2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Tennessee Titans
August 26, 2015 | Chet
In their first season under Ken Whisenhunt, the Tennessee Titans finished 2014 with a 2-14 record and failed to make the postseason for the sixth consecutive season. It gets even uglier when looking back at Whisenhunt led teams post Kurt Warner as over his past four seasons as an NFL head coach, his teams have sported a 20-44 record. With a new infusion of talent, most notably at the quarterback position, is 2015 the beginning of positive change in Tennessee?
2015 Titans Schedule
When looking ahead at the schedule in bulk form, proceed with caution. With the disclaimer out of the way, the Titans really don’t have a lot in their path that is terrifying. Even with what could be a mixed start in which Tennessee faces defenses projected to be good in Cleveland and Buffalo, those are attached to offenses that likely won’t run away from them on the scoreboard. From weeks 5-14, the Titans face just one playoff team from last season and it was a team that actually had a losing record.
Of course, having favorable or neutral matchups for us to take advantage of may not matter much unless this offense makes major strides this season. Tennessee ran the fewest offensive plays in the NFL last season and the fourth least plays in the red zone at 6.5 per game. They were a team that had thin depth all around and it was exposed due to injuries. Even led by a rookie quarterback, a healthy offense in 2015 doesn’t have much to hurdle to improve on their 2014 output.
More Mariota for 2015?
The Tennessee trio of Zach Mettenberger, Jake Locker and Charlie Whitehurst ranked in the bottom third in nearly every passing efficiency measure last year, making quarterback an immediate need. All three quarterbacks started multiple times and all attempted 140 or more passes with all completing less than 60 percent of those attempts. Tennessee addressed that issue by selecting Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick this spring. As noted in the intro, like many coaches, Whisenhunt’s NFL success has largely centered on having adequate quarterback play and although he inherited Philip Rivers and Kurt Warner as established players, he did have a hand in Ben Roethlisberger’s initial development.
I did a silhouette of Mariota as a prospect before the draft, citing him as a clean prospect and Justin Winn points out that the latest Heisman Trophy winner is not only squeaky, but he is potentially one the best quarterback prospects ever to enter the league. While it’s tough to determine how much Mariota was aided by environment at Oregon, both in terms of talent and system -something Tennessee is still chasing – he checks a lot of boxes of what we’re looking for when investing fantasy capital into the position as he is a functional passer at a high level and can use his legs.
That potential ceiling to be a dual threat rookie breakout has C.D. Carter giddy about acquiring Mariota at his QB25 cost. The concern I have with Mariota is that I inherently want my fantasy quarterbacks to operate with as much offensive leverage as they can and the Titans are still sitting with a 5.5 over/under win total for the season. Dual threat quarterbacks especially have needed offensive leverage to unlock their fantasy ceilings as Cam Newton, Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick have all put on display recently. When the offense becomes one dimensional all of their limitations arose. The counter to that point is that the same could be said about Newton and Griffin’s teams during their inaugural seasons and they were both top-5 fantasy options. The other counter is that Mariota projects to be a better natural passer than that entire group and isn’t just reliant on his work with his feet. I’m into selecting him as Mariota’s minuscule draft cost allows you to use one of your final picks on him to see where the truth lies with little risk at all.
Tennessee Backfield: More Titanic than Titan
Combined with game script issues, the Titans running game was a bottom dwelling unit last season, finishing 26th in yardage (1,447 yards) and they scored just six times on the ground all season. They ran just 356 times all season (29th) with Bishop Sankey leading the team in attempts at just 152 on the season.
The Titans spent a second round pick on Sankey last spring as he was the first back selected in the draft. Despite that capital and being on a depth chart devoid of talent, Sankey never distinguished himself from the group. That kind of capital generally signifies a team believing a back can be a key cog in their offense, but Sankey had 15 or more carries in a game just three times all season. A three down back with 67 career receptions in college, Sankey had three or more targets in just three games and actually had fewer targets (23) than journeyman Leon Washington (31).
Sankey never reached 60 percent of the team snaps in any game as a rookie and played just 50 percent or more just four times. Tacking on to all of that, Sankey never played on third downs, carrying just one time with one reception on third down all season long. As a runner, Sankey showed the ability to at least get to the line of scrimmage and generate some positive yards as his stuff rate was strong, but he offered little in terms of providing consistently good runs or explosive ones.
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Sankey entered the league with an impressive athletic pedigree and production, but it didn’t translate into his performance as a rookie. Anthony Amico cautions writing players off after just one season and Shawn Siegele points out that Sankey’s yards after contact were among a good set of peers. Sankey has opened both preseason games to date with mixed results but has been the first string back.
The team also brought in David Cobb at low cost to compete for a roster spot this spring and I broke down Cobb’s game prior to the draft. While not overly impressive by any measure, I still tabbed Cobb as a back that coaches would value highly under that entire exterior. It seems fitting that one of Cobb’s main objective comparables as a prospect was Shonn Greene and his selection likely resulted in Greene’s release. We know Cobb isn’t going to play in passing situations early on, but Sankey didn’t either as a rookie. If Sankey can’t keep Cobb at bay, he could lose his role in the offense altogether. I do believe Sankey will get that initial opportunity based on the investment the Titans made a year ago, but Cobb is the kind of runner that won’t do much to harm an offense, which can be enough to swing a vote for him from the staff if Sankey is still providing mixed results during the season.
The Sankey versus Cobb dynamic is a polarizing one since both very well could be mediocre players that possess different attributes that attract different avenues of owners. The wild card here is the selection of Mariota who can have a major impact on a running game. We’ve seen backs attached to quarterbacks who are threats to run be fantasy assets recently, so whoever is carrying the ball in Tennessee has a shot to make an impact if this team can maintain offensive leverage consistently. The issue is that is once again setting up to be another frustrating committee as Dexter McCluster and possibly even Antonio Andrews are going to get touches. Sankey and Cobb have favorable draft costs if you want to take a stab at either ending up truly leading that platoon. Out of the duo I still prefer to take a shot on Sankey since I fall under the crowd that gravitates to alluring physical attributes and initial team investment. Normally I would say just avoid the situation, and I will under the majority of cases, but both are so cheap that if you end up missing on your preference, you aren’t taking a crippling loss.
The Wideouts: A Titan Sized Quagmire
Just like this backfield is shaping up, the Titan receiving unit is mash up. Kendall Wright, Harry Douglas, Hakeem Nicks, Justin Hunter, Dorial Green-Beckham and even possibly Tre McBride could all see time at some this season contributing. Even though the depth chart is muddy, there are a still few names here I’m interested in.
Wright is entering his fourth season and his 215 receptions so far are the most for any player in Titans/Oilers history through their first three seasons. He battled a wrist injury that forced him to miss time, but over his 14 games played, Wright had seven top-36 scoring weeks and four weeks within the top 13 of his position.
Wright was a hot commodity after posting a WR20 season in 2013, but was another example of why “In a PPR” is a myth when it comes to inflating a player within the receiver position. He was still more of a possession player as 52.6 percent of his yards came after the catch, the third highest in the league, but Wright actually found the end zone last season, something that had eluded him during his first two seasons. As another positive, his yards per target remained neutral while his points per target and yards per reception all increased for third consecutive season.
Wright doesn’t project to ever score a ton of touchdowns or provide explosive plays, which is what is keeping his price point depressed at WR45. Just 33 of his career receptions (15.3 percent) have gone for 20 or more yards and just 12 of his career targets (3.6 percent) have gone for scores. Still, there’s an overcorrection by the market on Wright entering this season just as there was an over inflation a season ago. Pulling up C.D. Carter’s Equity Scores, Wright is already priced in well below his ceiling and median outlooks and near his floor. He’s a player that is a virtual lock to best his price point if healthy and is a solid fourth or fifth receiver that you can use in weeks in which you need to swap in a player you need a floor performance from. On teams in which I have a volatile third receiver, I’ll be looking to add Wright for those types of weeks.
Although he doesn’t have a clear line to the field as of today, I’m also very interested in Green-Beckham. I profiled DGB as part of our draft coverage and I still believe Green-Beckham has the highest ceiling of this draft class and could possibility be a makeup pick for Tennessee selecting Kevin Dyson over Randy Moss in 1998. He will initially have to fight for targets amongst a crowded group of mixed subpar talent and the Titans will be grooming a rookie quarterback in what we can fairly safely assume will be a subpar team situation overall, so there’s a reason why he’s still so cheap at WR65.
I mentioned that Wright has scored 12 times on 336 targets, but the other Titans receivers have also been allergic to the end zone. Douglas has just eight career scores on 419 targets (1.9 percent) and Nicks has scored 10 times on his past 269 opportunities (3.7 percent) over the past three seasons. At the very least, the 6’5” DGB should find the field as a package player and red zone contributor as his peers have all been subpar in that area.
With the invested draft capital sunk into him and lackluster depth around him, DGB should push for targets sooner than later. This staff has shown reluctance to play rookies heavily even with the team performing poorly, so he’s still just a stash and you’ll need deep enough rosters to carry him, but there aren’t many options available that late in drafts that have the type of ceiling and touchdown upside as Green-Beckham.
Charles Kleinheksel kicks around the notion that maybe Douglas hasn’t been good for fantasy because he’s played behind Julio Jones and Roddy White the past four seasons and has produced when either was absent, but he also had two seasons of limited production before Jones was drafted. At age 31, we know who Douglas is, and that player has a lot of overlapping qualities to his game that Wright already is better at. I believe Douglas has high odds in ending up as second on the team in targets, which is also a frustrating thought.
Nicks is still just 27 years old, but has yet to regain his early career form and has lost almost all explosiveness to his game as he’s dealt with a litany of lower body injuries. Nicks’ yards per reception fell all the way down to just 10.7 yards per catch last year and that was with elite quarterback play. I believe both Douglas and Nicks will start the season as the second and third receivers and frustrate owners early, but I can’t see those veterans closing the door at any point on either Green-Beckham or Justin Hunter getting opportunities.
I’d love to take another tour on the Justin Hunter express, but once was enough as he’s setting himself up to be a limited niche player without enough refinement or physicality to crack through being a package only player in lid lifting situations. If you want to take a really deep cut in a best ball format of those packages creating some splash moments be my guest, but this is one train I’ve exited completely.
At age 30, Delanie Walker posted career highs in targets (106), receptions (63) and yards (890) on his way to a TE8 finish last season. He finished with eight top-12 scoring weeks, the same amount as Travis Kelce, Martellus Bennett, Jason Witten and Jimmy Graham. Over his first two seasons as a full time starter, Walker improved in just about every area.
The slight downside from Walker’s 2014 is that he was more of a safe floor option, as lack of touchdown production kept him from his weekly ceiling as he had just three top-6 scoring weeks at the position. That’s something that may not correct itself as Walker has been a pedestrian contributor in the red zone for his career, and has converted just eight of 29 red zone targets (27.6 percent) over the past two seasons for scores in Tennessee, which is really poor for a tight end.
The other downside when looking ahead is that Walker was a beneficiary from all of the turmoil surrounding the Titans last season as he occupied 21 percent of the team targets and was targeted on nearly 21 percent of his routes, both big spikes from his 2013 usage. With so many more targets on the roster, that share should fall back down some. If Walker can roll over that high end usage then he’s an easy value, but even if he doesn’t, at TE12 cost, he’s still a solid option for those making a late play at the position. Walker is the last of the tight ends that comes some bankable target volume, so if you pass on him the drop off beyond that point is filled with upside plays or touchdown dependent options, meaning you’re likely full on streaming the position.