Five weeks in to the 2018 NFL season, the Titans top receiving tight end is Luke Stocker with 5 catches for 63 yards. Delanie Walker — who was injured midway through the opening game in Miami and is unlikely to return any time soon — is second with 4 catches and 52 yards. The guy that everyone expected to step up when Walker went down, second year tight end Jonnu Smith, has just 2 catches for 21 yards for the entire season.
The Titans entire tight end room has been blanked in the box score two weeks in a row and has just 4 catches for 35 yards combined over the last four weeks. The problem extends far beyond catching passes though. The Titans aren’t getting much from their tight ends as run blockers either. Luke Stocker ranks 30th among tight ends in run blocking on PFF, while Jonnu Smith checks in at 42nd. The Tennessee running game is being hurt by missed blocks from this position group far too often right now.
The fallout from the tight end struggles ripples through the rest of the roster as well. The lack of a viable receiving threat out of this group puts more pressure on the young receivers and depth receivers like Darius Jennings and Nick Williams. We’ve seen how that has worked out to this point. The blocking failures have virtually crippled the play that should be the staple of this rushing offense, the outside zone. That’s been reflected in Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis’ statistics through five weeks. Bad tight end play is hampering virtually every aspect of this offense right now.
Jonnu Smith played pretty well during his rookie season as the No. 2 to Walker’s No. 1, leaving most to believe that he could prove to eventually be become the team’s top option at the position. He followed that up with a great offseason, finishing a close runner up to Derrick Henry for the coaching staff’s offseason recognition. By all accounts — including my own — Smith looked like a player poised to take the next step in 2018. All that build up makes his performance over the last four weeks that much more frustrating. His blocking has been a problem and he’s not offsetting it with any production in the passing game. Worse, it seems as if he may have lost some of Marcus Mariota’s trust when he dropped that easy 3rd down pass against the Eagles. Since that drop, there have been multiple plays where Mariota has seemingly passed up an open Smith to throw elsewhere, including the ill-fated throw to Nick Williams in Buffalo.
The coaches may be losing some faith in their young tight end as well. Smith’s snap count dropped to 78% of snaps against the Bills, marking the first time it’s been under 90% since Walker got injured. Stocker was the primary beneficiary, jumping from 35% in Week 4 to 59% in Week 5. It’s not as if Stocker has been tearing it up this season either. He’s clearly a better blocker than Smith, but even on his best day he’s not a serious threat as a receiving option. Playing Stocker more and Smith less could yield more consistency at least, but it certainly lowers the ceiling of what the offense can be.
The only other options on the roster currently are MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser who was just promoted from the practice squad. Pruitt has gotten a little playing time over the last couple weeks, primarily as a blocker, but he entered the league as a big time athlete who was quite productive as a receiver in college. Firkser may be the best receiving tight end on the roster right now given what we’ve seen from Smith to this point. He’s not strong enough to hold up as a point of attack blocker though which limits what the team can do with him on the field.
The free agent market is pretty barren at tight end. The two options that have performed at the level of a TE1 previously in the NFL are Coby Fleener and Martellus Bennett. Fleener was last seen being released by the Saints after failing to be medically cleared to return from a concussion. Bennett has recently tweeted that he won’t be planning on returning to the NFL because he can’t pass a drug test. Neither of those guys are realistic options. There isn’t a Kenny Vaccaro type free agent tight end that can come to the rescue.
A trade for a tight end could be possible in theory, though midseason player trades are pretty rare in the NFL. Cameron Brate would make the most sense in my opinion. O.J. Howard has supplanted him as the top tight end in Tampa Bay which makes him somewhat expendable. He also has ties with Titans GM Jon Robinson who was part of the front office that brought Brate to Tampa as an undrafted free agent in 2014. We’ve seen Robinson come back to guys he has connections with before so that model fits here.
The problem is that Brate just signed a 6 year, $41M contract extension earlier this offseason so it would appear that the Bucs see him as a part of their long term future, even if he’s not the top tight end. As the Titans are proving right now, a second tight end can be pretty important. That’s also a big contract for the Titans to take on considering they just handed out an expensive extension to Walker earlier this offseason and will have possible extensions to discuss with Mariota and Kevin Byard this spring. I just don’t see how a Brate deal gets done realistically and there isn’t another deal out there that makes a ton of sense for both sides.
So what do the Titans do to make it better?
Obviously, the Titans were never going to replace Delanie Walker. You don’t just lose a 3-time Pro Bowler and rattle right along like nothing happened. This was always going to be a team effort to pick up the large amount of slack left by his injury. Wide receivers like Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Tajae Sharpe must continue to improve. The Titans need their offensive tackles to get healthy and stay healthy so the tight ends don’t have to chip and help in pass protection so often. However, Tennessee is going to need to find a way to get something out of the tight end spot.
The most optimistic solution would be to stay the course with Smith and continue to coach him up and that’s ultimately what I expect they’ll do. He’s a young player with plenty of physical ability. It’s just about getting the mental side of the game to slow down for him. If I was Matt LaFleur or Marcus Mariota, I would be trying to find a way to get Smith an easy catch or two early on in the Ravens game to try to get him jump started and build a little confidence.
Another option is to elevate Stocker to the TE1 role. That at least improves the team from a blocking standpoint. They could then bring Smith on for certain packages or even take a look at Pruitt or Firkser in a potential “3rd down tight end” role if Smith continues to struggle. It’s a less than ideal solution because it limits how multiple you can be out of the same personnel package, but being multiple may not be a luxury the Titans have right now.
Tight end is one of the toughest positions on the field to play. You have to know the route tree as well as pass protections. You have to run like a receiver one play and then block like an offensive lineman the next. Right now Smith is offering neither and it’s really hurting this offense. I don’t think it’s time to give up on him altogether, but it is time for the Titans to admit that there is a problem at this position and start addressing it one way or another.