Back in 1998 the Tennessee Titans passed on the opportunity to draft Randy Moss.
It can be argued that the passing game has suffered ever since.
The closest the franchise has come to replicating Moss’ combination of size, speed and big-play ability has been with Kenny Britt. In each of his three NFL seasons Britt has produced some memorable moments and near-legendary games.
At this point, the Titans would do well to find another Derrick Mason. They might finally have done so.
Mason, recently released by the Houston Texans, did not exactly take the league by storm the way Moss did. Instead, the Titans’ (they were the Houston Oilers at the time) fourth-round draft pick in 1997 caught just 47 passes and was primarily a return specialist through his first three NFL seasons.
It was only during his fourth year, 2000, that injuries created an opportunity he seized. He started 10 of the final 12 games and caught 63 passes for 895 yards. Seven times in the next eight seasons he topped 1,000 yards receiving and extended his career to a 15th season.
By the time he left for Baltimore he was fifth in all-time receptions and third in all-time receiving yards in franchise history.
Lavelle Hawkins, currently in his fourth year, and Damian Williams, in his second, saw the biggest increases in playing time this fall following Britt’s season-ending knee injury in Week 3. They entered Sunday’s game at Indianapolis with 34 and 33 receptions, respectively.
Each was a bit player — at best — prior to this season. Now both have been consistently productive the way Mason was once he got his chance.
Hawkins did not have a catch in the opener but had at least one in every game thereafter. Before this season he had been a preseason wonder who fizzled during the regular season.
He has made up for some of run-after-catch ability the Titans lost when Britt was injured — even if he has not always run in the proper direction.
“He makes you nervous sometimes,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “He’s always cutting back, going across the field, but he’s done a great job with it. I think if we can get a little more crisp and disciplined on the other stuff … I probably just need to trust him a little more too.”
Williams, who replaced Britt in the starting lineup, missed the second game of the season but, like Hawkins, caught at least one pass every other time he played. He also has developed into a reliable red zone target.
“This league is that way,” Munchak said. “It’s his first year starting and he’s been making some great plays. He’s been making some great catches. … He’s got confidence. You can see it growing. You’re seeing a guy grow up and learn how to play in this league. You’re seeing a guy gain his confidence weekly.”
Once Mason caught on and began to catch passes regularly, the Titans’ passing game took off. Tennessee finished among the top 10 in passing each of his last two seasons with the franchise and again the following year, 2005.
“I think Damian [and] Hawk are really coming on strong,” coach Mike Munchak said.
The Titans would be more than happy if one or both carried on the legacy left by Mason.