Going into the 2022 season, the Tennessee Titans’ receiver that Ryan Tannehill has the most experience throwing to is Nick Westbrook-Ikhine.
It takes a second to realize that and it takes a full minute to figure out how we got here, but it is true.
NWI is nothing short of a Mike Vrabel fever dream. In his rookie season, he worked his way into contention for a roster spot as an UDFA and once he made the active roster he became a fixture on special teams.
That consistency and effort were rewarded in his second season when waves of injuries to the wide receivers basically turned NWI into the de facto WR2 for the season. I think all Tennessee Titans fans would say that NWI was “fine” even though his presence was always disappointing because it meant yet another play without Julio Jones and A.J. Brown on the field.
As we head into 2022, all signs are pointing toward NWI taking another step forward and becoming a WR2/3 hybrid depending on how you evaluate the position. A better way to describe him might be to call him the Tennessee Titans’ best approximation of a “Z” receiver (typically the “other” option on the boundary opposite the “better” boundary receiver).
Even in scenarios where Treylon Burks and Robert Woods are on the field with NWI, the smartest thing would be to use one of those two in the slot where they have both thrived in the past.
Admittedly that is a pretty lackluster situation for the Tennessee Titans after they headed into the 2021 season with A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Josh Reynolds, Marcus Johnson, Chester Rogers, and a couple of wildcard rookie options.
However, there is one question that needs to be asked…
What if NWI is actually a good receiver for the Tennessee Titans?
Stick with me here.
Something that I learned recently was pointed out in John Glennon’s article about which players could add more explosive plays to the offense this season. I was as shocked as you are about to be to find out that NWI had a 20+ yard reception once every sevenish receptions:
"“He averaged one such reception for every 7.6 catches, not so far behind Brown (one per 6.3 catches).”"
So he has flashed playmaking ability when he has been given a chance and in all fairness, he probably deserves more chances. As James Foster pointed out in a cut-up on Twitter, NWI was ranked 5th among receivers in 3rd down success rate.
Keep in mind, that Ryan Tannehill is only going to throw the ball about 30 times per game. Whether you like it or not, Aaron Rodgers could come walking through that door and Mike Vrabel would demand that the Titans offense stick close to a 50/50 split of runs and passes.
Teams know that and it makes it hard to scheme against the Titans when they remember to run a lot of play-action passes in situations where they aren’t in obvious passing downs. Other than the down and distance, the most important thing in selling a play action isn’t a good running back, it is the personnel around the running back.
Last year the Titans were obvious about when they were passing and when they were running because of the receivers and tight ends that they had on the field. That won’t be true this year because with NWI, Robert Woods, and Austin Hooper, you have eight very good run-blockers on the field on any given play. If NWI can continue to stay healthy and be explosive and efficient, then he could actually be an above-average starter on this offense.
Will he be better than Woods or a healthy Burks? No, but if all three of those receivers can be good blockers and can continue to create explosive plays at an efficient clip, then this passing offense could be much better than the 2021 offense. With an improved defense on the other side and a better run game, “better” is all the Tennessee Titans need from the passing game.