For years, many found it puzzling that the Tennessee Titans seemed so hesitant to upgrade at wide receiver, particularly at a time when NFL rules favor such an approach.
A parade of middle-round draft picks and a reliance on a run-first approach, particularly under former coach Jeff Fisher, produced particularly pedestrian results through the air. Since 1994, only one Tennessee wide receiver, Derrick Mason (2003) has been selected to the Pro Bowl.
Suddenly, though, the Titans’ passing game looks like a puzzle, one with an unusual number of pieces, and it is up to second-year coach Mike Munchak and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer to fit them all together.
“When I first got here, the fullback was on the field all day every day,” veteran wide receiver Nate Washington said. “It was a real power offense. We were going to run the ball down your throat. … This year we have so many different weapons. With [running back Chris Johnson’s] speed back there, I think we’re going to open things up a little bit … going to some four- and even five-wide
[receiver sets]. We’re excited.
“Coach Palmer has been in the lab all offseason, licking his chops. … You can tell he has some different things offensively.”
The selection of wide receiver Kendall Wright in the first round just three years after Kenny Britt also was taken in the first round represents an unprecedented amount of attention paid to the position by the Titans.
In the history of the franchise, which dates back to 1960 as the Houston Oilers, a founding member of the American Football League, only four wide receivers have been selected in the first round. Two have now come in the past four years. The others were Kevin Dyson in 1998 and Haywood Jeffires in 1987. Coincidentally, Jeffires was the 20th overall pick, as Wright was this year.
“We were considering a lot of different positions, so it wasn’t like it was something that we were focusing on in terms of, ‘OK, we just have to take a receiver,’ ” general manager Ruston Webster said. “It was more about the fact that we really like Kendall Wright.”
In five of the six seasons from 2002, Dyson’s last with Tennessee, and 2009, Britt’s first, the roster did not include a single first-round pick of any kind at wide receiver. The exception was 2007 when free agent Eric Moulds, a first-round selection by Buffalo 11 years earlier, caught all of 32 passes and failed to score a touchdown.
In 2010, the Titans claimed Randy Moss, Minnesota’s first-round selection in 1998, off waivers. They did so, though, in response to Britt’s significant hamstring injury a week earlier. When the two were healthy, they rarely were on the field at the same time. Moss’ time with Tennessee was forgettable, to say the least.
That’s what makes the possibility — or the likelihood — that Britt and Wright will share snaps regularly so unique.
“We’ll play to our talent,” Palmer said. “I think this system is a very friendly system for quarterbacks and wide receivers. … Obviously we think we can do an awful lot with [Wright].”
The current roster also includes Damian Williams, a third-round pick (77th overall) in 2010, and Washington, who set career-highs for receptions (74), receiving yards (1,023) and touchdowns (seven) last season.
While it is a change for the franchise, an abundance of wide receivers is nothing new to Palmer.
In fact, his first NFL coaching job was as wide receivers coach for the Oilers from 1990-92, when they relied on a run-and-shoot attack and finished among the league’s top three in passing offense each time. Munchak was a Pro Bowl guard on those teams.
“We feel like he gives us a lot of options to use him a lot of ways,” Munchak said. “We will do some things maybe as an offense that we haven’t done in a while and maybe as consistently.”
A look at how wide receivers drafted in the first round by the Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers have fared:
Drafted: 20th overall, 1987
Career: 10 seasons (Houston 1987-95, New Orleans 1996)
Pro Bowls: 1991, 1992, 1993
After a slow start (nine receptions in his first two seasons), Jeffires started every game over his final five seasons with the franchise and produced some big numbers. He’s one of only two receivers in team history with at least 100 catches in a season and one of two with at least 500 career receptions.
Drafted: 16th overall, 1998
Career: Six seasons (Tennessee 1998-2002, Carolina 2003)
Pro Bowls: None
He was a central figure in the team’s 1999 playoff run — first as the finisher on the Music City Miracle and later when Super Bowl XXXIV finished with him a yard short of a game-tying touchdown. A severe knee injury cut short his playing days, which featured career highs of 54 catches, 825 yards and seven touchdowns in a season.
Drafted: 30th overall, 2009
Career: Three seasons and counting
Pro Bowls: None
There have been some unforgettable performances, such as the game-winning touchdown catch against Arizona in 2009, the 225-yard, three-touchdown performance against Philadelphia in 2010 and the opening two weeks of the 2011 season when he was the NFL’s leading receiver. Too often, though, injuries have come on the heels of such moments and have left fans and the team longing for more.
Drafted: 20th overall, 2012
Career: To be determined
Pro Bowls: To be determined
His 108 receptions in 13 games for Baylor last season would rank as the Titans’ franchise record. He was
the most productive players in the country over the past four seasons and adds an element of speed and
ability that coaches covet. He figures to either take defenses’ attention away from Britt or benefit from their focus on him.