up and gotten back together again more than Archie and Veronica, but he’s always hanging around, stalking the periphery to pounce on any open roster spot. Hollister has appeared in 10 games for the Titans since 2019. Most of his contributions have come on special teams, but he also posted 7 receptions for 58 yards for the Titans during that time. The coaches seem to like him, but someone will get squeezed out this year. Will it be Hollister again?
Earlier this month, the Tennessee Titans signed Juwan Green, a former Falcons, and Lions practice squad player out of Albany. At first glance, it may seem Green is a camp body. Truth be told, he’ll have a rough row to hoe in making the final roster, but everyone knows that old saying, “Never count out an Albany Great Dane.”
Okay, nobody actually says that, but how cool is it that the University of Albany’s mascot is a Great Dane? Seriously though, while Green is a long shot at making the roster, it will be a numbers game. Green returned kicks in college and was pretty darn good at it, averaging 23.2 yards per return in his junior year. I bring that up because the Tennessee Titans also signed RB Trenton Cannon to return kicks. If the numbers shake out right and Green demonstrates he can handle kickoff return duties, he would be a less expensive option and allow the team to go with one less running back. I would consider him a dark-horse candidate to make the team, but you never know.
The scuttlebutt out of OTAs said that Reggie Roberson was impressive. He caught a TD from Logan Woodside last Tuesday. He didn’t run the 40 in pre-draft workouts, but scouts listed his top-end speed as one of his more impressive qualities. The Titans need more speed. Roberson has had issues staying healthy, suffering a season-ending foot injury in 2019 and tearing an ACL in 2020. He played collegiately at SMU, and the Mustangs ran a very simple offense, so adjusting to an NFL playbook may be challenging.
Another free agent hoping to shine is former Air Force receiver, Brandon Lewis. Lewis led a run-heavy Falcons offense in 2021 with 21 catches for 619 yards and a TD. He added 179 yards rushing on 21 attempts. For those keeping score at home, that’s 29.5 yards per reception and 8.5 yards per carry! Holy backyard football, Batman! Keep in mind that this team threw for only 95 yards per game and averaged 328 yards rushing per contest. Players like Lewis are intriguing because they may prove to be untapped talent. Those kinds of players are always worth keeping an eye on.
So, is the Tennessee Titans 2022 receiving corps, as it stands right now, a net positive or negative toward their championship goal this season?
There’s a lot of potential with this group, but it’s hard to ignore that the only experienced receiver on the team is a 30-year-old coming off an ACL tear, and the rest have precisely as many receptions between them in their careers combined as A.J. Brown caught last year (63). Keep in mind that Brown missed 3 games and played hurt in others. I would have to grade this unit as a net negative toward the championship goal. PFF’s Ben Linsey seems inclined to agree, ranking the Titans’ receivers just 26th in the NFL. He does admit they could be a strength or a weakness, but everything has to go right for the former to happen.
How often does everything go right in the NFL?