After covering the quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks, and wide receivers, we now reach our last "skill positions" stop on our tour of the Tennessee Titans as we approach the start of the 2013 regular season, the tight ends.
Perhaps the most interesting imponderable of the 2013 Tennessee Titans offseason came when Jared Cook fought the franchise tag with an eye toward playing elsewhere. What if Cook had been willing to accept the tag? Would the Titans still have signed a big-money free agent tight end? Would they still have traded up to draft Justin Hunter? As I covered, the Titans began the offseason just concluded with some uncertainty at tight end, a question that became amplified when they failed to franchise Cook. As I chronicled when that happened, they had choices as to what type of tight end to add. It seemed likely they would add a major contributor, but would they look for another oversized wideout like Cook or more of a blocker? The player they added would also tell us more about what kind of offense they wanted to be.
And the Titans made a clear statement when the player they selected was Delanie Walker, late of the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. A career backup behind Vernon Davis who has never had more than 29 catches, Walker is a Joker who can and has done a bit of everything on offense, lining up at fullback, inline, on the wing, in the slot, and even split out at wide receiver. Only 6'0" tall, he's built more like a fullback than a traditional in-line tight end, but from what the Titans have said he should continue to line up all over the field with H-back more his primary position. With the Titans electing to pay him $17.5 million over four years even though he'll be 29 by the time the season starts, they're clearly expecting big things. I'm not expecting him to reach the 70 catch mark he's discussed in multiple interviews this offseason, but 45 could be reasonable.
Of course, we'll be waiting a bit to see Walker take the field against another team. A knee injury he played through in June turned more troublesome than anticipated and resulted in surgery. His tentative plan is to return for the third preseason game, a seemingly realistic timetable that nonetheless has me a touch worried. Dowell Loggains has indicated there are parts of the offense specifically for Walker they're holding back on installing until he's ready.
That's an opportunity for other tight ends but is also a sign they think Walker is in some sense sui generis and plays a role they don't want to even try to fill with anybody else on the active roster. Injury situations early in camp are always tricky, but I would not be particularly surprised nor concerned by a slow start to the regular season by Walker, both in snaps and as a receiver, though perhaps I'm just being overly cautious.
While he may have lost "the top job" to Walker, I still expect Craig Stevens to play plenty of snaps. I think there's some room for new tight ends coach George Henshaw to clean up his blocking a bit. I've been beating the drum for an expanded role on the offense for him but now believe he needs to be a more consistent catcher on contested passes for a player of his limited separation ability for that to actually happen. I'm expecting another season with around last year's 23 catches and some good inline blocking.
If Walker is out or slowed for an extended period, the man who could benefit the most is Taylor Thompson, whose destruction on special teams helped spring the way for a number of long returns last year and who wasn't too shabby blocking people on offense either. While I noted Stevens needed to improve on contested catches to be a major receiving threat, though, Thompson's offseason to do list was more along the lines of "learn to play receiver, all aspects." He spent all of 2012 looking like a collegiate defensive end playing tight end. He was, so that's understandable, but more and better is expected in his second season. I'll be watching preseason closely and eagerly for signs of development in his game.
As you might expect from a team that plans to use three tight ends a lot, the Titans are carrying a passel of them-7, to be precise, even with Beau Brinkley listed just as a long-snapper on the training camp press release. Brandon Barden is probably the most prominent of those, as the former Vanderbilt Commodore played 23 snaps in the season finale. I admit those did not make much of an impression on me. Looking back at my moderately detailed play notes, the only time I mentioned his name is when he was flagged for holding. As he only played in a couple snaps last preseason, he's still pretty much a cipher to me.
Beyond Barden, the name that's the most recognizable to me is Martell Webb. If Jared Cook is at one end of the wide receiver to mini-offensive tackle spectrum that the position "tight end" encompasses, Webb is at pretty much the exact opposite end, though at 6'3", 278 pounds he's only "mini" by the size standards of NFL offensive linemen. If he makes the Titans, his job will be to knock opposing players backwards. I know very little about Jack Doyle beyond the brief note in the UDFA write-up; a move-type player listed at the same 6'6", 258 pounds Thompson is, but who needed to impress at the Senior Bowl after playing collegiately at I-AA Western Kentucky and did not. The Titans added DeMarco Cosby, most recently of the Chiefs' practice squad, at the start of training camp, I expect only because they wanted another practice body with Walker out.
The Titans have talked a lot this offseason about underneath receiver distribution and getting tight ends more involved in the offense. That's curious, as all three of their top tight ends have major question marks when it comes to being major contributors as receiver, questions only exacerbated by Walker's current health issue. They could be fine, or it could blow up in their face the same way Jake Locker's numbers as a senior at Washington regressed without a reliable tight end. Still, the Titans are going to run the ball as much as they can, and the tight end trio is very well suited for that.