New pass-catchers should help Titans get clearer picture on Marcus Mariota

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans are at a crossroads with quarterback Marcus Mariota. Injuries affected his production in 2018, but his 2,528 passing yards last season were a career low.

The Titans' passing attack last season ranked 29th, averaging 185.9 yards and 9.8 first-down passes (27th). With Mariota playing on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, the excuses for his inconsistent play have to be minimized. To get a clear evaluation, the Titans added playmakers who could help make the passing game more efficient.

General manager Jon Robinson signed free-agent wideout Adam Humphries and used the 51st pick in the draft to select former Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown. Both players specialize in working between the hashes, catching high-percentage throws and gaining extra yards that should result in more first downs for the Titans.

Adam Humphries

Humphries was signed (four years, $36 million) to give Mariota a reliable veteran in the slot who could make tough catches and keep drives going. It is no coincidence that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Humphries' former team, were tops in the NFL in first downs (16.6 per game) through the air last season. Humphries had a 72.4 percent catch rate with 48 of his 76 receptions resulting in first downs.

A lot of the "get out of trouble" passes that went to running back Dion Lewis last season will now go to Humphries. Despite coming into the league in 2015 as an undrafted free agent, Humphries became quarterback Jameis Winston's security blanket. Humphries got better every year in Tampa, catching a career-high 76 passes last season and earning high praise from his former coach Dirk Koetter.

"If you're looking for a guy that is steady, consistent, and durable, you're describing Adam Humphries. He's one of the steadiest and most consistent players on our team. His runs after the catch, I think that's the punt returner in him. He's always in position and rarely makes a mistake," Koetter said during his final season with the Bucs.

It would be a stretch to expect a 1,000-yard season out of Humphries, but his steady presence will certainly help Mariota and the Titans' offense to be more efficient.

A.J. Brown

While Humphries offers a smaller, quicker option as a slot receiver, Brown gives Mariota a receiver with a large catch radius who can play receiver like a power forward in basketball.

"A guy that I think can have a tremendous impact on Mariota's career is A.J. Brown," ESPN's Dan Orlovsky said. "He's JuJu Smith-Schuster to me.

"Brown is a guy that Marcus will be able to see, drop back, move around and go, 'I trust that cat, I trust that when I throw this ball to him he's going to go at it like his paycheck.' That's going to be a big growth process for Marcus this year. Just getting back there and cutting it loose because at some point, you do have to trust those guys."

Brown is a polished prospect whom ESPN's Mel Kiper highlighted as one of his instant impact rookies. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound wideout is built for making plays over the middle -- which perfectly suits the various levels of in-breaking routes that are incorporated on run-pass option plays (RPOs) and should lead to more third-down conversions.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brown had 58 receptions for 805 yards from the slot last season at Ole Miss. His favorite and most productive route is the curl, but he is a threat on posts, go routes, and back shoulder throws.

With Brown's excellence in the slot last year, it would be easy to forget how well he performed on the outside in 2017 (75 receptions, 1,252 yards, 16.7 YPC, 11 TDs). And last season, he averaged 20.6 yards (25 receptions, 515 yards) when he lined up out wide. Tracking the deep ball comes naturally for Brown, a former center fielder who was drafted in the 19th round by the San Diego Padres in the 2016 MLB draft.

If there were any concerns about Brown's speed, he erased them when he ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the combine.

"Brown has breakaway speed, great hands, and he routinely high-points the ball -- attributes all great receivers possess," former NFL wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said of Brown via NFL.com.