Jesse Pantuosco

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An Embarrassment of Riches

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


If you’re building a roster from the ground up as all teams must do at one point or another (although I’m starting to wonder if New England’s dynasty will ever subside), drafting a franchise quarterback is a good place to start. Really, it’s the only place to start. But that’s not enough. Because a quarterback with no supporting cast is like a sandwich without the condiments or cold-cuts. Basically, it’s just two slices of bread.

 

For a recent example, look no further than Rams signal-caller Jared Goff. There’s reason to believe Goff would have struggled even with strong talent around him (that’s how outclassed he looked as a rookie) but that was far from the case in 2016. Handed a receiving corps consisting of Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin and a revolving door of anonymous spare parts, Goff did what any rookie would do under similar circumstances—he face-planted. Goff’s seven-game baptism by fire resulted in seven interceptions, five fumbles, 26 sacks, a 63.6 quarterback rating and exactly zero wins.

 

Luckily these instances are becoming few and far between. Slowly but surely, teams are realizing that their young quarterbacks can’t do it alone. That’s why the Bucs splurged on DeSean Jackson this offseason while the Eagles loaded up by grabbing Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. D-Jax gives Jameis Winston a capable deep threat to pair with Mike Evans while Jeffery has a chance to reinvent himself as Carson Wentz’s go-to receiver in Philly. The Rams also emphasized receiver this offseason, though Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods probably won’t have fans jumping out of their seats at the Coliseum.

 

But no offseason makeover was quite as thorough as Tennessee’s. The seeds of success were planted as early as last year when the Titans traded down from the No. 1 pick, which the Rams would end up using on Goff. That deal netted the Titans a slew of picks, one of which was used on All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin. Tennessee also landed the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft and wisely spent it on Corey Davis, the crown jewel of the 2017 receiver class. GM Jon Robinson, who is killing it by the way, took Tennessee’s offseason to the next level by swooping in on Eric Decker as soon as the Jets released him. One visit was all it took for Decker to make up his mind. The signing was announced Sunday night.

 

So what does it all mean? Well for starters, the Titans’ receiving corps is now as well-stocked as it’s ever been for Marcus Mariota. Not that he needed much help. Mariota erupted for 28 touchdowns (26 passing, two rushing) last year while leading the Titans to a winning record for the first time since 2011. The former Heisman Trophy winner has spent most of the offseason recovering from a broken leg he suffered in Week 16, but Mariota should be all set for training camp next month.

 

Decker’s choice to saddle up with Mariota was fascinating on a number of levels. For one, he’ll be joining a team with an extremely young core and will probably be looked to as a mentor. It was also striking how quickly Decker arrived at his decision. Even in mid-June with most teams carrying full rosters, Decker would have had no shortage of suitors had he chosen to market himself more aggressively. The Broncos, Browns, Bills, Eagles and Ravens were all thought to have some level of interest (Evan Silva advocated Indianapolis as a potential landing spot) but the Titans seemed to be zeroing in on Decker from the onset. On the heels of a frustrating finale in East Rutherford—hip and shoulder injuries limited him to just three games while the hapless Jets bottomed out—the upstart Titans gave Decker the fresh start he was looking for.

 

Mariota is obviously the biggest winner here for fantasy purposes, but how will his receivers fare? The receiver-starved Titans of yesteryear are suddenly flush with pass-catchers. Rishard Matthews led Tennessee in both yards (945) and touchdowns (nine) last season while matching tight end Delanie Walker for the team-lead with 65 receptions. Adding Decker and Davis to the equation could muddy the waters from a fantasy perspective. In fact, it’s a near certainty that Matthews and Walker will see fewer targets than they did last season. But the quality of those targets may improve as Matthews and Walker will benefit from looser coverage and easier defensive assignments with Decker and Davis commanding more attention.

 

Many owners will probably be tempted to fade Titans receivers for the same reason New England wideouts are being overlooked this summer—there’s so darn many of them. Trying to predict usage and volume is probably a fool’s errand until we actually see the Titans in action and even then, target distribution could become a weekly guessing game for fantasy owners. Which begs the age-old question—is being a role player in a dominant offense (the Titans haven’t proven to be that, but the potential exists) more valuable than being top dog on a non-contender? It’s the timeless quandary of quality versus quantity. And it’s the latter of those two that may have DeMarco Murray owners running for the hills.

 

When Murray arrived from Philly in 2016, Tennessee’s receiving corps had improved from the year before, but not by leaps and bounds. Back then, Matthews was still a relative unknown coming off a largely forgettable tenure with the Dolphins while fifth-round rookie Tajae Sharpe offered mild sleeper appeal. The uncertainty surrounding Tennessee’s passing game gave Murray the opportunity he longed for but never received in Philadelphia as a true workhorse back. Murray amassed monstrous workloads, tallying 20-plus carries in five of his first eight outings. Even with foot issues and a hungry Derrick Henry nipping at his heels in the second half, Murray still finished third in the league in both rushing yards (1,287) and carries (293).

 

But now that the Titans have focused so much of their energy on improving their passing game, it’s fair to wonder what the plan is for Murray. A productive passing attack doesn’t have to be a detriment to a team’s running game. In fact, as last year’s two Super Bowl participants proved, the threat of a powerful passing game can work to a running back’s advantage. But from a pure volume standpoint, the Titans are guaranteed to feature the pass more prominently than they did a year ago, which spells trouble for both Murray and Henry.

 

But let’s not get carried away. Tennessee wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for their running prowess. Coach Mike Mularkey championed an “exotic smash-mouth” approach last year and for the most part, it worked. The Titans emulated the Cowboys by dominating time of possession with slow, sustained drives. That style of play lends itself to a power running game. With Murray, a seasoned bell-cow, and a standout offensive line, the Titans are well-equipped to dominate on the ground, just as they did in 2016. Tennessee obviously placed a premium on pass-catchers this offseason, but don’t expect their offensive philosophy to stray too far from what made them successful a year ago.

 

Bringing in Decker, who profiles as the primary slot receiver, adds a layer of intrigue to the bottom half of Tennessee’s wide receiver depth chart. Harry Douglas is probably a goner while Sharpe and third-round rookie Taywan Taylor will duke it out for No. 4 duties behind the core trio of Decker, Davis and Matthews.

 

On paper, the Titans look as good as they have in years. In a few months, we’ll find out if that means anything.

 

Quick Hits: Released as part of the Jets’ offseason roster purge, David Harris agreed to a two-year contract with New England on Wednesday. The 33-year-old will slot in next to All-Pro linebacker Dont’a Hightower … Lions DT Khyri Thornton is facing a six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Thornton landed a two-year extension in March despite earning PFF’s No. 68 grade out of 73 qualifiers at defensive tackle last season … Lions GM Bob Quinn said he’s “confident” the team will reach a long-term deal with contract-year quarterback Matthew Stafford. The 29-year-old has a chance to become the league’s highest-paid player, an honor currently held by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck … Free agent Anquan Boldin plans to sign “right before training camp.” It’s been suggested that Boldin’s preference is to play for a team close to his home in Florida … According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, second-round rookie DeShone Kizer has “considerably narrowed the gap” between himself and Cody Kessler in the Browns’ quarterback competition. This comes only a few days after Browns QBs coach David Lee remarked that Kizer wasn’t “ready to play” … Per ESPN’s Dianna Marie Russini, the Falcons are “confident” in signing a long-term extension with Devonta Freeman this offseason. The contract-year running back led Atlanta with a career-high 1,079 rushing yards in 2016 … Jarvis Landry’s agent has set a Week 1 deadline for extension talks. Landry has gone over 1,100 yards receiving in two of his three seasons with Miami … Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports believes there’s “no chance” of the Rams signing Trumaine Johnson to a long-term extension. If no deal is reached by July 17, Johnson will play under the $16.742 million franchise tag in 2017 … While La Canfora doesn’t sound optimistic about the Rams brokering a deal with Johnson, he’s far more confident that the Redskins will work something out with Kirk Cousins. La Canfora estimated an “80 percent” chance of Cousins putting pen to paper on a new deal before the July 17 deadline … The Jets took a flyer on former Bears receiver Marquess Wilson. The injury-prone 24-year-old will join a New York receiving corps featuring Quincy Enunwa, Robby Anderson and rookie ArDarius Stewart … Speaking on Adam Schefter’s Know Them From Adam Podcast, newly signed Ravens receiver Jeremy Maclin admitted he played last year with a torn groin, which could be to blame for his career-worst season. Maclin was able to avoid surgery and claims he’s back to 100 percent … Also appearing on Schefter’s podcast, Greg Olsen said he’s contemplated holding out for a new contract. On a per year basis, Olsen’s $7.5 million annual salary is seventh-highest among tight ends … According to Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, there’s still a possibility Teddy Bridgewater (knee) will be cleared to return at some point during the 2017 season. If he does, Bridgewater will serve as the backup to Sam Bradford … Vensel also notes that Laquon Treadwell operated as the No. 3 wideout behind Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen during Minnesota’s offseason program. The 23rd overall pick in the 2016 draft was limited to 79 offensive snaps during his rookie season … Former eighth overall pick Justin Gilbert will serve a one-year suspension for repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. The 25-year-old mega-bust has probably played his last down in the NFL.



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
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