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VOL. 40 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 24, 2016

Sharpe helps underperforming ends get the point

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Despite being a fifth-round draft pick from UMass, Titans wide receiver Tajae Sharpe has created some competitive heat in preseason workouts.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

When the Titans broke the huddle for the first snap of the day during a recent mini-camp session, Tajae Sharpe lined up at wide receiver with the first-team offense.

That’s right: A fifth-round draft choice from UMass who has yet to play a snap in an NFL game was starting, while Justin Hunter and Dorial Green-Beckham, the franchise’s second-round picks in two of the last four drafts, were on the sideline watching.

This tells us a lot about Sharpe and the consistency and production he showed in off-season workouts. But it also tells us a lot about Hunter, Green-Beckham and other veteran wideouts like Harry Douglas, all with more impressive pedigrees and greater NFL experience.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” Sharpe told reporters. “I am blessed to be getting this opportunity. I just want to continue to improve my craft every single day and prove I can play with the best in this league.”

Those of a cynical bent figured this was the coaching staff’s way of trying to get the attention of older receivers. What better way to motivate Hunter, Green-Beckham and Douglas than to let them watch a rookie work with the No. 1 offense?

But head coach Mike Mularkey says that was not the case, that Sharpe has “just been the most consistent” in workouts and deserved the promotion.

“I’m not purposely doing that,” Mularkey explained. “I think if you’re any kind of competitor, that would be a push, something to get me going. But he’s just been the most consistent, and we’re letting guys that have been the most consistent get more reps.”

Mularkey later elaborated on his comments, saying he hoped veteran receivers “are taking it personal” and encouraged them to “come back in here in better shape and better prepared and healthy and ready to go out of the gate.”

Hunter, for one, seems to have gotten the point. He said the sight of a rookie fifth-round pick with the No. 1 offense “definitely motivates you.”

Receivers coach Bob Bratkowski told reporters Sharpe “could be our starter” along with free-agent acquisition Rishard Matthews and fifth-year pro Kendall Wright in the Titans’ three-wideout formation.

“He’s competing for it,” Bratkowski said. “Nothing’s given to him at this point. But he’s performing at a level as high, or higher, than any of the guys in the group.”

Good for Sharpe.

Pre-draft reports showed him to be a hard worker with great hands and good footwork, although he lacks the speed to get separation on deep routes. While there were concerns about the level of competition he faced in college at UMass, it’s hard to ignore that he led the nation with 111 receptions last season.

Just the same, this points up one of many areas of concern for the Titans. If a fifth-round draft pick with zero NFL experience is lining up with the starters in mini-camp, something is wrong. Where’s the competition?

Clearly, the Titans need help at wide receiver. This isn’t exactly a unit that strikes fear in the heart of an opposing secondary. No wide receiver demands double-coverage. The fact that tight end Delanie Walker has led the team in receptions the last two years is telling.

Last season, the Titans had no wideout ranked among the top 50 in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, which analyzes every play of every game and grades accordingly. The highest ranked Titan was Green-Beckham at No. 53.

This is nothing new. It has been an underachieving position for years. No Titans wide receiver has made the Pro Bowl since Derrick Mason in 2003.

For whatever reason, this organization never seems to get it right on wide receivers. The Titans have tried to remedy the shortcoming via the draft, via trades and via free agency, usually to little or no avail.

Oh, they’ve tried to find help. Remember Yancey Thigpen?

In 1998, the Titans made headlines by signing Thigpen, who was coming off a season where he averaged 17.7 yards per catch with seven touchdowns for Pittsburgh. He was supposed to be the big-play solution that was missing for the Titans.

Thigpen had flashes in Nashville but couldn’t stay healthy. He started only 18 games in three years. He is best remembered for being found tied up in a closet after the robbery of his home the year after he left the Titans.

Since then, they struck out with free-agent signees like an over-the-hill Carl Pickens in 2000. David Givens arrived from New England with considerable fanfare in 2006 but caught only eight passes before suffering a career-ending knee injury.

The Titans haven’t fared much better in the draft. Since 2003, the Titans have picked nine wide receivers in the top three rounds of the draft, including first-rounders Kenny Britt in 2009 and Kendall Wright in 2012. Due to problems off the field and lackadaisical effort on it, Britt never played up to his potential and was not re-signed after the 2013 season.

As for second-round picks Hunter and Green-Beckham, each has had his moments but much work remains. Hunter lacks mental toughness and Green-Beckham hasn’t translated his raw skills into on-field production.

Wright, the 20th player selected overall in 2012, has been by far the most the most productive wideout in recent years. He has caught 251 passes in four pro seasons. But Wright dropped off the last two years, going from 94 receptions in 2013 to 57 in 2014 and 36 last season.

All told, Wright has not made the impact you would expect of the third wide receiver picked in a draft.

Come to think of it, wide receivers generally do not make the impact you would expect for the Titans. And if this team is going to maximize the potential of quarterback Marcus Mariota, that must change.

Contact David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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