Titans’ maturing wideout corps primed for stellar season

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans are heavily into the process of learning the offensive and defensive systems being implemented by new head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff.

But unlike most of their teammates, the Titans wideouts are going through it while hearing a familiar voice.

Wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson was one of two holdover position coaches the Mike Munchak era, including running backs coach Sylvester Croom.

Jefferson, and Titans wide receivers alike, say their familiarity with each other has made for a smooth transition, both on the field during practice and off the field during instructionals.

"It helps a lot," said Jefferson of the positional continuity. "Just like coach ‘Whiz’ is talking about chemistry, teams have to develop a chemistry and an identity for ourselves and we all have to stay together.

"It’s big on me being back with this group to bring some type of stability within the group. They are used to how I coach. They are used to how I demand things."

Demanding is one way to describe the energetic Jefferson, who took over a 2013 receiving corps full of promise.

Despite starting quarterback Jake Locker starting only seven games because of injuries and former backup Ryan Fitzpatrick having to go the other nine, the wideouts trio of Nate Washington, second-year Kendall Wright and rookie Justin Hunter showed it could be one of the NFL’s better groupings.

"You want to kind of finish the deal, something that you’ve started with these guys," said Jefferson. "When I came here, there was a lot of talk about these guys underachieving and everything like that. So, mine was establishing a mindset and the way we do things.

"This year, it’s staying on it every day. Last year, it was like this is how we have to do things. This year, it’s consistency of doing it every day now that we know what is expected. So, it has been a good transition for me and those guys."

After leading the team with 94 receptions last year — good enough to rank fifth in the AFC and seventh in the NFL — Wright agrees that having Jefferson back has made the transition go smoother for the position group.

"It’s nice not switching (position) coaches again," said Wright, who also led the Titans with 1,079 receiving yards in 2013. "It’s good to keep the same coach and hear the same voice and have the same intensity out there every day."

Jefferson is both a teacher and a student these days, learning the new offense that already has shown attributes of versatility. In the offseason, the Titans added free-agent signee Dexter McCluster, who will bounce from wide receiver to running back to slot receiver and various other positions in the new multiple offense.

"With the coaching staff that (Whisenhunt) has implemented here, a lot of these guys have been together for a while," says Jefferson. "So, if I have any questions about anything, I go see (tight ends coach) Mike Mularkey, who’s been a head coach before. (Quarterbacks coach) John McNulty, he has been an offensive coordinator before.

"It’s really good for me getting it from them, and I can share it with my guys and we can implement it. So, it’s been a great process for me. I’m sitting back and taking it in and at the same time getting to coach my group."

Wright figures Jefferson is on a faster track with his learning curve than the players he’s leading.

"He’s learning," Wright said, "but he’s learning it way, way faster. He’s here every day for a long time, way longer than we have to be."

There was an initial question whether the Titans would release Washington, who will make $4.8 million in 2014 in the final season of a six-year contract. In 2013, he was second on the team in receiving yards (919), third in catches (58) and played in all 16 games for an eighth-straight season.

That includes the last five with the Titans and previous three at Pittsburgh, where he started his career with Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator.

"He made a lot of plays for us when were in Pittsburgh," Whisenhunt said of Washington. "… I think it is a credit to Nate and how he’s worked. And he’a matured a little bit. It’s good to see a guy playing the way he is at this stage in his career."

The explosive deep threat of the trio is Hunter, who added 15 pounds to his wiry 6-foot-4 frame to now weigh around 210 pounds. As a rookie last year, he led the team at 19.7 yards per catch (18 catches for 354 yards). He was also tallied four TD receptions (second on the club).

"He’s not getting knocked off the course of his route," Washington said of Hunter, a 2013 second-round draft pick out of Tennessee. "He’s able to defeat press coverage at the line now with his body. He’s having to grow into his body.

"At the same time, he is growing into his body, he is learning how his body mechanics work from his upper body to his lower body. The upper body and the lower body are starting to get into sync now."

Depth at wide receiver behind Washington, Kendall and Hunter is a concern. Second-year Michael Preston is big (6-5, 213) and athletic but unproven; veteran Marc Mariani has missed two seasons with separate injuries; and six-year NFL veteran Brian Robiskie was signed as a free agent.

"It’s really too early to say right now," said Whisenhunt of whether the backup receivers have distinguished themselves. "We’ve got a lot of different guys that we are looking at. Some guys have been here; some guys that haven’t. So, we’ll see how it all shakes out. I like the way they are working."

That is work for the wide receivers that continues under the direct coaching of Jefferson, who previously coached the position for the Lions for five seasons before coming to the Titans.

"It’s been really easy," Hunter said of learning a new offense with Jefferson around. "Just for the fact that you know how he is going to coach you and you know what to expect. So, it’s coming easy for everybody.

"I think we are doing pretty good. Practice is going a lot faster than it did last year, so you just have to be able to adjust."

The Titans wrap 10 Organized Team Activities sessions over three weeks with four outings (Monday through Thursday). Next week’s mandatory mini-camp runs from June 17-19.

The team returns, in full, for training camp in late July.