Is Benching Dorial Green-Beckham a Smart Move for the Tennessee Titans?

The physically imposing Green-Beckham is going into Titans training camp as a second-stringer. Is this the right call?

This is always an interesting time of the year, if you’re tuned in to the news that comes out of OTA’s.

This is the time of the year when teams discuss starting replacement-level quarterbacks over the first overall selection in the draft. The other darlings of the news cycle before the pads come on are the “underwear warriors” of the NFL, those size-speed combination athletic marvels who just don’t have enough technique refinement.

The only Tennessee Titans receiver who classifies as a no-doubt physical force, though, is wideout Dorial Green-Beckham, who is currently no higher than fourth on the team’s depth chart.

News broke last week that Green-Beckham would be going into Titans training camp as depth, not as a starter. Instead, alongside veterans Rishard Matthews and Kendall Wright, rookie Tajae Sharpe would be running with the first team. It seems like the 6’5”, 237 pound DGB -- who runs a 4.49-second 40-yard dash -- would be a great talent to have in their starting lineup, but apparently his offseason inconsistency is dampening his impression.

Are the Titans making a mistake by benching DGB?

Your Not-So-Secret Weapon

Head coach Mike Mularkey did admit that he is naming Green-Beckham a non-starter because he wants to motivate him to work harder this season and become more consistent.

Let’s get this out of the way first: some people believe DGB’s struggles are linked to the character concerns that he had coming out of college, that he had issues grasping the playbook, in addition to off-field concerns. We cannot know fully what is in the heads of these players, and I don’t even want to speculate that any of this is the case.

What we can do, however, is look at the players’ on-field résumés and see what they’ve been able to do in terms of NFL production. First of all, we need to look at Green-Beckham’s production and assess if he has been at all impactful in his first year in the league.

The table below shows Green-Beckham’s 2015 rate statistics (since he received limited playing time early last year) -- Yards per Route Run (per Pro Football Focus), Catch Rate, Drop Rate, and Target Rate (percent of routes targeted). I also added his ranks among the 86 wide receivers from last year with at least 50 targets in these categories.

Player Targ% Catch% Drop% YPRR
Dorial Green-Beckham 15.52% (69th) 47.76% (81st) 8.57% (45th) 1.35 (56th)

With these statistics, we can perhaps see what the Titans’ coaching staff themselves may be seeing: Green-Beckham did not get open consistently enough to be targeted more than 15.52 percent of the times he was running a route, had a horrendous Catch Rate when he was targeted, and still didn’t manage to do enough when he caught the ball to have even an average Yards per Route Run mark on so relatively few targets (67). For reference, the average Yards per Route Run for receivers with 50 to 100 targets last year was 1.40; DGB misses the mark with conventional metrics.

But what if we look at him with a deeper analytical lens, such as through numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP)? Does the outlook appear rosier then?

NEP takes the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. 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. If Green-Beckham catches a pass for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Green-Beckham’s Reception NEP per target rate and his Reception Success Rate -- the percent of catches made that he converted into positive NEP -- and depicts his rankings among the same wide receivers as before.

Player Rec NEP/Targ Success%
Dorial Green-Beckham 0.80 (21st) 100.00% (1st)

For all of the dissatisfaction with his play coming out of the Titans’ coaching staff, Green-Beckham was surprisingly valuable in his rookie year, despite being heralded as a major project. Remember, NEP looks at more than yardage; it’s value relative to situation, and when it mattered, DGB was making plays. Reception NEP per target also factors in touchdowns, and Beckham showed a surprising 6.35 percent Touchdown Rate, scoring four times last year.

This is the other thing: Green-Beckham had a strong Reception NEP per target rate and an even higher Reception Success Rate, converting every catch for positive NEP. If his Success Rate was poor but his Reception NEP per target was high, that would have indicated that he was a boom/bust type of player who had a few big plays to pull up his average value but had a low hit rate for converting plays.

The NEP data shows that he was extremely consistent and impactful when catching the ball. The only issue that remains is, you know, actually catching the ball.

For Successful Living

Green-Beckham’s statistical profile shows us a player who has enormous upside and is so good that he makes plays whenever he gets the ball in his hands; he’s a special talent. It also shows a player plagued by bad catching and quarterback play in 2015, as well as possibly an inability so far to run the professional route tree -- or at least to gain separation.

We always knew he’d be a work in progress.

But is he better than who the Titans are trotting out to start ahead of him? Who really deserves to be the starting trio for the Tennessee Titans? The table below compares the Titans’ wide receivers from 2015 who had 30 or more targets and their production in terms of Target Rate, Catch Rate, Reception NEP per target, and Success Rate from 2015.

Player Team Targ% Catch% Rec NEP/Targ Success%
Kendall Wright TEN 21.93% 60.00% 0.52 83.33%
Rishard Matthews MIA 18.50% 70.49% 0.98 97.67%
Harry Douglas TEN 16.20% 50.00% 0.53 86.11%
Dorial Green-Beckham TEN 15.52% 47.76% 0.80 100.00%
Justin Hunter TEN 13.03% 70.97% 0.74 86.36%

The only player in contention to start that we can’t compare here is rookie Tajae Sharpe, but by all reports, he’s a crisp route-runner who gets separation and has sure (albeit small) hands. He’s not a physical marvel like DGB or Justin Hunter, but it appears that Sharpe’s consistency is winning over the coaching staff.

With some marginal improvements, Green-Beckham could vault Harry Douglas easily in Target Share and Catch Rate, but unless Wright really struggles, it’s unlikely they’ll demote their primary receiver. Matthews is an analytics darling and also appears to have a starting spot locked up, which means DGB has to outplay the consistent rookie, Sharpe.

This table makes it very clear that, while Green-Beckham may be one of the higher-upside options for the Titans in their receiving corps, his benching is no joke. There may not be a clear stud-level receiver yet in this offense, but with the Titans emphasizing the rushing attack behind the two-headed monster of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, it’s possible that they are prioritizing security in the passing game over explosion.

The Titans may treat Green-Beckham the way they did in his rookie year, working him in more and more as the 2016 season goes on, if he can earn the trust of the coaching staff and his quarterback, Marcus Mariota. At his best, he’s definitely the most impactful talent in this position group, but for such a young, promising team, it is understandable that the Titans want to go into this season with stability instead of flash.