Is the Tennessee Titans Offense Ready to Roll?
The names Jake Locker, Shonn Greene, Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker don't exactly scream instant offense, but these guys entered the 2014 campaign atop the depth chart at offensive skill positions for the Tennessee Titans.
This group of small-name players, along with the rest of the team, of course, marched into Arrowhead Stadium, produced 26 points, accounted for over 400 yards of offense, and committed no turnovers against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1.
Now, the Kansas City defense isn't quite what it was last year, when it ranked fourth in one of our most significant defensive statistics: Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. However, the 2014 Chiefs defense isn't a complete overhaul, and Arrowhead is a tough, tough place to play.
So what should we make of the fact that the Titans finished the week with the 10th-best offense in the league according to our metrics?
The Titans of Old
If you aren't a Titans fan, you probably weren't very keen on watching the blue-on-darker-blue team from Tennessee play football last year. They finished the year 7-9, which is good but not really good enough to make the average fan tune in. So a team that's average probably had an average offense, right?
If you had to guess where they landed last year in terms of Adjusted NEP per play, what would you think? 20th? 16th? Somewhere a little past 20th? Maybe I'm way off on your perception of the 2013 Titans, but if you're thinking 20th would be about right for the 7-9 team that featured Ryan Fitzpatrick for 9 games, you'd be way off.
They ranked 12th in Adjusted NEP per play, 11th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, and 6th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play.
I'm not implying that the Titans are destined to repeat those numbers or even exceed them, but rather just noting how efficient and successful they were despite playing the year with two different quarterbacks and not really boasting any elite offensive talents - unless you consider Chris Johnson elite.
Can Locker Make the Jump?
So, they were a top-12 offense last year while having Locker for 7 games and Fitzpatrick for 9. This year, for now at least, it's all Locker, and if he stays healthy, he could be the key to the Titans making a significant leap forward from last year - despite already having an excellent 2013 season on offense.
In 2013, Locker dropped back to pass 199 times. Of the 14 quarterbacks to attempt between 150 and 300 drop backs, Locker ranked second in Passing NEP (10.91). Full disclosure: Josh McCown was first with a Passing NEP of 82.21.
Still, Locker was better in this counting stat than the rest of guys with a similar sample. How about efficiency, though?
Good but not great.
On a per-play basis, Locker added 0.05 points to the Titans offense. This ranked 19th out of the 45 quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 drop backs last season. If you're wondering, Fitzpatrick ranked 12th.
An aspect of Locker's game that shouldn't be understated is his stellar rushing ability. In his limited season last year, he attempted 21 rushes. Of the 21 quarterbacks who attempted between 10 and 30 rushes, Locker ranked second in Rushing NEP.
Expanding the sample to look at all quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs (again, there were 45 in 2013), Locker ranked fourth in Rushing NEP per rush. I'm not bringing this up because you need me to tell you that Locker is a better runner than high-volume guys like Peyton Manning, but rather to try and contextualize his rushing ability in terms of more traditional quarterbacks - players with more than 10 or 20 rushing attempts in a season.
This all sort of adds up to my final finding on Locker, one that really suggests he has the potential to be an extremely helpful quarterback for the Titans this year.
Of the 40 quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs (Locker had 199), Locker ranked 21st in Total NEP, which accounts for both passing and rushing. Sure, 21 out of 40 sounds just okay, but Locker accomplished this with the fewest drop backs (obviously). How does that fare on a per-play basis?
13th. Locker's rushing and passing production, per play, was 13th best in the league last year among statistically significant quarterbacks. The surprising bit? Fitzpatrick was 10th. This was a really solid offense last year, and there's little reason to think it'll get worse when you consider the rest of the team behind Locker, who concluded Week 1 with the sixth-best Passing NEP and Total NEP in the league.
Can the Tennessee Receivers Answer the Call?
I know I just went pretty in-depth on Locker, but none of that will really be sustainable if his receivers can't support his surprisingly efficient play.
Despite hauling in 94 passes last year, Kendall Wright managed just the 27th-best Reception NEP in the league. Wright, unsurprisingly, also was a heavily-targeted receiver and saw 139 passes head his way. Sure, he caught 67.63% of them, which ranked 12th of receivers with 30 receptions or more, but he didn't really turn many of them into points, scoring just two touchdowns on the year.
This caused his Reception NEP to be low, and his Reception NEP per target was even worse when compared to players with at least 30 receptions: 67th out of 88. Okay, he did catch 94 passes, so it's a little outrageous to compare his efficiency with guys with a significantly lower volume. How about receivers with at least 70 receptions? There were 26 of them, and Wright ranked 24th in Reception NEP per Target.
Fortunately, Wright found the end zone already in Week 1. However, he still ranked 33rd among receivers in Reception NEP in Week 1.
On the other end of the volume spectrum exists Justin Hunter. Last year, Hunter caught just 18 passes, but he was very, very efficient. Of the 52 receivers who had between 10 and 35 receptions last year, Hunter ranked fifth in Reception NEP and third in Reception NEP per target, suggesting he makes the most of his opportunities.
Hunter ranked 30th in Reception NEP in Week 1 and just 34th in Reception NEP per target, as he was able to convert on just 3 of 8 targets. Regardless, his 2013 numbers and his penchant for the end zone (22.22% of his receptions went for touchdowns last year) indicate that he's able to provide the team with the scoring plays to which Wright is not accustomed.
Meanwhile, both Nate Washington and Delanie Walker are also legitimate receiving options. Last year, Washington ranked 22nd among all receivers in Reception NEP, and Walker finished 12th among tight ends in the metric.
Locker has four viable receiving options, which could be a fantasy football headache, but it's a fantastic sign for the the potential of this offensive unit.
A Cloudy Backfield
Speaking of fantasy football nightmares, the Titans backfield is a thing.
McCluster finished last year with the sixth-best Reception NEP among running backs, and Greene was a pretty decent option according to the numbers. Of the 67 running backs who tallied at least 50 carries, Greene (who had 77 carries) ranked 24th in both Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per play, but posted a Success Rate of 45.45%, best for 12th among the subset.
As for Sankey, he didn't record a carry until the second half in Week 1. He might give the Titans the best bet to find an all-around, three-down back, but I'm not here to read tea leaves. The three backs in addition to Locker and Leon Washington accounted for the team's ranking 15th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play in Week 1, which doesn't sound amazing.
But keep in mind that the Titans ran the ball 38 times, tied for the most in the NFL in Week 1, so the efficiency aspect may have suffered from the volume.
If Greene can continue his successful rushing and McCluster can continue being a threat out of the backfield, Sankey could be afforded the ability to find his rhythm at his own pace and potentially emerge as the main threat in the committee.
Either way, Tennessee looks capable of running the ball in addition to having some above-average receivers and a surprisingly good quarterback.
Putting It All Together
It's overzealous to peg the Titans as a top-5 or even a top-10 offense based on this one week, but considering how the team played last year, Locker's all-around success, and the deep and versatile running and receiving threats on the roster, they could very well play like a top-10 unit this season.
If you're banking on Titans on your fantasy squad, you need to be aware of the amount of capable options the team has. But if you're just a Titans fan, there are definitely reasons to be excited about the 2014 team.
And if you're not a fan, there are plenty of reasons to watch the Tennessee offense this year. Especially in Week 2 against Dallas.