The question never has been about Kendall Wright’s talent. It’s usually pertained to whether the Tennessee Titans wide receiver can stay healthy.
The fifth-year pro missed all of preseason and the season’s first three games with a hamstring injury. After two games of regaining game shape, he delivered 8 receptions for 133 yards and 1 touchdown in a 28-26 home win Sunday against Cleveland.
He arrived in the NFL with immense expectations as the Titans selected Wright with the 20th-overall pick in the 2012 draft. After making some plays as a rookie in 15 games, including five starts, Wright had his best season in 2013 with 94 receptions for 1,079 yards and 2 TDs.
Since then, his production has fallen off. He missed a couple of games and didn’t start in three others in 2014. He was sidelined for six games last season. Then the hamstring injury turned him into a spectator at the outset of this preseason.
That’s why many seemed to be greeting him last Sunday. It was the second-best game of his career, surpassed only by 12 receptions for 150 yards against the Arizona Cardinals in 2013.
“It was a lot of ‘Welcome back. Welcome back,’’’ a smiling Wright said after beating the Browns. “But I never really left. I haven’t gone anywhere. Whenever my number is called I have to be ready to make a play, and that’s what I did today and it’s what I have to keep doing.
“(My teammates) were really cheering me on, and they have my back.”
After entering with just 3 catches for 23 yards, he doubled that yardage with one reception in the second quarter on a 48-yard touchdown grab.
Those who noticed included the Indianapolis Colts (2-4), who visit the Titans (3-3) on Sunday. The Colts have a nine-game winning streak against the Titans.
“Obviously, he’s a guy that we’ve seen for a long, long time,” said Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. “(He had) a big game against the Browns — 133 yards, I guess it was, and big plays down the field. When you have multiple guys that can play and they create matchup issues for you in the back end, and the run game being such a major problem, you’ve got to commit enough guys to make sure that you can get that thing contained. And then it opens up everything for those other guys — the play-action pass, the bootlegs, the vertical passing game that comes off of the play-action.
“Now you’ve got Kendall (Wright) playing like a healthy guy that can wreck games, and you’ve got other guys — you know, Delanie’s (Walker) always been an issue and continues to be an issue for defenses — so we’ve got our hands full with this offense.”
Titans tight end Delanie Walker was among those welcoming Wright into the fold.
“I told him on the field: Glad to have you back, baby. Glad to have you back,’’ Walker said. “I am glad he is 100 percent. His performance today showed it, he balled out today. That’s all we can ask for from our receivers, to make the plays when they come. I am happy that happened.”
The Titans committed their offseason to giving second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota a stronger supporting cast. That started with the run game, which saw the addition of free-agent running back DeMarco Murray and drafting right tackle Jack Conklin in the first round and running back Derrick Henry in the second round. As a result, the Titans are third in rushing at 146.7 yards per game.
An obvious issue has been the receiving corps. Murray actually leads the Titans with 24 receptions for 172 yards and 2 scores. Free-agent addition Rishard Matthews is next with 19 catches for 282 yards. Rookie Tajae Sharpe, selected in the fifth round, has shown promise with 18 catches for 189 yards. Veteran Andre Johnson isn’t the same player as when he set franchise receiving records in Houston; he’s caught 9 passes for 85 yards, although his lone TD reception was a game-winning play at Detroit in Week 2.
But the group is significantly better if Wright can stay healthy and play to his capability. Mariota was asked this week about Wright being used as we was on Sunday.
“Absolutely, and if we continue to find ways to get him the football in space, I think he’s tough to tackle,” Mariota said Wednesday. “He’s a very versatile player, and he’ll do a lot of good things for us.”
While injuries are a part of football, it doesn’t take many for someone like Wright to be slapped with the tag of “injury prone.” One popular NFL coaching saying reminds a player can’t make the team from the training room. Another popular coaching adage is the most important ability is availability.
“Yeah, and that’s out of his control,” Mariota said of Wright’s injury history. “Those things kind of happen. For him to battle back and continue to come back and make plays for this team is huge and says a lot about him. As we go forward, we’re going to continue to lean on him to make some plays and that’s going to be the expectation for us.”
Titans head coach Mike Mularkey, a former NFL tight end for nine seasons, was more reserved about his praise of Wright.
“Well, he’s been here, going on my third year he’s had, like you said, numerous injuries that have not allowed him to really play consistently like we’d like,” Mularkey said. “Again, that’s just a matter of fact that’s what’s happened to him. Glad to have him back and he had a big game for us last week.”
After Sunday’s game, Mularkey was asked about Wright’s 48-yard catch as well as Matthews coming down with a 43-yard reception.
“Those are big plays, the plays we’ve been missing,’’ Mularkey said. “(Kendall) missed a lot of time. He was better today. He certainly showed up today.”
Wright is optimistic there’s more to come.
“It feels good to contribute,’’ he said. “I have always been a playmaker. … Whenever my number is called, I just have to do my job. But we have a lot of personnel groupings and we have some pretty good running backs, so I am happy when I am blocking for them and happy when Marcus is throwing the ball. I think I am in a good place.”