This past April, the Tennessee Titans selected UMass wide receiver Tajae Sharpe at No. 140 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Mel Kiper projected Sharpe’s selection well. In fact, he rated Sharpe as the No. 136 draft prospect, a mere four places higher than Sharpe’s actual selection.
It was and is somewhat surprising, though, that Sharpe fell this low on the draft board. During the 2015 season, he was one of ten semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, an honor given to the NCAA’s most outstanding receiver.
Six of the ten semifinalists entered the Draft. Among that group, Sharpe was the only receiver to fall below the second round: Corey Coleman (No. 15, Round 1); William Fuller (No. 21, Round 1); Josh Doctson (No. 22, Round 1); Laquon Treadwell (No. 23, Round 1); Sterling Shepard (No. 40, Round 2); and Tajae Sharpe (No. 140, Round 5).
This information begets the question: Why did Sharpe fall to the fifth round while his colleagues were drafted primarily in the first round?
There appear to be three reasons.
First, Sharpe played in the lesser-known and lesser-watched Mid Atlantic Conference (MAC), where competition does not rise to the likes of the SEC, Big Ten, or Big 12. As evidence, test how many members of the MAC you can name from memory.
Second, during the Shrine Game, Sharpe’s hands measured 7 3/8 inches, markedly smaller than the baseline for NFL receivers, 9 to 9 1/2 inches. Interestingly, Sharpe’s hands then measured 8 3/8 inches at the Combine.
Third, Sharpe’s physical measurements are relatively average for an NFL wide receiver. He stands at 6 feet 2 inches; weighs 194 pounds; ran a 4.55 second 40-yard dash; broad jumped 9 feet 6 inches; and vertical jumped 33 1/2 inches.
Despite these concerns, Titans’ GM Jon Robinson selected Sharpe according to a philosophy that he formerly employed with the New England Patriots — draft NFL prospects who are reliable and productive.
Sharpe fits this mold.
While he does not boast super human physical attributes, he does prove reliable and productive on the field.
Sharpe made 277 receptions for 3,486 yards during his four-year tenure at UMass. Both are school records. Moreover, his 111 receptions and 1,319 receiving yards in 2015 ranked 1st and 12th in the FBS, respectively.
Sharpe has already impressed Titans’ personnel during OTAs and minicamp, earning strong reviews for both his route running and his catching. The rookie practices with the first-team and looks to compete against Dorial Green-Beckham and Rishard Mathews for a starting role at outside receiver next season.
These reports are of little surprise upon examining Sharpe’s career leading up to the Draft. The receiver says that he focused most on route running and catching while at UMass.
“[My best strengths are] route running and my hands — my ability to catch the ball no matter where it’s going,” Sharpe said during a conference call with the Titans after the Draft. “I feel like I’m a very smooth route runner since I came into college. That’s one of the things I work on very hard.”
Sharpe put these skills on display during the Senior Bowl. In fact, most tweets regarding the wideout from UMass were some variation of the following: Sharpe runs and catches the ball well.
These factors — Sharpe’s route running, ball skills, and collegiate productivity — give Titans’ fans another reason for hope in 2016, as they look to improve from a 5-27 record during the past two seasons.
As for the concerns surrounding Sharpe prior to the Draft, they were likely overplayed.
The storyline of a receiver being drafted from a small conference and finding success in the NFL is not uncommon. Antonio Brown of the Pittsburg Steelers played for Central Michigan; Vincent Jackson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played for Northern Colorado; Marques Colston of the New Orleans Saints played for Hofstra; and Victor Cruz of the New York Giants played for UMass. Those four alone have totaled ten Pro Bowl selections.
Regarding Sharpe’s small hands and average combine measurements, it’s of little importance considering his sound technical skills. The Titans’ already have a physically-imposing receiver in Dorial Green-Beckham, who can develop his route running and catching with Sharpe’s help.
When Titans’ training camp begins on July 30, watch Sharpe as he looks to continue to prove himself.
“I’m trying to show that I can come out here and compete at the highest level, compete with the best there is. Coming from UMass, a smaller school, I always heard a lot that I didn’t play against the best competition … I have confidence in myself that I’m a good player, so I just want to come in here [Tennessee] and work as hard as I can.”