One of the things I've been involved with lately is getting KUBIAK, the Football Outsiders fantasy football product, ready for its release (set for Tuesday no later than noon ET). That includes projecting usage for the various Titans players, including particularly catches for the receivers. Note this post and all projections in it are simply my opinion and is not necessarily the same as KUBIAK's (or anyone else's) projections.
To get an idea as to how the Titans might target their players in 2013, I thought it would be useful to take a look at how the Titans under Mike Heimerdinger targeted their players. All the evidence we've gotten this offseason is this is the best available information we have. Dowell Loggains worked under Heimerdinger for years. Heimerdinger is generally regarded as having done a very good job for the most part. His offenses most years tended to fit how the Titans probably want to play offense this year. Kevin Walter talked about it being the same playbook he used in Houston, because Mike Heimerdinger, like Gary Kubiak, came from Denver.
The first cut I decided to make was to look at catches by position groups. Naturally, this depends on the talents in each position group. Fortunately, Heimerdinger was the Titans' offensive coordinator for 8 seasons, so we have a reasonable sample size to deal with. Some years, the Titans had a pretty lousy receiving corps (see, e.g., 2008). Other years, it was pretty good (2003). Some years, they threw the ball a lot to the tight ends (2000). Other years, not so much (2002).
Before we can get to the positional breakdowns, though, we need to establish a top-line number. In 2012, the Titans completed 318 passes. They very likely will complete fewer this season. Over the 8 seasons under Heimerdinger, the Titans had as few as 262 (2010) and as many as 355 (2004) completions, with an average of 294 per season. Seven of the eight years (all but 2004), the Titans were a pretty run-oriented team. In those non-2004 seasons, they averaged 285 completions. I'm not sure they'll go that low, but a projected difference of 10 catches doesn't matter much for what I'm trying to do here. For that reason, and because it makes the math a little easier, I'm going to assume the Titans end up with 300 catches.
Over those 8 seasons, here's how the Titans tended to distribute their passes and how those numbers would apply to our hypothetical 2013 season.
Now let's apply those numbers to the particular position groups.
I went ahead and combined halfbacks and fullbacks into a single grouping, just because I didn't want to delve too deeply into, say, how many of Robert Holcombe's 19 catches in 2013 came as a fullback and how many came as a halfback. When the Titans carried a traditional fullback, he tended to have 10-15 catches. I don't think Quinn Johnson is going to have that many catches, but I could see a bigger role for him after he had only 5 grabs in 2012.
How it might work: Chris Johnson 45 catches, Shonn Greene 10 catches, Quinn Johnson 10 catches
The thorniest position to deal with, for a couple reasons. First, the Titans targeted their wide receivers a lot last year, because that's what Chris Palmer's offense did. Returning wide receivers caught 190 passes last year, and the Titans added Justin Hunter in the second round. Add in ideas about Kendall Wright getting even more volume in his second season, and Kenny Britt having the sort of season his talent indicates he's capable of having, and Nate Washington sticking around and having another good season, and Justin Hunter making a big impact, and Damian Williams having another useful season... If you took the most optimistic projection for each of those players and used 2012 as your baseline, you'd probably end up with more catches than every Titan combined will have this season. No. Just, no. No. We have to subtract some catches.
The easiest way to subtract some catches is to get rid of somebody, which is why I continue to believe Nate Washington's roster spot is in serious jeopardy. Let's assume the Titans keep Nate Washington. Kendall Wright is probably going to play a bit. Kenny Britt, assuming he's healthy at least some of the time, is going to play a bit. Justin Hunter is going to play some. How many snaps, and how many catches would there be for Washington to come up with? Nowhere close to 2011's 74, and not even last year's 46. Is he worth keeping around for a role like Damian Williams' last year when you have three wide receivers you like better?
If you assume the Titans cut Washington, you're at 144 returning catches with the need to add Justin Hunter and Kevin Walter. My guess is 11 catches is not enough for the two of them. Mike Preston probably won't make the team, which gives you 5 catches. 16, still not enough. Damian Williams will probably not get 30 catches again. The WR4 in the Heimerdinger era never had more than 19 catches, and some years there wasn't even a distinguishable WR4. I think Williams is a better player than about all of those guys, but given the competition for targets I think he ends up around 10 catches. That's 35 catches to play with, which I think is enough.
With a little redistribution to a healthier Britt, here's how it might work: Kendall Wright 60 catches, Kenny Britt 50 catches, Justin Hunter 25 catches, Kevin Walter 10 catches, Damian Williams 10 catches
The Titans have three tight ends who've never caught the ball a lot and who don't seem particularly good at catching (Taylor Thompson and Delanie Walker seem to be bad, Craig Stevens more average when he needs to be very good considering his (lack of) separation ability). Yet, this is an offense that tends to feature a lot of 2TE sets and is very conducive to a tight end as a leading receiver. Heck, Bo Scaife led the team in receptions in 2008. The Titans have also talked a lot this offseason about how changing route distribution of the tight ends is going to help the offense. This could just mean "we're not going to run shallow cross 37 times a game," but I think it's more than that and that means somebody in this group is going to break 30 catches for the first time.
Based on what he's said, Delanie Walker seems pretty sure this is going to be him. Given the contract the Titans gave him and what they've said, I'm inclined to agree with him. The only question is, how many balls will he catch? He's talked about catching 70 passes in multiple media sessions. There are enough reasonable bodies at wide receiver I don't see that happening, but the leading receiver at tight end under Heimerdinger averaged 48 catches a season. I can see Walker around that figure pretty easily. Fortunately, I don't have to get too tricky in assigning catches to Walker, either, as the departed Jared Cook leaves 44 catches unassigned.
With a modest amount of growth from Taylor Thompson in his second season, here's how things might work: Delanie Walker 45 catches, Taylor Thompson 20 catches, Craig Stevens 15 catches
Why Will I Be Wrong?
As you may recall, I tried projecting how the Titans would target their receivers after they drafted Kendall Wright. It did not go as well as I hoped it would. Here's why my catch predictions in this post will be wrong.
1. What Mike Heimerdinger did is a bad guide to what Dowell Loggains will do. Different people, and there's no actual proof Loggains is a Dinger clone. He may throw the ball to the backs and receivers about as much as Dinger did, or he may end up with Chris Palmer-like numbers.
Assessment: Maybe. Given that I'm undertaking this assessment without Loggains telling me exactly what he plans to do, I need to base it on something to get a reasonably grounded projection. As I said, I think Dinger's experience gives us the best available evidence.
2. Loggains stopped throwing the ball to the back when he was the interim offensive coordinator, so I projected too many RB targets.
Assessment: True as far as it goes, but the Titans talked about that aforementioned receiver distribution involving the backs and getting Chris Johnson more involved in the passing game. I think if anything I projected too few RB targets.
3. The Titans have no tight ends who've ever caught the ball a lot, so they're not going to end up with nearly as many catches as I projected them to have.
Assessment: I've pounded that drum since the Titans signed Walker and I decided to update my assessment of how well Stevens catches, and I completely get this. Dinger showed in 2003, for example, that when his wide receiver corps was better than his tight end corps he threw the ball to the wideouts a lot and the tight ends not much. I think between Thompson and Walker the Titans have more potential value in the passing game than a late-career Frank Wycheck provided (Erron Kinney and Craig Stevens is more or less a wash by the same token) and won't target their tight ends that little. Would it shock me if TEs only had 55 catches in 2013? No, it would not, and this is the part of the projection that worries me most.
4. Injuries. It's unlikely everybody's healthy, and this projection doesn't take that into account.
Assessment: True, but see the next point.
5. Kenny Britt has shown he can be awesome when he's healthy. Dinger showed he was willing to target a healthy Kenny Britt a lot. Kenny Britt is healthy, and that means he could end up closer to 100 catches than 50.
Assessment: True, but I think the Titans like their other wideouts a lot more than they did when they were throwing the ball to Britt all the time. The other option isn't Justin Gage, so Locker won't have to throw the ball to Britt every third play. That said, I think a Kenny Britt who's in shape, healthy for 16 games, and put in the necessary amount of work in the offseason probably does end up closer to 80 catches than 50. I just don't, can't, won't trust that hypothetical Kenny Britt until I see it for myself.
6. 300 is a bad number of total targets to project.
Assessment: Yes, but why? I picked it because it's a round number that divides up reasonably. If I had to set an O/U on Titans completions this year, it would probably be about 290 and I'd take the Under on that. For the purposes of this exercise, I don't think being off by 15 total completions is that big a deal. If you want to assume the Titans instead have 285 or 315 completions, that's fine with me and adjust the catch distribution accordingly. 300 suffices for its purpose for this post, I think.
7. The non-primary players have too many projected targets. CJ, Britt, Hunter, Wright, and Walker will catch at least 250 of the 300 passes, not the 225 you project them for, and probably even more.
Assessment: This could be right, but individually I don't think any of the projections are unreasonable. The Titans are talking about Shonn Greene as an every-down block, so projecting him for a modest number of targets is reasonable. Fullbacks in Dinger's offense caught 10-15 passes, as I said. Craig Stevens will play, and Erron Kinney always had at least a few catches as a blocking tight end. I think those players ending up with 75% of the catches is a pretty reasonable number. FWIW, over Dinger's tenure the top five receivers averaged 76% of receptions, with a max of 82% (2000) and a min of 69% (2001).
Now tell me why else I'm wrong and how the Titans will target their receivers instead.
I'm with you, Tom, on the possibility of letting Washington go; not because he's unproductive but because he's a smaller target and Locker already has similar and younger receivers in Wright and Williams. Plus Washington's fairly expensive. Locker needs bigger targets and that's why Walter will be in the mix. I project him having around 25 catches because he can move the chains and will be a big target in the end zone. All and all I see the receivers having about 160 catches; the TE's at about 100 and the running backs getting about 30.
@PamLoewWalter had 2 Tds all last year in a better passing offense, doubt he would improve in TN. Also ESPN did an article on how Houston rarely threw a pass into the endzone once they were in the redzone so that clearly paints a picture that Walters value won't be in the endzone. Walter keep in mind has benefitted playing opposite Andre Johnson while
he was in his prime, now Walter is 32 and slow as molasses. He has clearly been going down hill each of the last 3 years due to nagging injuries and missed OTAs with an injury. I think he's battling Preston for the last spot in the group and the Titans seem smitten with him seems how he can also play special teams (something Walter doesn't do).
Also Washington and Williams aren't even remotely similar. Washington is about 15 pounds lighter, quicker and the only player who is similar would be Wright who reportedly is 15 pounds lighter this year meaning he is around 181 pounds instead of his listed 196. So Washington would be the only player to replace Wright if he got hurt without changing the offense. Look at the break down below we have more guys like Walter than we do Washington. I highly doubt Mariani or Walter end up on the final roster.
The running backs having 30 catches would be incredibly unlikely. Chris Johnson alone has never had less than 36 catches in a season in his 5 yr career. I'd say closer to 45-50 catches when you include an uptick in screen plays under Loggains who is Heimerdinger disciple and CJ hopefully looking more interested in being part of the passing game. That was odd watching him not make a lot of effort to catch poor passes.
Last name height/weight/age career catches/career TDs
Preston 6'5 206 24 5 catches 0 tds
Hunter 6'4 203 22 0 catches 0 tds
Britt 6'3 223 24 146 catches 19tds
Walter 6'3 216 31 356 catches 25 tds
Washington 6'1 183 29 313 catches 35 tds
Williams 6'1 193 25 91 catches 5 tds
Mariani 6'1 187 26 5 catches 0 tds
Wright 5'10 196 23 64 catches 4 tds
@BrianFlanagan@PamLoewI obviously disagree; Washington and Williams are similar receivers. Both are the same height--Williams is heavier, but not slower (check the 40 times)--both are shifty and can play outside or in the slot. Williams is a better route runner and more versatile IMO. Washington is more seasoned.
If you were to ask me who's a better receiver,
Washington or Walter, I'd say Washington without hesitation. I just
believe Walter is a better fit for Locker, who needs bigger targets.
Bigger receivers can cover a multitude of sins from inaccurate QB's.
Unfortunately Locker is one of those. He needs a target who can out
muscle a defender more than a speedy guy who can run go routes
(Washington's specialty.) Plus Walter is an excellent blocker and he is
good on 1st down. Locker was especially horrible at converting 1st downs
last season. Sometimes Washington gets lost in the scrum of big bodies
when he's playing inside or in the end zone. He's never been the best
route runner, though he's improved on that the last couple of seasons. I
think they'll use Walter as a hybrid receiver/TE. As for the TE's, I
think they're too confident in Thompson. He's very unproven as a TE and
had butterfingers last season. Stevens is under rated as a receiver and I
think he's going to get a lot more balls thrown his way.
@PamLoew @BrianFlanagan 40 times indicate speed in shorts. Washington passes the eye ball test on Sundays as looking much quicker, Williams is a great route runner probably the best coming out of USC in 2010 but the don't even play the same spot in their respective group. Washington and Wright play on one side and Williams backs up Britt on the other. I like Williams but the few times he has filled in for Britt he hasn't shown much, plus he is a free agent next year and we are already at 135 million cap wise so he won't be back. Meaning I think he suffers the most as the Titans will want to get Hunter and Preston as many reps as possible.
Bigger targets in what sense? 2 inches? Washington is far more athletic and arguably made the catch of the year last year against Detroit. Sure he weighs more but do you think TN would prefer Walter, Wright and Britt or Britt, Washington and Wright in the slot? If they wanted to move on they would have cut Washington to clear cap space before free agency. All accounts say he was the best WR in OTA's so it's hard to see a guy who could offer far more of a mentor role which he has been great about getting replaced by a guy who is simply bigger. Wright was Lockers go to guy on first downs. Besides all the first down issues stem from 3rd and long situations that are obvious passing downs. I think had Walter maybe been healthy for OTA's and Washington had a average offseason I could see your point but it's been the opposite.
I agree with your endzone assessment, I think I would much prefer to see Hunter get those opportunities than Walter/Washington. Williams actually isn't bad near the endzone either. Walter won't be an H-back way to small and Walker actually plays that role. I'm glad you agree on Stevens, it amazes me that everyone thinks he is great blocker but b/c he doesn't catch a lot of passes he automatically is a poor pass catcher. He's always played well when Cook or Scaife have gotten hurt. I think with 3 tight ends who can block now he may get an opportunity to catch more, Thompson is such an unknown still. I hate when teams talk up guys saying hes the next Gronkowski etc... Sure he could be he sure as heck is athletic and huge! However playing DE in college and trying to switch back to TE in the NFL is a huge transition that will take time. He was ridiculous on special teams, he almost always was the key block to spring Reynaud. lol I hope he steps it up a little his mismatch ability would be such a luxury given he is already such a great blocker.
All in all I think there is a youth movement with this team that is smart. LB corps is solid and young, CB's are all young, WR's besides Walter/Washington are all mid 20's. That's why I think Nate stays this yr to mentor this group and Walter can't fill that void which to me is more critical at this point. Regardless of whose right lets just hope it translates to better offensive output and wins.
CJ is a definite now that they brought in more athletic guards and even more so if Schwenke plays Center (I don't think he will this yr though).
In response to your thinking of the easiest way for more catches to be available is to let Washington go. It's actually as simple as winning the time of possesion that will increase the number of plays the Titans have. Which in all honesty is hard to fathom they won't be better than they were in POI than they were last year.
I'm willing to bet my home Washington stays. Walter vs Washington comes down to money but the Titans aren't hurting there, besides Washington has proven he can be a #1 option in a run first offense where Walter struggled with consistency playing opposite Andre Johnson. Washington stays and I think Walter is a camp casualty.
@BrianFlanagan My guess is TOP/winning would have more effect on the number of rushing attempts. They had lots of TOP in 2002 and 2003, ranking in the top 3 in the league, and only had 306 and 315 completions with peak Steve McNair, who was a very good passer.
If they wanted a high-volume receiver, there's no doubt they'd pick Washington. If they're instead looking for somebody who's probably going to play 10-25 snaps a game, can play on the outside or in the slot, and can help them in the run game, then I think Walter has the better skillset. I could be wrong on this, but I'm sticking to what I think.
@ThomasGower@BrianFlanagan@An I'm not big on decade old stats. Different team, coaching staff, QB (especially where Locker is versus where McNair was) arguably the best WR Corps TN has ever had talent wise etc...
Winning would definitely help them run the ball out but I'm solely talking about extending time of possession. That would include longer drives from the beginning of games not just the second half when they may choose to grind the clock. I rewatched Lockers game against New England and he was 4-5 on his first drive (only incompletion was an obvious PI on Devin McCourty but went uncalled in the endzone), that I believe was a 7 play drive. That's a great ratio if they can sustain more drives versus the ridiculous 3 out's it seems like they have. Also I think starting the same Quarterback for back to back seasons for the first time in about 5 years will lead to more comfort in the passing game. VY, Collins, Hasselback and now Locker, hard for receivers to grow comfortable when there is a new QB 1 in training camp every year.
As for Walter his role would be defined as a slot third down receiver, which Locker and Wright excelled at last year. Wright learned all 3 spots as a rookie and I highly expect Britt, Washington/Hunter and Wright on the field together more than I could see them being comfortable with Britt, Wright and Walter seems how Hunter won't play the slot and Walter won't win on the outside. Washington may not catch anywhere near what he did 2 years ago or even last year but his leadership with such a young group is so much more valuable than what Walter would bring to the table. Plus Washington has stepped up in the past when Britt has gone down and if Walter was thrust into more playing time it would be highly concerning seems how Hunter is already behind the 8 ball this offseason due to injury.
@ThomasGower ***"via a turnover or forcing a punt"
@ThomasGower @BrianFlanagan I agree they won't be as extreme as Seattle. I read a lot about critics thinking that would help Locker but I don't think he is as bad as people think let alone Jaws ranking him 31st in the league!!!!
The extra few passes I'm speaking of I think will come from what the opposing team had last year. Meaning we are getting an extra few drives and the opposing teams will lose a few drives. So the minutes are definitely there. However I'm not sold it will be that easy, lot of roster improvement but still lots of questions as to whether the D can get Locker more opportunities by getting off the field sooner via a turnover or forcing a turnover. Guess we'll know more in less than 2 months! haha Just hoping Locker, CJ and the O-line stay healthy so they don't have any excuses for average play this year.
@BrianFlanagan Minutes come from somewhere, so longer drives typically mean fewer total drives in a game. It's not unusual for teams to do great in time of possession, hold the ball a lot, and not have many plays. Seattle last year was a great example-5th in time of possession, fourth-fewest plays in the league, and only 259 completions. I don't expect the Titans to be quite that extreme, but that's my expectation.
The Titans may agree with you on Washington's value as a locker room presence. Also, if Britt is a knucklehead off the field, doesn't work the way he should, or gets hurt again, then I think they'll keep Washington.