After quarterback, running back, fullback, and wide receiver, tight end is our last stop among the offensive “skill positions” as we go through the Titans position by position at the start of the 2014 offseason.
The expectation going into last season was that semi-new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains would be like his mentor Mike Heimerdinger and use a fair number of two tight end sets. Maybe not the majority of the time, given the trend of the NFL and the limited experience two of the three Titans ends had with pass catching, but plenty. As things worked out, the Titans did give more snaps to tight ends, but barely. They went from averaging 1.31 tight end snaps per play in 2012 to 1.37 in 2013, or about four extra per game. Those extra snaps, though, went to the new acquisition, as the two tight ends who returned played even less than they did in 2012 and pretty much vanished from the passing game, seeing fewer targets combined than the less-targeted of them alone had in 2012. Now, with Ken Whisenhunt the head coach and offensive designer and Jason Michael at offensive coordinator, the tight ends may be in for another reset. The question is, just how big of one?
As I mentioned when discussing wide receivers, Whisenhunt’s offense in Arizona rarely featured a tight end. Then again, that made a lot of sense as the Cardinals rarely had a credible one. Those four wide sets he ran with the Cardinals will probably look like the four wide sets the Titans ran with Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2013, featuring a tight end in the slot or sometimes even flexed out wide. Something more like that was the case last year in San Diego, where the venerable Antonio Gates led the team in receptions. In addition to Gates, the Chargers also featured John Phillips, a blocking-type, and Ladarius Green, a developmental receiver. Over the course of the season, they averaged about 1.4 snaps per play, so basically in line with how many snaps the Titans gave tight ends last year.
When it comes to Whisenhunt and Michael specifically applying what they do to the Titans tight ends, the best hint I’ve heard came from Michael in a radio interview last week. He noted the evolution of the tight end position as more than just a blocker on the line of scrimmage who goes out occasionally. In evaluating players, you’re trying to find the most complete player you can. Obviously, not all players are complete-some are better blockers, others better receivers-but always looking for the complete player and trying to complement the strengths of the players you do have by finding a player who complements them. “That’s what we’re looking for here.” Obviously there’s nothing specific there about the skills of any or all of the Titans’ current tight ends, but that gives us at least something to work with.
Apparently, it is in fact possible for tight ends to both block and catch. Delanie Walker proved that for the Titans last year, in a refreshing change from the alleged blocking Jared Cook provided. While he did not reach the 70 catch benchmark he indicated last offseason he was looking to, he did finish with 60 catches on 92 targets despite missing a full game and another almost full one due to injury. He played the most of any tight end, 761 snaps (71%, going up to 79% if you exclude the time he was unavailable). By Football Outsiders numbers (perma-disclaimer: I write for FO), his production came out almost exactly average despite scoring six touchdowns. That’s not much of a surprise considering his catches went for only 571 yards, 9.5 yards per catch. That was a bit of a surprise for a player who averaged 16.4 yards per catch the previous season. Why then?
A contributing reason seems to be a very low yards after catch average, only 2.9. That ranked 47th among the 51 tight ends with at least 25 targets this year. Then again, that was actually an improvement from that 2012 season, where he averaged only 2.7 yards. The better explanation seems to be 2012 was an extreme outlier in terms of his target depth and a bit of small sample size theater with only 21 catches. The previous three seasons he averaged more yards after catch than he did in 2013 and averaged between 10.4 and 11.4 yards per catch total. The big concern is his YAC+, which measures yards after catch based on target depth was 0.2 in 2010, -1.3 in 2011, and -1.4 in 2012. We haven’t run 2013 numbers at Football Outsiders yet, but I’m guessing based on his overall YAC and modest target depth he’ll end up in the same level. The natural explanation is to ascribe that to his use in the offense and note he ran a lot of shallow crosses that were generally unproductive no matter who ran them (unless you were Kendall Wright, sometimes) in 2013 and handwave the problem away. If you’re a cynical pessimist, you’ll note Walker will turn 30 during the preseason, an age when tight ends are typically in the decline phase of their careers, so he probably won’t become more laterally explosive and might be better served playing 60% of the time instead of 80%. I don’t think his $3 million salary puts him at risk this offseason, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see 2014 be his last year in the two tone blue.
What’s a tight end who hasn’t caught the ball worth? That is probably a question being pondered right now by Craig Stevens, or at least his agent. Coming off a 2012 season where he had a career-high 23 catches, I thought he was in line for at least that much work in the passing game in 2013. He finished the season with six targets. He still played a reasonable amount, 418 snaps despite, like Walker, missing a game and the better part of another (39%, 45% of the time he was available). He’s still a very good blocker, but he’s never developed in the poor man’s Heath Miller I thought he would be. Given his concussion in 2013, his history of concussions, and that he turns 30 on Labor Day, I do not find it likely he sees his scheduled salary of $3.4 million. Could he stick around if he renegotiates? I think so; he’s a useful player, just overpaid at that price. More likely, though, I think he gets cut and plays his mini-tackle role elsewhere in 2014.
Forget about Stevens, remember how 2013 was going to be Taylor Thompson‘s breakout season? Yeah, never mind. He actually did play more snaps, going from 261 to 271, but as the Titans ran more offensive plays he played less (25% v. 26%). After all the talk was about him spending time with the Jugs machine in the offseason, he went from 13 targets as a rookie to 5 in his second season. Yes, Thompson as a rookie had more targets than Stevens and Thompson combined this past season. Yes, I know I already indicated that in this post, but I do not think I realized that before sitting down to write this post and am still adjusting to it. Will Whisenhunt and Michael see in Thompson the same sort of uncut gem that prompted Chris Palmer to fall in love with him, or will his role continue to be the same it’s been, as a blocking third tight end and special teams player? New coaching staffs will see players in different lights, but until proven otherwise I’m assuming Thompson will continue to be what he’s been.
Since the conclusion of the regular season, the Titans have signed a pair of tight ends to futures contracts. Adam Schiltz spent 2013 on the Titans practice squad after the Texans had him in training camp as an undrafted rookie out of Emporia State. He’s listed at 6’4, 256 pounds. Jason Schepler was signed by the 49ers as an undrafted free agent out of Northern Illinois, but failed to make the team as a hybrid tight end/fullback. NIU listed him at 6’2, 274 pounds, which serves as a reminder the 49ers like really big fullbacks. As an EE, if nothing else he gives Whisenhunt and Michael somebody to talk engineer to.
I expect Delanie Walker to play the majority of the time. Beyond that, though, I see a fair amount of uncertainty. I think Craig Stevens gets cut. The question is, do Whisenhunt and Michael consider a second tight end a want or a need position?
Michael talked about 12 personnel and the sort of matchup advantage that can bring, but it’s one thing to see what the Patriots did with Gronkowski and Hernandez and another to run 12 personnel with guys like Walker and Stevens who teams will feel comfortable staying in base personnel against. The easiest thing to do is to predict the Titans will end up with a tight end group like the Chargers last year, with Walker the main veteran, Thompson the blocking complement, and for the Titans to add a tight end who could be an explosive receiver. Then, there’s a potential spot for a fourth player to play the hybrid tight end/fullback role. Schepler could be a candidate for that role, as could Thompson with Schiltz filling the more pure 3TE role.
Or things could be completely different. I try to come to conclusions in these positional analyses, but given the new staff and makeup of the position group, it is difficult to not be at least somewhat equivocal, as the Titans have a decision to make on a key player. It was true at quarterback, at running back, at fullback (more the role than the player), at wide receiver, and here at tight end. At least when I do offensive tackle next, well, I’m sure… yeah, never mind.