First, I want to wish Delanie Walker a speedy recovery. Not only has he been the Titans best pass catcher for the last three seasons, but he’s also an incredible leader and tone setter for this team and the Nashville community at large. Seeing him go down trying to fight for extra yards at the end of Sunday’s game was the last thing anyone wanted to witness.
It should also be said that Walker is irreplaceable. He’s one of the top two or three all-around tight ends in the NFL right now. He runs great routes, has sure hands, makes plays after the catch, and blocks his tail off every snap.
Those types of guys don’t grow on trees and they certainly don’t grow on the picked over tree that is NFL free agency in September. The Titans have Jerome Cunningham on the practice squad if they’d like to call him up to get a fourth tight end back on the roster quickly. They could also give old familiar names like Anthony Fasano, Phillip Supernaw, or Jace Amaro a call. Maybe even reach out to a guy like Coby Fleener if he has a clean bill of health after being released by the Saints earlier this year with a head injury that he was still dealing with from the previous season.
All those guys would be depth moves though. None of them — besides Cunningham and Supernaw — would know the offense and frankly these guys just aren’t that good. There isn’t an instant fix on the market like there was at safety.
Walker’s contributions, instead, will have to be replaced from within to the extent that they can be. The bulk of this burden will suddenly fall on second year tight end Jonnu Smith. The Titans drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft to be Walker’s long term successor as the team’s leading tight end, but that time frame will be sped up now.
In his rookie season, Smith caught 18 passes for 157 yards and 2 touchdowns while being on the field for 54.3% of the Titans offensive snaps. The Florida International product looked natural as a pass catcher. At 6’-3” and 248 pounds, Smith is similar physically to Walker and even offers many of the same explosive athletic traits.
What Smith doesn’t have as a pass catcher is the nuanced route running and trust with quarterback Marcus Mariota that Walker had developed over three seasons working as a prime target for the Titans quarterback. Unfortunately — or fortunately depending on your viewpoint — that can only get better with time and reps. Smith will be getting plenty of reps in practice moving forward and will need to take advantage of them.
What often gets undersold with Delanie Walker is his prowess as a blocker in the run game. Phantom holding calls aside, Walker is rarely unable to get the job done in the running game. That’s critical for a good tight end as it allows your offense to truly be multiple within the same personnel packages. This is a part of the game that Smith still struggles with. He is a willing blocker, but not a very skilled one at this point in his career. The good news is that blocking is something that can develop over time in the NFL, the bad news is that the Titans don’t have any more time. They need Smith to play well right away.
Luke Stocker will certainly see more reps now and can help lighten the blocking load foisted on Smith, but he’s not much of a pass catcher despite his 2 catches for 37 yards stat line against the Dolphins. Stocker now becomes absolutely critical to the Titans running game.
The surprise decision to keep camp standout Anthony Firkser as a 4th tight end now looks pretty good. Firkser, like Smith, is far more receiver than blocker, but he could give the Titans a chance to put some multiple tight end sets on the field that can present a threat in the passing game. His best quality is simply his feel for the game. He has a knack for finding soft spots in the defense and the quickness to beat linebackers. It will be interesting to see how much he is used next week.
Of course, Walker was more than “just” a tight end, so it will take more than tight ends to replace him. He was Mariota’s go-to target on third downs, someone that the Titans young quarterback looked for when things broke down. Rishard Matthews seems like the natural fill-in here, but he was virtually invisible in Miami despite being on the field for over 50% of the offensive snaps. That likely has a lot to do with Matthews still being on the mend from a surgery to repair a torn meniscus, but the Titans now need him to be back to his reliable self in a hurry.
The go-to receiver for the Titans in Week 1 was clearly Corey Davis who led all Titans with a whopping 13 targets, resulting in 6 catches for 62 yards. I thought Davis played well. Of the 7 targets that landed incomplete, 1 was a desperation throw in the back of the endzone on 3rd down that never gave him a chance, 4 were straight misses from the quarterback (2 for Mariota, 2 for Blaine Gabbert), and 2 appeared to be miscommunications (both with Gabbert, including one where it appeared that Gabbert missed an adjustment that Davis was trying to signal to him pre-snap). I’ll go deeper in to this when the All-22 comes out.
If Davis wasn’t already going to be the focal point of the passing game, he certainly will be now. He is the most important non-quarterback on the Titans roster at this point so he needs to stay healthy and be productive. He did a few good things on Sunday, but Tennessee will need a lot more from him moving forward.
One other guy that I think factors in to replacing Walker’s production is Dion Lewis. He had an outstanding debut — one of the few bright spots on a gloomy Sunday — and showed his value as a pass catcher out of the backfield. That ability will be extremely important moving forward. It will be interesting to see if the Titans feature more 11-personnel or even go with more 2-back sets in an attempt to get their best 11 on the field together.
Walker was targeted at team-high 111 times in 2017 — 24 more than the next closest Titan — so that leaves a ton of opportunity for guys like Davis, Matthews, Smith, and Lewis. Davis was supposed to be ready to take the next step this year anyway, but now that step is more important than ever. Smith, on the other hand, wasn’t supposed to be ready this year, but he has to be now. You never know how a guy will respond when he’s tossed in to the fire. You hope that Smith will step up to the challenge, but we will find out starting next week against Houston. He’s not going to be Walker by any means, but if the Titans can get a passable performance from him and some of his other teammates to rise to the occasion, they may still be OK without their best player on offense.
Get well soon Delanie.