NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The passing game was supposed to take the next step for Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. Bringing in the young coach with plenty of innovative ideas created a level of excitement in the locker room.
Through five games, the passing game has produced up-and-down results, but the inconsistency can't be blamed entirely on LaFleur. The loss of Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker (ankle) in the season opener against Miami and Rishard Matthews' request to be released robbed Tennessee of two reliable veterans who produced 127 receptions for 1,602 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017.
Though 2017 first-rounder Corey Davis has emerged as a threat at receiver, the Titans need to fill the void created by the departures of Walker and Matthews.
Third-year wideout Tajae Sharpe caught three of four targets from Mariota against Buffalo in Week 5, and each catch moved the chains on third down. Sharpe accounted for half of Tennessee's successful third-down conversions in the loss, so he will see an increase in targets if he continues to come through for Mariota.
"That was a key that we focused on," Sharpe said. "We felt like we had to do a better job of executing on third downs. It's just locking in on the details of whatever play we call and executing to keep the drive alive."
At 6-foot-2, 194 pounds, Sharpe is not the shifty slot receiver that is lacking in the offense, but as a highly productive pass-catcher at Massachusetts, he lined up in the slot and caught passes out of the backfield. Running quick-hitting routes as a slot receiver is nothing new.
Sharpe gives LaFleur a reliable option to work the middle of the field from the slot, especially in third-and-long situations. He can use his lanky body to shield defenders from the ball and his long arms to make grabs away from his body, which increases the likelihood of making a contested catch.
Sharpe has caught seven of his 13 targets this season for 88 yards and a touchdown. Mariota needs to find another reliable option in the passing game to go along with Davis, who is the top receiver on the team and now the focal point of opposing defenses. Recent comments from Mariota about Sharpe are an indication he might be the trusted, complimentary wideout the team needs.
"He makes it easy," Mariota said. "He's got great body language in and out of his routes. When you have a guy that can do that, and create separation, it makes it easy for you on third down to look to him, and find ways for him to get the ball."
If the Titans decide to trade for a wideout, the Green Bay Packers are a team they should call. Perhaps a change of scenery would be good for eight-year veteran Randall Cobb. His numbers have declined over the past two seasons, but Cobb would bring a much-needed veteran presence to the Titans, and he is a more than capable slot receiver.
Cobb is in the final year of his contract and is set to be a free agent after this season. Given how the Packers signed Davante Adams to a four-year contract extension worth $58 million last year, it's possible Cobb won't be retained. Young wideout Geronimo Allison has 19 catches, and three rookies on the roster -- Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, J'Mon Moore -- mean the Packers could be preparing for life after Cobb.
The dynamic Cobb posted nine receptions for 142 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown, in the season opener, but he is dealing with a hamstring issue that kept him out of the Packers' Week 5 loss in Detroit.
If his hamstring is healed before the Oct. 31 trade deadline, it could make sense for Tennessee to offer the Packers a fifth-round pick for Cobb. If that trade doesn't happen, ESPN's Bill Barnwell suggested Tennessee make a bold move for Detroit's Golden Tate.
No matter how a pass-catcher is acquired, it's clear the first-place Titans could use another reliable receiver to help them stay in contention in the AFC South.