NASHVILLE – For Jon Robinson, the best-case scenario involving wide receiver Corey Davis is clear.
“Hopefully he goes out and has a good year for us and we can figure something out,” the Tennessee Titans general manager said last week.
That also happens to be the least likely outcome due to the fact that the Titans opted not to exercise their fifth-year option, which would have kept Davis under contract through 2021.
Now, if he finally lives up to the expectations created by the fact that he was the fifth player drafted overall – the first wide receiver – in 2017, he will have the opportunity to cash in via free agency and likely will generate plenty of interest. If he does not perform significantly better than he has to this point, the Titans won’t be inclined to offer him a new contract and he will be forced to find a new franchise.
In all likelihood, therefore, the 2020 season will be Davis’ last with Tennessee.
So, will he put on a show, the kind that leaves the crowd wanting more? Or will he fade into the background as others involved in the passing game – chiefly second-year wide receiver A.J. Brown and fourth-year tight end Jonnu Smith – play even bigger parts than they have to this point?
“Obviously, (it is) receptions that matters in terms of how receivers are perceived and the production that goes with it, but he’s a big part of this offense,” offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said recently. “… I’ve been in a lot of meetings with Corey, and [I have seen] his growth. I think he’ll take another step for us.”
Davis has, in fact, shown steady improvement in multiple ways throughout his first three NFL seasons.
His yards-per-reception average has increased annually, from 11.0 to 13.7 to 14.0 as has his yards per target average, which went from 5.8 to 8.0 to 8.7. The same is true of his catch percentage, which grew from 52.3 to 58.0 to 62.3.
However, after he notched a team-leading 65 receptions for 891 yards in 2018, his numbers dipped to 43 catches and 601 yards last fall. Likewise, he had half as many touchdown receptions in 2019 (two) as he did the previous year (four).
“I think there’s some huge explosive plays that Corey was the unsung hero to,” Smith said.
Through the first six games of last season, when Marcus Mariota was the starting quarterback, Davis was third on the Titans with 16 receptions, which trailed only slot receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Delanie Walker (21 each).
In the 10 games Ryan Tannehill started, Davis again was third, albeit behind Brown and Smith. His yards-per-target (8.67) and yards-per-reception (13.48) averages in those contests were down from what they were when Mariota was the starter (8.78 and 14.81, respectively).
“[I am] looking forward to building on what we started last year and our rapport and looking forward to him making some big plays for us because I know he has the talent,” Tannehill said. “I’ve seen him make the plays. Really excited to see him just keep growing and make those plays in 2020.”
Davis was the fourth wide receiver the franchise drafted in the first round over a span of 20 years. The first was Kevin Dyson in 1998 (16th overall). Then came Kenny Britt in 2009 (30th overall) and Kendall Wright in 2012 (20th overall).
Wright’s best season was his second, when he led the team and finished among the NFL’s top 10 with 94 receptions. Dyson set a career-high with 54 receptions in his second year and matched it two years later. Britt had 42 receptions in each of his first two seasons and over the next three topped that number just once – he caught 45 passes in his fourth year.
In other words, recent history does not offer much reason to think that the best is yet to come for Davis. Neither does the quarterback change given that Davis’ best season (2018) and his best days last season came when Marcus Mariota, now with the Las Vegas Raiders, was the starter.
Still, the Titans will hold out hope that he can steal the show this fall.
“I love him personally,” Robinson said. “I love the way he’s grown as a person, as a player and I want him to go out and have a good year.”
At the very least, it would make for a happy ending.