Next up on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2013 offseason is a look at the tight end position.
In my looks at the quarterbacks and the wide receivers, I indicated that each position could rightly be viewed as a disappointment in 2012, but notwithstanding the disappointment I had a strong expectation the core players would be the same in 2013 and internal improvement to some degree was reasonable. At tight end, it's a little bit of a different story. As far as offensive positions go for the Titans in 2012, tight end was probably about the least disappointing. Of course, that's saying hardly anything at all.
When I wrote our preseason positional analysis, I spent a lot of time concentrating on what I called the Jared Cook Offense, when the Titans were in 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers), and the Craig Stevens Offense (more than 1 back and/or tight end on the field, and no more than 2 receivers). In 2011, the Jared Cook Offense was a lot better. I don't have final 2012 numbers yet, but this wasn't really the case. Instead, the offense as a whole performed at roughly the same level as the Craig Stevens Offense did in 2012. Tight end usage, and the differing offensive philosophies that fit better with the characteristic of the Titans' two most prominent tight ends, did not seem to matter nearly as much in 2012 than it did in 2011.
That said, let's take a look at what those tight ends actually did on the field in 2012.
Following a nearly 50 catch, 800 yard season in 2011, many Titans fans were expecting much bigger and better things from Jared Cook. Instead, he posted much more modest numbers of 44 catches on 72 targets (plus 4 more wiped out by penalty) and 523 yards, plus a career-high 4 touchdowns, before a shoulder injury suffered Week 14 against the Colts sent him to injured reserve. I gave him the UFR treatment for his game against the Steelers.
If I had to describe the first three years of Jared Cook's career, it would be inconsistency. Inconsistency in production. Inconsistency in results. Inconsistency in how he was targeted. 2012 was a bit of a departure in that regard. He played a lot in many games, including an awful lot some of the time. He got a few targets almost every game. There were only a few games where he got a ton of targets. His production was more consistent but modest as well. After having two in 2011, he didn't have any 100-yard receiving games in 2012. His biggest game was the 77-yard effort against the Lions, a game he left early with an injury, thanks to a great 61-yard score. His biggest reception games, against the VIkings and the Jaguars, he averaged less than 8 yards per catch. By Football Outsiders numbers, he came out pretty inefficient after posting pretty good efficiency numbers the past two seasons.
2012 was the final year of Cook's rookie deal, and the Titans have an interesting decision to make. Frustrated with his role on the team or the team's lack of success or the lack of a long-term contract or something, he reportedly asked to be traded during the season. The Titans of course did not oblige his request, but now need to agree with him on a new contract, let him go, or hit him with the franchise tag.
Cook is certainly a useful player, but if I ran an NFL team, I would not pay him a premium amount. He's a good seam threat, with very good speed for a tight end. That said, he lacks wiggle in his game. His route-running and hands have been inconsistent at times. Though he's improved as a blocker, I would still rate him as below average for a tight end in that category (which isn't any different than most good receiving tight ends). He did manage a couple red zone scores this year, but I would say on the whole he's a worse red zone target than you would expect from a player listed at 6'5", 248 pounds.
Will the Titans agree with me? I don't know. They don't seem to pay much attention at all to me, not that they necessarily should. Unless they value Cook a lot more than I think they should (possible; see Michael Griffin last offseason), I doubt they come to terms with Cook on a long-term deal before March 12. In that case, they could hit him with the franchise tag. That would run about $6 million. What the Titans did last offseason at the position indicated to me there would be a strong likelihood Cook walked without a great season in 2012. He didn't have a great season. Will they now let him walk?
One of those moves last offseason was re-signing Craig Stevens, the blocking complement to the receiver Cook. He had what I would characterize as just an okay season in 2012. His role in the passing game expanded, as he had a career-high 23 catches on 35 targets (33 official) for 275 yards, plus a touchdown. Those were bigger numbers than I expected, though part of the credit goes to him becoming the only prominent tight end when Cook went down. Very well-regarded as a blocker (my Football Outsiders colleague Ben Muth loves him, and I've seen other OL types talk about him as the league's best blocking TE), I thought he was more inconsistent in that regard than he'd been in the past. Due $2.5 million in the second year of the four-year deal he signed last offseason, he'll be back for another year of doing what he does. Hopefully tight ends coach George Henshaw can help clean up the blocking issue a bit.
The other move the Titans made last offseason was drafting Taylor Thompson in the fifth round. An interesting conversion product after playing defensive end in college, he had an expectedly quiet rookie season. He ended the season playing 261 snaps, including 53 in the final game of the year when Stevens was injured, and had 6 catches for 46 yards on 13 targets. A work in progress, he was. I thought he was a creditable blocker, and for what he was, it was an okay rookie season. Bigger and better things are, and should be, expected of him in 2013.
I did not expect Brandon Barden to have anything to do with the Titans after September 1, 2012 after he spent virtually all of training camp and the preseason on the shelf, but the Titans apparently liked enough of what they saw before that happened to put him on the practice squad and elevate him to the active roster after Cook went on injured reserve. He ended up active for the final three games, though he didn't get on the field on offense until the season finale. It's possible the Titans like him a lot, but I'd expect him to be on the roster fringe once again behind Stevens, Thompson, and somebody else.
We have come to our first genuine question of the offseason: how much do the Titans like Jared Cook? Do they like him enough to pay him, or to franchise him if they can't agree to terms with him? Or do they let him walk? They could go either way on this question.
If the Titans do pay Cook, then the tight end position, like quarterback and wide receiver, will look an awful lot like it did in 2012. If they don't, they could choose to invest in a veteran tight end or choose to roll with Stevens, Thompson, and another body. In that case, they could invest a draft pick as early as the middle rounds of the draft (possible, not saying I would) or more likely add a very modestly-priced free agent (my preference). If they choose to do this, then Craig Stevens' role probably increases a bit, and it wasn't just Chris Palmer that liked Taylor Thompson's potential an awful lot.
Stay tuned this offseason as we see what the Titans decide to do.