First off, I must be clear.
In no way do I feel Delanie Walker being out for the season is a good thing.
Now, if you’re still here after the reading the first twenty words - thank you.
Walker is hands down QB Marcus Mariota’s favorite and most reliable target. The chemistry the two have established has taken years. Mariota is more in sync with Walker than any other player on the roster.
That is a given.
The offense as a whole will miss Walker’s play-making ability, offensive production and radiating intensity. His skill-set is unmatched and OC Matt LaFleur knows that he lost a crucial offensive weapon - as does the rest of the team.
However, Mariota is now forced to evolve and progress as a quarterback in arguably the most uncomfortable way possible.
His safety blanket is out for the season.
The new offensive system still has the training wheels on as Mariota and company are still trying to work out the kinks.
Walker served as an additional set of training wheels.
As the season progresses, Mariota will not have the luxury of finding Walker during moments where his hesitancy kicks in or play-processing stalls. He’ll be forced to look elsewhere.
With WR Rishard Matthews still getting up to speed with the new offense and in football shape, Mariota’s second most reliable target will not be able to be his go to guy - at least not yet.
LaFleur, as some expected, dialed up some WR Corey Davis plays early. Davis was targeted a lot in Miami - as a number one receiver should be.
With Walker out of the picture and Matthews still behind the curve, Davis will see more targets and have more opportunities to become who the team expects him to be.
Uncomfortable a Necessity
Change should be uncomfortable.
In Mariota’s case, changing his Pro Bowl tight end to a second year player is just that. For most quarterbacks in the league, having a reliable tight end is essential to building and extending offensive drives. Having a Pro Bowl tight end is much sweeter because - on top of having the chain-mover - there is always an opportunity to score points through a play making tight end.
Saying it will be hard for Mariota to adjust to life without Walker is a huge understatement.
Fortunately, Mariota’s showed through media pressers that he believes in his guys on the roster. Constantly, Mariota expresses how grateful he is for the skill-players on the team. He displays an air of confidence will motivate his guys in a Walker-less offense.
It may be painful to watch over the course of the next few weeks as Walker not easy to replace. At least, not by one player.
But, replacing Walker’s total production may not be out of reach.
RB Dion Lewis doesn’t play tight end, but he proved he can be a big time contributor on offense. Like Walker, he is a chain-mover and a play-maker. He may even be a tone-setter. The rapport Mariota develops with Lewis will be fun to watch this season.
Does Evolving Mean Winning?
That’s the simple answer. Mariota evolving as a player and absorbing/executing a new offensive system could happen with the team still losing games.
The more the seasons moves forward, the more chances Mariota will have to build relationships with second year weapons. Davis, Smith and Taywan Taylor are all second year options that Mariota must use. Even Tajae Sharpe could be considered a second year option due to missing all of last season.
Mariota’s chemistry building will be a work in progress and learning a new offense along the way will not make matters easier. But, it could make Mariota better in the long-haul.
If Mariota can move past his most recent injury (which, by most accounts, he will) his evolution starts immediately.
LaFleur will continue to adjust the offense to minimize the loss of production Walker would have provided by finding ways to get production elsewhere. Mariota will be a key in helping out with that process.
Matthews is probably a few weeks away from providing the offensive impact he would have if fully healthy. That will aid in the amount of “trial and error” moments there are for Mariota and his young set of pass catchers.
The running backs will be leaned on heavily during the first half of the season and both proved to be effective.
As the offense itself evolves, so will Marcus. It just may be a little painful to watch.
The long-term results could outweigh the short-term success.