Well, contrary to what everybody expected, the Tennessee Titans did not end up using the franchise tag on Jared Cook. The biggest sticking point seemed to be the issue I mostly dismissed in my franchise tag analysis, whether he would be considered a tight end or a wide receiver. This could have been avoided if the Titans and Cook could come to terms on a longer-term deal, but apparently the two sides couldn't reach agreement there either, for unsurprising reasons. It's still possible the two sides could come to an agreement before or even after the new league year begins March 12, but I think Cook's done in Tennessee unless the money from the Titans is clearly better than the money elsewhere (which it won't be). As I noted on Twitter earlier, losing a player who seems like he doesn't want to be here doesn't bother me too much. Best of luck to Cook in his next stop.
Since we're pretty sure that the Titans will not have Jared Cook in 2013, they'll clearly be in the market for another player at the position. I like Craig Stevens a lot and think he could play a much bigger role than he has, even compared to the expanded role he had in 2012. Taylor Thompson at this point is a tremendous question mark, clearly able to function at a reasonable level in the run game but well deserving of doubt as a contributor to a major role in the passing game. In the Mike Heimerdinger years, the Titans used a good amount of 2TE sets, which means a pairing of Stevens and Thompson won't cut it. Given Thompson's youth and the need to win now, my expectation is they'll be looking for a veteran rather than a young player. Given that, who might be out there that they'd like?
The big questions to answer are:
1. Are they looking for another tight end who's primarily an inline blocker and can play some H-back like Thompson and Stevens, or are they looking for an oversized slot receiver who can play inline like Cook?
2. How much do they want to pay this player?
The answer to both questions depends to a good extent on what they think of Taylor Thompson's development. The conservative answer, but a reasonable one is that the need to be successful in 2013 means they're more interested in a player who can play significant snaps at a reasonably high level.
With that in mind, let's look at the available candidates.
Martellus Bennett (New York Giants)-The first in our series of "athletic mismatches who've struggled to live up to their potential," Bennett bulked up and turned into a pretty decent blocker after leaving the Cowboys for their NFC East rivals. He had a career-high 54 catches in 2012, but remained a bit inconsistent in the passing game. I would pay him more than I paid Jared Cook, as I believe he's a more complete player. He got $2.5 million from the Giants on a 1-year deal, and I'd guess he's looking for at least $4 million. Turns 26 later in March.
James Casey (Houston Texans)-More of an H-back, he also took plenty of snaps in the traditional fullback spot for the Texans. He's more an option if the Titans are looking for that specific kind of player. More likely, I think they'll look elsewhere for a traditional fullback. In that case, and given what they have, I'm not sure what Casey's done is so much a positive. As a fullback, he could be a bit of a mismatch. As a tight end, I'm not so sure. Even though he's coming off his rookie deal, he turns 29 in September.
Anthony Fasano (Miami Dolphins)-Reasonable blocker. Can work the middle of the field. Not fast. Had 31-39 catches each of the last four seasons. Bill Parcells player, though of course that doesn't make him Mark Bavaro. Feels like he's been around forever (rookie season was 2006), but turns "only" 29 in April. In case you can't tell, I'm not real excited about him.
Dustin Keller (New York Jets)-An oversized slot receiver rather than an H-back. He's not as fast as Cook in a straight line (unsurprisingly), but he's a better move. The Jets tried to make him the focus of their passing game. He can deal with a Cook-sized workload of 80 or so targets fine, but if you're throwing him the ball 115 times, don't expect much in the way of efficient production. Not much of a blocker. Likely expects starter-type money, though injuries (missed eight games in 2012, healthy before that) may limit his pricetag. Turns 29 in September.
Brandon Myers (Oakland Raiders)-I did the Raiders chapter for Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and wrote in Myers' player comment "Don't expect anything in terms of fantasy value for him." He had 16 catches in 2011. Even when Carson Palmer had a reasonable tight end in Cincinnati, the tight end rarely ended up with many catches. Naturally, Palmer turned into total Captain Checkdown under Greg Knapp, and Myers ended up with 79 catches on 105 targets, with pretty reasonable efficiency numbers. Since I'm not writing about the Raiders for FOA2013, I never bothered to figure out exactly what happened, but I still consider it up there with the most bizarre things that happened in the NFL in 2012. Decent blocker. Not fast. He could be a guy who works the middle of the field. I think Stevens can and should be that guy and don't think the Titans need another of the same at a non-backup salary. Turns 28 in September.
Delanie Walker (San Francisco 49ers)-Another in our series of "athletic mismatches who've struggled to live up to their potential," he's been even more versatile than Casey in his tenure in San Francisco. Heck, he's even returned kicks. At 6'0", he's short for a traditional tight end. Career high in catches is only 29, though of course San Francisco hasn't thrown the ball a whole lot the last couple years and has Vernon Davis. Pretty good blocker. Turns 29 in August.
THIRD TIGHT END OPTIONS
There are a number of guys here who'll probably be available for a very reasonable price. Most of them are too blah and nondescript for me to care too much to write about, so I'll just pick one.
David Thomas (New Orleans Saints)-Somewhere between an H-back and an in-line tight end, though of course playing for Sean Payton he's spent some time lined up out wide. Had a couple 30+ catch seasons. Not lately, however, as Jimmy Graham has taken over the receiving tight end role. Pretty sure he's a reasonable blocker. Concussion problems cost him time in 2011, though he played 15 games in 2012. Turns 30 in July.
CONSIDERED AND NOT WRITTEN UP
Kevin Boss (Kansas City Chiefs)-For the sake of your long-term health, please retire.
Fred Davis (Washington Redskins)-Receiving-type. Suspension, inconsistency, injuries.
Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta Falcons)-May be retiring, can't see him playing for the Titans if he doesn't.
As I noted in the introduction, the Titans could choose to go a number of different directions at tight end. For that reason, I tried to profile as many of the top guys as I could, as I don't know what they're looking for. There are different flavors of player available, so what if anything the Titans do can tell us more about what the offense in 2013 might look like.