Fantasy Football: Can Tajae Sharpe Produce in the Titans' Offense?

Sharpe is the Titans' top receiver through two weeks, but he isn't generating a ton of stats. Can that change?

Week 1 always leads to some fascinating surprises in the National Football League. We haven’t seen the full extent of what rookies can do, veterans’ fits in new offenses are undetermined prior to NFL kickoff, and sometimes just dumb luck shifts things in weird ways.

But Week 1 is just one singular data point, a random blotch on the Rorschach test of an NFL season. Week 2 starts to give us more of a pattern.

With 32 games marked off of the NFL’s 2016 schedule, we can start to see some trends emerge, and new realities of the NFL are being solidified. One of those realities is that Tennessee Titans rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe is more than a product of offseason hype -- he could be the real deal.

Does this late-round rookie have the ability to remain a fantasy factor in 2016, or is he another of football’s flashes in the pan?

Perception Test

Tajae Sharpe was an interesting player coming out of the University of Massachusetts in the 2016 NFL Draft. The 6’3” behemoth of a receiver was between 190 and 200 pounds in his junior and senior years and drew a fair amount of hype for his steady progress in his production each year in college.

The table below shows Sharpe’s production from his sophomore 2013 to his senior 2015 seasons at UMass.

Year Targ Rec Yards Catch Rate Yd/Targ Targ Share Yd/Rec
2013 101 61 680 60.4% 6.7 33.1% 11.1
2014 135 85 1281 63.0% 9.5 29.3% 15.1
2015 176 111 1319 63.1% 7.5 37.4% 11.9

In every one of those seasons, Sharpe worked as the primary target in the Minutemen’s offense, and he was in or near the top-30 of NCAA Division I receivers in target market share each of these years as well. In his senior year, he was fourth in the nation in this measure, monopolizing his team’s looks.

Despite a horribly regressive, non-pass-friendly offense in college, he progressed in terms of catch rate each year while adding target volume to boot. The only bizarre trend in his college production is a junior-year spike in yards per reception and yards per target that dipped again in 2015. The simplest explanation for that is that his junior year saw him used more in a downfield fashion, whereas Sharpe’s natural role is as more of a short-yardage possession receiver.

At the NFL Combine, though, he had surprisingly small hands (just 8 3/8”) and didn’t flash any sort of explosive measurables. In a previous article, I mentioned that he had “Ben Obomanu or Torrey Smith's body with the lacking athleticism of Brian Quick or Kelvin Benjamin -- who are 25 to 45 pounds heavier and three to four inches taller”.

Sharpe has all the college production you’d want from a second wide receiver on a good NFL offense (and a number-one on this iteration of the Titans), but he seemingly has none of the physical potential that other team-leading wideouts have. Yet, here we are, at a point where the Titans released physical marvels in favor of his slick route-running and sure hands. Can he repay them -- and fantasy owners -- for their faith in him?

Signals Within the Noise

In a league where passing in volume is king, we love to see a rookie wide receiver enter a barren depth chart when he had 176 targets in his season prior. That’s the kind of situational upside Sharpe offers as a member of the Titans.

But how much can he do with that kind of potential, and has it been borne out in his first two NFL games to-date?

As of Week 2, Sharpe has consumed 18 targets among the 79 drop backs taken by quarterback Marcus Mariota for a target market share of 22.78 percent -- the 24th-highest in the NFL. This is also the highest share among skill position players on the team (DeMarco Murray is second with 17.72 percent) and the best among wide receivers by a wide margin (Rishard Matthews is at 12.66 percent).

Sharpe is getting the volume he needs to be a fantasy stud, but how is he performing with that volume?

The table below shows his production in terms of both box score statistics and numberFire’s analytics, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is an analytic that seeks to describe the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Where does Sharpe come in among the 103 NFL wideouts to see at least 5 targets so far?

Name Targ Targ Share Catch Rate recYD recTD Rec NEP/Targ Rec Success %
Tajae Sharpe 18 (18th) 22.78% (24th) 61.11% (66th) 109 (46th) 0 (48th) 0.50 (71st) 81.82% (66th)

Sharpe is seeing a ton of success in volume categories (raw targets and target market share) but is resoundingly average or below in terms of production on his volume. It’s not a pretty sight when your 109 receiving yards (6.06 yards per target) is your highest-ranked production mark in your profile.

Even Reception NEP per target actually downgrades Sharpe’s production from middling to nearly bottom quarter of the league.

Why is this happening? First of all, the Titans’ offense is not predicated on deep passing and utilizing their wide receivers downfield. They know that Mariota has only had half a season in the NFL so far and aren’t forcing him to become a bomb-dropper for them unless they need to by game situation. Instead, they are using the speed and quickness of Sharpe, Matthews, and Harry Douglas to implement short routes to help offer high-percentage targets to their developing quarterback.

Sharpe himself saw 11 targets in Week 1, but most were not a ways downfield. He had a number of 9-yard curls that he was targeted on, and his three longest targets (15, 15, and 16 yards) were all misses by his quarterback. That’s not to say that Mariota can’t hit a 15-yard comeback -- that’s just not this offense’s bread-and-butter.

Secondly, Sharpe is not explosive. Sharpe’s size lends itself to being used as a possession receiver who hits comebacks and curls, wrenches the ball away from a defender, and hopefully falls forward for an extra few yards. Despite this preseason play (on which, you’ll notice, he was targeted nine yards from the line of scrimmage on a spot route), he doesn’t have a ton of lightning after-the-catch moves. His straight-line speed is fine, but he’s not overly agile to weave through defenders and make them miss. He’s a quality possession receiver.

In an offense clearly geared towards playing ball control, it doesn’t make sense for the Titans to use their top receiver as a downfield threat. Sharpe will likely continue to see plenty of targets, but his short yardage usage is a feature -- not a flaw -- of the Titans’ offense. He’s a viable fourth wide receiver in most fantasy leagues and should remain there for the foreseeable future.