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Titanic Disappointment - Will Ryan Tannehill Help Tennessee?


In the midst of being shutout by the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Tennesse Titans coach Mike Vrabel made a move that many casual NFL fans had been expecting for the past few weeks: he decided to give Ryan Tannehill a shot at quarterback instead of Marcus Mariota.

While Tannehill wasn't noticeably better on Sunday, throwing a crucial pick and the end of the game, it's time for us to start wondering whether Titans fantasy players would be better suited with Tannehill under center for the rest of the season.

In other words, is there hope for players like Corey Davis, A.J. Brown, Delanie Walker, and others?

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Is Tannehill Actually Better Than Mariota?

Tannehill has been better so far this season in an incredibly small sample size. He has a 64.2 PFF grade to Mariota's 63.7, but on pass plays only Tannehill grades out at 67.2 to Mariota's 62.9. The truth is that both Tannehill and Mariota have had their struggles this season and during their NFL careers.

Since being a first-round pick in 2013, Tannehill was given the reins of the Miami Dolphins offense, throwing for 111 touchdowns and 62 interceptions, while compiling a 74.1% adjusted completion percentage - a Pro Football Focus stat that measures completion percentage based on the factors a quarterback can control (so not drops).

Tannehill had thrown for over 4,000 yards in 2014 and 2015 and seemed to be making real progress before suffering an injury in 2016 that kept him out for the entire 2017 season. When he came back in 2018, he seemed to be visibly rusty, and the team he returned to had lost a good deal of talent. He also injured his shoulder last year, playing through it for many weeks, and finishing with only 11 games played.

Needless to say, Tannehill's upward trajectory was derailed by those injuries and he found himself on the outside in Miami.

Meanwhile, Mariota has never quite blossomed with the Titans. He's a cautious passer who doesn't take many risks. He's never thrown for more than 3,500 yards in a season and has a career 76 touchdowns to 44 interceptions.

You can see Mariota's turnover-averse ways in the diagram below:

As you can see, Tannehill will take more chances with the football. He's thrown an average of 54 deep passes per season since entering the league; although, he only threw 35 in 2018 while playing with a shoulder injury. He had thrown 66 deep passes per season in his first three seasons. Mariota has thrown an average of 49 per season.

Tannehill taking more chances also means more mistakes. As a result, the offense will likely have shorter drives and potentially less sustained production. That's a worry for the players like Derrick Henry, Adam Humphries or Delanie Walker, who require sustained opportunity for their production.

Additionally, according to Pro Football Focus, Tannehill is a significantly better passer in a clean pocket than Mariota. In 2016, when Tannehill was fully healthy, he had a passer rating of 116.6 in a clean pocket, while Mariota had one that fell way below at 78.2. In 2018, when Tannehill was just back off a major injury and on a much worse team, he still had a better passer rating in a clean pocket: 100.7 to 97.5.

The only issue is that Tennessee currently has the 31st-ranked offensive line when it comes to pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. When under pressure, Mariota has been the consistently superior quarterback. Here are his numbers: 

Here are Tannehill's numbers:

It's interesting to note that both quarterbacks have actually been above league average when facing pressure, except for Tannehill's rookie year and rough 2016 season. But if Mariota is the better quarterback under pressure, and Tennessee has been letting up a lot of pressure, then a move to Tannehill wouldn't necessarily seem to be a positive for the Titans.

Given their history, it may prove to be more of a neutral move, if it wasn't for one final stat.

A bigger concern for the Titans players with Mariota under center is that he has been consistently less productive than Tannehill in the red zone over his career. A lot of that has to do with Mariota's risk-averse style. He usually doesn't make costly mistakes, but he also doesn't capitalize on the opportunities.

Notice how the last two years, Mariota's red zone touchdown percentage has been 10.% and 13.6% when the league average last year was 22.1%. Meanwhile, Tannehill's touchdown percentage last year was 29.6%, and he is consistently above the league average in touchdown percentage during his career.

Tannehill's passer rating in the red zone suffers because he will make mistakes. Last year he had an interception percentage of 3.7% in the red zone when the league average was 2%. He's been at 3% or over in three years, while Mariota was at 0% in every year but last year.

In the end, it seems like Mariota may give the Titans the best chance to win because their strong defense doesn't require gaudy point totals, but Tannehill may be the best bet for fantasy options.

 

Does a QB Change Impact The Titans' Run-Heavy Approach?

At the end of the day, the quarterback change doesn't mean much for the Titans running game. Tennesse's strong defense still figures to keep them in games, which means that they can still employ a run-heavy attack. The team currently throws on only 56% of their plays, which is good for the eighth fewest in the league. Their defense has also yet to allow over 20 points, which means they will likely be able to continue to feature a running game that will be led by Derrick Henry.

However, Tannehill's turnover problems could lead to more points for the opponent's, which could lead to more negative game scripts and chances for Dion Lewis to be a factor.

If you look at the heat map below, you'll see that Tannehill isn't great in the short passing game, but he grades out above-average at passes behind the line of scrimmage, meaning swing passes and dump-offs to his running backs. The Throws By Route chart on the right shows that his passer rating is relatively high on these throws, and he seems to love short passes out to the right, his throwing side, which accounts for 21% of his total throws.

On the other hand, Mariota is far less accurate in these situations. His passer rating is below Tannehill's on the short-yardage passes, and he seems to throw them less often.

With his turnover-prone ways and fondness for line of scrimmage passing, Tannehill's presence could be a slight boost for Dion Lewis, but I wouldn't be downgrading Derrick Henry too much in a system that will still feature him a good deal.

 

Which Wide Receiver Would Benefit the Most?

In order to get a better gauge of which wide receiver might benefit from a switch to Tannehill, let's look at the accuracy of each quarterback when throwing certain routes.

In looking at the numbers, you actually see just how similar both quarterbacks are. They have essentially the same percentages on the screen and swing passes, and both are very similar on the horizontal and vertical leads - neither of which is appealing based on their accuracy percentages.

In fact, Tannehill is worse on the deep passes and similar to Mariota in underneath passes. Given that we saw his passer rating be higher than Mariota before, we have to assume his inferior accuracy when throwing short is offset by more completions on more passes in that area of the field. His lower accuracy on deep passes would be more of a factor if Mariota actually threw deep, but since he seems less inclined to do that on a regular basis, his superior accuracy to Tannehill doesn't really help him.

As evidenced by the graph below, the area in which Tannehill is more accurate that Mariota is between 0-19 yards from the line of scrimmage.

If we're expecting progress in the 0-19 yards range then the two people who stand to benefit most from that are Delanie Walker and Adam Humphries since they run their routes closest to the line of scrimmage. A.J. Brown leads the team with an 11.8 average depth of target. Corey Davis is next with 10.8, then Delanie Walker comes in with an aDOT of seven, and Adam Humphries has six yards per target.

However, we also have to keep in mind that fantasy football is not real football - as anybody who has watched Jameis Winston play quarterback can attest to. Let's look again at that turnover worthy play chart from earlier:

You notice Mariota slightly left of the middle in the top-left quadrant, avoiding turnover-worthy play. He's a safe quarterback who won't turn the ball over, but also doesn't take chances. We discussed his aversion to the deep pass a few times. Tannehill, alone there in the lower left, loves to take chances. He doesn't hit on them often, but look at the other QBs closest to him last season: Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Lamar Jackson. All quarterbacks with huge fantasy upside.

Now, I'm not saying that Tannehill will have that upside, but I am saying that he is clearly going to take shots down the field. If you're a big-play target at wide receiver, all you need is for one of those shots to connect and you've made your fantasy production. That's why we need to look again at A.J. Brown's team-leading aDOT.

What all of this says to me is that Delanie Walker and Adam Humphries may raise their floor a bit with Tannehill at quarterback, but we're talking about a run-heavy offense still, so you're looking at five to seven targets over the middle of the field from a quarterback who is still just slightly above league-average accuracy in those areas. For me, that's not enough to get excited about in regards to Humphries (more on Walker below).

I will allow myself to get a little excited about A.J. Brown. Here we have a young receiver with dynamic talent who has already shown he can break big plays. He's running the deepest routes with a shift to a quarterback that will take foolish chances down the field. This makes Brown an intriguing bench stash in 12+ team leagues and a name to watch in 10-team leagues. The Titans figure to only really be able to support one fantasy-viable wide receiver with how little they throw the ball, so I would lean more to Brown, which means I still have little interest in Corey Davis unless I'm in a truly deep league.

 

Is Delanie Walker Still The Main Target?

Heading into this week, Walker leads the team with 18.8% of the overall targets. Granted, it's only a slight lead on Adam Humphries and Corey Davis, who both have 16.4%, but Walker also leads the team with 33% of the red zone targets.

As mentioned above, Walker sees a minor rise to his floor with Tannehill as the starter. He's only blocking 4.5% of the time, which is a low number that should have us excited about his production in the passing game; yet, he has only run 106 routes, which is 19th at the position behind Jordan Akins, Jason Witten, and Nick Vannett. This has capped his fantasy ceiling.

However, the tight end position has been such a dumpster fire that Walker is still the 11th ranked tight end in half-PPR formats. What's more, we already mentioned that Tannehill has a higher touchdown percentage in the red zone than Mariota, which is an area of the field where Delanie Walker shines. In fact, Tannehill has thrown 84 career touchdowns to nine interceptions in the red zone; Mariota has thrown 51 career red-zone touchdowns.

Given that Delanie Walker isn't blocking much, and Tannehill will look to be more aggressive in the red-zone, I think the quarterback switch is a net positive for Walker, who is still the team's best red-zone option and could see more touchdowns with Tannehill under center. That would make it easy for him to entrench himself as a weekly top-10 option with the upside to reach into the top seven at the position.

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