No position on the Tennessee Titans’ roster brings more intrigue than wide receiver.
Widely thought of as the team’s biggest need area this offseason by many outsiders, the Titans drafted just one receiver, rookie Lavelle Hawkins in the fourth round of the draft this past April. They also added just one free agent in the offseason, returnee Justin McCareins, who comes back to Tennessee after four years with the New York Jets.
Can new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger mold this cast into a solid, productive group? That is one of the biggest questions facing the Titans this training camp.
2. Justin McCareins
3. Biren Ealy
4. Roydell Williams
5. Brandon Jones
6. Mike Williams
7. Lavelle Hawkins
8. Paul Williams
9. Chris Davis
10. Jason Rivers
11. Edward Williams
Perhaps the biggest advantage the Titans have at the wide receiver position is not so much a single player, but the man now calling the plays for them. Mike Heimerdinger has a history of developing solid receivers from the raw materials on hand. He is a stickler for details, and his style of offense served the Titans well during his first tenure with the club from 2000-04.
During his first go-around in Tennessee, Derrick Mason, Drew Bennett and McCareins all developed from unknown commodities into dependable receivers. And though the group he currently has to work with doesn’t turn many heads, their credentials on paper at least are stronger than what Mason, Bennett and McCareins had prior to Heimerdinger’s work with them.
Before Heimerdinger arrived, Mason, who developed into an All-Pro, had not put up the numbers that Gage or Roydell Williams did last season. Before Heimerdinger, Mason’s best season (25 catches in 1998) looked similar to the best single-season outputs of Mike Williams and Brandon Jones. If Titans fans are looking for a reason to be encouraged about this group, then that is it — Heimerdinger’s ability to get results out of those who buy in to what he is teaching.
The Titans don’t have a true No. 1 receiver. Gage is the closest thing they have, as he came on strong the second half of last season to tie Roydell Williams for the team lead in receptions with 55. Not bad for a reclamation project given up by the receiver-needy Chicago Bears.
Instead of a true No. 1 to rely upon, the Titans have a lot of receivers who look similar in build and style, which is perhaps the reason former offensive coordinator Norm Chow insisted on rotating players in and out at the position.
Heimerdinger, on the other hand, won’t rotate if he can avoid it. He wants three receivers to emerge from the pack, seize the starting (and slot receiver) roles and retain them by being healthy and productive. The challenge will be finding which three will emerge and claim those roles and how well they do with the added responsibility and playing time.
BIGGEST CAMP BATTLE
There will really be two battles in camp — the one to determine who the top tier group will be and who will latch on to the fourth, fifth, sixth and possible seventh spots on the roster.
Currently, Gage, McCareins and Hawkins would appear to be the only locks for the roster. Gage just signed a contract extension, while McCareins already knows Heimerdinger’s system and tendencies. Hawkins, a fourth-round pick this year, should at least get a free pass onto the roster. Playing time, however, must be earned.
Speaking of earned, everyone else has show something to Heimerdinger in order to earn their role, their share of the playing time or the roster spot. How it shakes out should be the most interesting story of training camp.
ON THE SPOT
Nearly every player could fit this role. Paul Williams and Davis must take big steps forward just to keep up with fellow second-year man Ealy, who was running in the slot at the end of the May OTAs.
But those who are really under the microscope are those from the 2005 draft class. The Titans have already ditched Courtney Roby from that group, and now is the time for Jones, Roydell Williams and reclamation project Mike Williams to step forward and be counted.
Roydell Williams emerged last year, tying Gage for the team lead in receptions, but that was under Chow. Because of his ankle injury and the new coordinator, he falls back into the mix of needing to impress in camp.
Jones has been an enigma who shows flashes of greatness, but has combined it with a rash of serious injuries and inconsistency. One of the things Heimerdinger stresses most is consistency.
As for Mike Williams, he has lost more than 30 pounds in a bid to salvage his career. But there are whispers that conditioning could still be an issue as training camp fast approaches. Williams has displayed some of that first-round talent in OTAs but it will take a strong work ethic and improved conditioning for him to be in the Titans’ plans.