Tajae Sharpe: Perfect Situation for Early Success?
by Scott Kacsmar
High draft picks often enter the NFL with high expectations. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, was expected to ignite a passing game that has been arguably the league's most stagnant for two decades now. Since moving to Tennessee in 1997, the Titans have never had an individual quarterback pass for 3,600 yards or 25 touchdowns in a single season. That's the kind of season that Peyton Manning -- a Tennessee legend himself with the SEC's Volunteers -- had 16 times in his NFL career. Mariota was solid, but injuries limited him to 2,818 passing yards and 19 touchdowns as a rookie.
Late-round picks face their own set of expectations, but they are usually negative outlooks such as "likely to be cut before Week 1" and "won't ever start a meaningful NFL game." The bar is pretty low for a late-round pick to outplay his draft status, but one Tennessee player looks to destroy expectations in 2016.
Tajae Sharpe was just a fifth-round pick (140th overall) in April's draft, but he may already be Mariota's No. 1 wide receiver after a wild offseason in Nashville. Sharpe is currently one of nine players with more than 100 receiving yards thru the second week of the preseason. Sure, that may not mean anything, but some of the lesser-known leading receivers in past preseasons eventually became productive players, including Stefon Diggs (2015), Seth Roberts (2015), Allen Hurns (2014), and Victor Cruz (2010). As a preview of things to come in his breakout season in 2011, Antonio Brown led all players that preseason in receiving yards (230).
While Brown has become the poster boy for late-round receiving success, immediate success for Sharpe could make us rethink the way we look at late-round rookie receivers. For a franchise that has been inept for so long at developing wide receivers, it feels strange to talk up its rookie before September, but this is a unique situation that could lead to a historic rookie campaign for a fifth-round pick.
The Perfect Situation
You might be wondering why we are highlighting a rookie with eight catches in two preseason games, but the fact that Sharpe is already starting for Tennessee is an accomplishment itself. One of the main reasons late-round picks rarely break out is that they do not get as many opportunities to shine as high draft picks. Now if the scouting was done correctly, those higher picks should be the better players, but we know some hidden gems slip through the cracks. An overlooked talent combined with the right situation around him can produce amazing results, such as Terrell Davis in Denver or Richard Sherman in Seattle. And there are good reasons to believe Sharpe could be productive right away.
While the level of competition left something to be desired, Sharpe's 111 receptions for Massachusetts in 2015 led all FBS receivers. Sharpe was not a one-year wonder either. As a junior in 2014, he caught 85 passes for 1,281 yards and a career-high seven touchdowns. He is more of an outside possession receiver, but that seems to fit right in with a Tennessee passing game that was led in targets by tight end Delanie Walker (133) and Harry Douglas (72) last year. Sharpe has reliable hands and runs good routes, two hallmarks of a possession receiver, and has adequate size at 6-foot-2.
Athletically, Sharpe is not likely to burn anyone deep, and his 4.55 40-yard dash did not help his draft stock. Playmaker Score was lukewarm at best on Sharpe, but that partly reflects his projected draft round. Sharpe's fifth-round status has not hampered his ability to win a starting job given the state of Tennessee's receiving corps.
The Titans have a long history of botching their wide receiver picks. Remember, this is the team that drafted Kevin Dyson over Randy Moss in 1998, not to mention a slew of second- and third-round picks that never panned out. (Tyrone Calico, Courtney Roby, and Paul Williams, anyone?) New general manager Jon Robinson might see an incredible return on his first wideout pick thanks to the ineptitude of previous picks by the last regime.
Kendall Wright was a 2012 first-round pick, but has seen his production decline the last three years, dropping to 408 yards in 10 games last season. He may still be the primary slot receiver, but is not a preferred target anymore. Justin Hunter was the 34th pick in the 2013 draft, but has never found any consistency in Tennessee. Then you have the curious case of Dorial Green-Beckham, the 40th pick of the 2015 draft. The off-field concerns were there, but he flashed some talent as a rookie. After offseason grumblings of disappointment from the coaches, including a benching, DGB was traded to the Eagles last week for backup offensive lineman Dennis Kelly. So with one guy on the decline, one still at the bottom of the incline, and the other out the door, Sharpe has seized an opportunity to start right away.
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Douglas can make the team as a veteran presence, but there's a lot more upside to playing Sharpe instead. Walker will still get his share of targets, but it is rare for an NFL offense to feature the tight end as its leading receiver unless we're talking about a player at the level of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, or Rob Gronkowski. Walker is good, but not that special, though he did magically grow 2 inches this offseason. Not bad for someone who just turned 32.
The only other competition for Sharpe comes from two veteran signings, Andre Johnson and Rishard Matthews. Johnson looked more like an extra on The Walking Dead in Indianapolis last year, and it is hard to expect much from the 35-year-old receiver. Matthews is another potential tale of late-round success. He was a seventh-round pick by Miami in 2012, showed some playmaking ability over the years, then really impressed last season with a second-place finish in DVOA. A lot of low-volume, high-efficiency receivers struggle after changing teams, but Matthews is the biggest threat to Sharpe when it comes to being the No. 1 wide receiver this year. But it's not like the contract he signed in free agency (three years, $15 million) is going to force the Titans to feature him as the No. 1 receiver.
Most late-round wideouts end up on a team with either an established set of starters or a stable of young, high draft picks trying to make their mark. But the 2016 Titans are different. Who should the quarterback trust on this particular offense? That was readily apparent when Sharpe and Matthews were made the starters. Mariota has already taken a liking to Sharpe in the preseason games, as he has eight catches compared to three for Matthews. While we still expect Mariota to spread the ball around this season, Sharpe's unusual climb to the No. 1 wide receiver role only looks to be gaining probability as the season approaches.
The Most Productive Rookie Wideouts Ever
So just what kind of benchmarks would Sharpe have to hit to really make a historical impact? The most prolific rookie seasons by wide receivers in NFL history appear pretty daunting for Sharpe to match. Among the 20 seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards, only four were done by a player drafted in the fifth round or later (or undrafted). Half of the 1,000-yarders were first-round picks.
|NFL Wide Receivers: 1,000-Yard Rookie Seasons|
|Players in bold entered the league in or after 1994, the start of the salary cap and the seven-round draft.
While the Tennessee Titans have been known for a weak passing offense, the Houston Oilers kicked off the AFL with some of the pass-happiest offenses on record. Bill Groman still holds the rookie record with 1,473 yards, achieved in just a 14-game season. Deep threat Harlon Hill's 1954 stats are still eye-popping given the 12-game season and passing climate in the NFL at that time.
Bob Hayes technically slid to the seventh round, but with good reason. Dallas took a chance on him as a "futures" draft pick in 1964. Hayes would not debut in the NFL until 1965, because he was too busy winning two gold medals and claiming the title of "World's Fastest Human" in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (which were actually held in October that year). The Hall of Famer is not a typical case.
That means the only late-round pick on here that relates to the modern-day NFL is Marques Colston, a true surprise from Hostra, the same school that produced Wayne Chrebet in the '90s. That's the main takeaway with these late-round breakout rookie seasons: we usually did not see them coming.
While Drew Brees was considered a very good quarterback and Sean Payton was viewed as a worthy new coaching hire, no one back in 2006 believed the Saints would become this all-time prolific passing game over the next decade. All the hype was about Reggie Bush at the time, and the fact that football was returning to the Superdome a year after Hurricane Katrina. Colston was so unknown he was infamously listed as a tight end in fantasy football leagues, which led to some pretty advantageous lineups if you were quick to snag him.
Here is a table of every true rookie wide receiver drafted in the fifth round or later to produce at least 700 receiving yards. We already covered four of them, but 17 more players qualify.
|NFL Wide Receivers: Most Receiving Yards by Rookie Drafted in Round 5 Or Later|
|Players in bold entered the league in or after 1994, the start of the salary cap and the seven-round draft.|
Note: players such as Willie Snead, Anthony Armstrong, and Oronde Gadsden were excluded for being on NFL rosters prior to their debuts. Anthony Carter, a 1983 12th-round pick, was excluded for first playing in the USFL prior to making his NFL debut in 1985.
Six of these seasons took place in the AFL, which was more open to throwing the ball and taking in rejected NFL talent. More than half of these rookie seasons are not really comparable to Sharpe in the sense that the player was expected to play for his drafted team that year:
- Jimmy Orr was a 25th-round pick by the Rams in 1957, but he never played for them, officially debuting with the Steelers in 1958.
- Randy Vataha was also a Rams draft pick that never played for the team, but reunited with his Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett on the 1971 Patriots.
- One-year wonder Jack Clancy was a fifth-round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966, but debuted with a Pro Bowl season for the AFL's Dolphins in 1967.
- Chris Burford was a ninth-round pick by the Browns in 1960, but he opted for a successful career with the AFL's Dallas Texans, the team that became the Kansas City Chiefs.
- Bucky Pope, another one-year wonder, may have caught a break on the 1964 Rams when 1963's leading receiver, Red Phillips, missed half the season with injury.
- Glenn Bass was drafted late in both leagues, but ended up choosing the AFL and a different team (Bills) than the one that drafted him (Chargers).
- Elbert Dubenion did not pan out as a 14th-round pick for Cleveland in 1959, but he had a nice career for Buffalo in the AFL (1960-68).
- Charley Hennigan was part of the dynamic duo with Bill Groman on those Oilers teams that loved to throw it deep with George Blanda at quarterback.
- Don Looney is easily the oldest player on the list, leading the NFL in catches and yards as a rookie in 1940.
The situations of Bobby Johnson, FO favorite Doug Baldwin, Mark Jackson, and Stefon Diggs are more comparable to what Sharpe is trying to do this year in Tennessee. But even Diggs last year was a fifth-round pick that flew totally under the radar before he made a great debut against Denver's defense in Week 4. Expectations in Minnesota were higher for Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson, and Jarius Wright going into the season.
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As was often the case in Bill Parcells' tenure, the Giants had a pretty soft receiving corps in 1983, led by Earnest Gray's career-best 1,139 receiving yards. In addition to Bobby Johnson, seventh-round rookie Lionel Manuel also put up 619 receiving yards in 1984. Johnson came out on fire, catching eight passes for 137 yards and two scores in his debut. Johnson led the 1984 Giants in receptions and receiving yards, but was out of the NFL after three seasons and had a rough post-football life.
Another interesting fact about this list: instant success was not a good predictor for career longevity like it usually is. Too many one-year wonders and quick faders here. James Jett was an Olympic sprinter and definitely influenced by Bob Hayes, but his impact in the NFL was nowhere near as significant. Mark Jackson averaged 16.2 yards per catch in Dan Reeves' offenses, but never had a 1,000-yard season. If Baldwin continues his success with Russell Wilson in Seattle, he'll be considered among the best on this list with Hayes and Colston.
Those three names also highlight the importance of coaching and quarterback play. The Titans think they have the quarterback now in Mariota, but will coaching hold him back initially? Mike Mularkey was the least-inspired coaching hire since, well, since Jim Tomsula in San Francisco a year ago. The Titans' continued emphasis on running backs makes it feel like Jeff Fisher still hasn't really left the building and taken his "7-9 bulls**t" with him.
To be fair, the receivers were not a strength for the Titans last season. If Sharpe and Matthews can be much more reliable, efficient targets for Mariota this season, then we should see an improved passing game. On Saturday against Carolina, Sharpe made two plays on third-and-long that will quickly endear him to fans and his quarterback. On a third-and-14, Sharpe made a tough catch in traffic for 20 yards, holding onto the ball after the hit. On a third-and-11, Sharpe reached up with full extension to snag a high pass for 16 yards and another big conversion that led to a touchdown.
Yes, it is very early. Yes, these are preseason results involving the Tennessee Titans, but this situation is different from most. The fact that we have a fifth-round rookie with real expectations shows that Sharpe is not the typical late-round pick.
We finish with a look at the 22 true rookie seasons for every fifth-round wide receiver since 1970 with at least 200 receiving yards. You can use this to track Sharpe's progress throughout the season, or throw egg at my face if he fails to deliver.
|Most Receiving Yards by Fifth-Round Rookie WR Since 1970|
|Players in bold entered the league in or after 1994, the start of the salary cap and the seven-round draft.|