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Titans Offseason Roster Breakdown: Tight Ends

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Is Delanie Walker’s return enough for the Titans to feel good about this group going into 2019?

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This is Part 4 of a series of articles breaking down the Titans roster heading into the 2019 offseason. Part 1 covered the Titans cap situation and roster decisions, Part 2 covered the offensive line, and Part 3 covered the wide receivers.

The Titans had an eventful season in 2018 at the tight end position. A season ending injury for three time Pro Bowler Delanie Walker derailed what was expected to be a position of strength from the very start. The Titans ended up with four tight ends setting or tying career highs in receiving yards before the season was over. While that sounds like a good thing — and it is good for those players individually — it really speaks to just how inexperienced this group was for most of the season.

Expanding that view to the entire offense, you’ll find that 8 of Mariota’s top 11 pass catchers set career highs in receiving yards. It was a very green group of targets overall for the 2018 Titans, but that was particularly true for the tight ends.

With that, let’s jump into a look at which tight ends are returning from last year’s roster, which ones might not be, and what the Titans might do to improve this group for the 2019 season.

Players currently under contract

Delanie Walker

2019 Cap Hit: $6.328M

2018 Stats: 4 catches on 7 targets (57.1%), 52 yards, 0 touchdowns, 13.0 YPC

Losing Walker in the very first game of the season was crippling to this Titans offense. The star tight end was just so central to everything the team wanted to do on that side of the ball. He wasn’t just the team’s leading receiver in 2017, but he was also a top 10 run blocking tight end in the NFL according to PFF’s charting. The ability to do both at a high level makes Delanie Walker a rare commodity in the NFL. Only Rob Gronkowski and George Kittle among current tight ends provide the kind of run blocking advantage that Walker does along with elite pass catching skills.

Getting him back in 2019 figures to be a huge boost to the offense, but one of the biggest questions of the offseason will be whether he can get back to the level he played at from 2015 to 2017. At 35 years old and coming off a major leg injury it would only be natural for him to lack a little bit of the explosiveness he still had before he went down, but to what degree remains to be seen.

The optimist in me says that Walker is far from a “normal” 35-year old. While Walker has been in the NFL for 13 years, his first 7 were as a backup in San Francisco so he realistically has far less wear and tear than your average 35-year old tight end. He’s also simply one of the most special athletes that I’ve watched in person and I will believe that he’s slowing down when I see it.

However, that doesn’t mean that the Titans should prepare for the season as if 2017 Delanie is walking through that door. We will get to what that might look like later, but I think that even a diminished Walker would be capable of providing good blocking and a sure set of hands on third down in the middle of the field.

Jonnu Smith

2019 Cap Hit: $845K

2018 Stats: 20 catches on 30 targets (66.7%), 258 yards, 3 touchdowns, 12.9 YPC

Walker’s absence in 2018 showed that Jonnu Smith wasn’t quite ready to become “the next Delanie” in his second season (not that anyone should’ve expected that he was). Smith’s early struggles as both a receiver and a blocker were pretty glaring and . Through six weeks, he’d tallied just three catches for 33 yards on nine targets in the passing game.

However, after the Titans Week 8 bye, Smith took some noticeable steps forward as a pass catcher even though the run blocking was still inconsistent. In his five healthy games after the bye, he produced 15 catches, 217 yards, and three touchdowns on 17 targets. That would be a 48-catch, 694-yard pace over a 16 game season. Not elite by any means, but pretty good for a second year tight end.

Smith’s ceiling is near limitless thanks to his elite athleticism, but reaching that ceiling is never easy. To his credit, Smith was often seen getting extra work after practice during the 2018 season, catching passes from Marcus Mariota or working the Juggs machine. That work ethic combined with his natural gifts make me interested to see what Year 3 looks like for Jonnu. Run blocking still needs to be a major point of emphasis with him. He graded out as the 52nd ranked run blocker out of 81 qualifying tight ends and that will need to get much better if he wants to become more than a role player in this offense.

Smith is one of the guys that I think will benefit the most from the continuity on offense this offseason. He looked like a guy that wasn’t completely sure what he was supposed to do at times in Matt LaFleur’s offense, but the promotion of his old position coach to offensive coordinator and keeping the same terminology and framework of the offense intact heading into a new season should allow Smith to focus on improving the details of his game. There is no doubt that he can function as a quality TE2, but it remains to be seen if he can be more than that.

MyCole Pruitt

2019 Cap Hit: $720K

2018 Stats: 9 catches on 11 targets (81.8%), 102 yards, 1 touchdown, 11.3 YPC

Pruitt was a midseason addition for the Titans in 2018 as they plucked him off the Texans practice squad after Delanie Walker went down for the season. Pruitt wound up getting 192 snaps on offense over the course of the season, generally playing as an inline tight end when the Titans went to 13 personnel sets.

Pruitt’s primary function was as a run blocker and he performed very well in that role, grading out as the 16th best run blocker out of 81 qualifying tight ends per PFF. The tape backs up that grade too. I consistently felt like Pruitt was the Titans most consistent blocker among the tight end group.

As a pass catcher Pruitt was rarely called upon, but he consistently came through for the team when he was. His profile coming out of Southern Illinois in 2015 suggests that he might be able to do more as a pass catcher if needed. He was a highly productive receiver as a senior, catching 81 balls for 861 yards and 13 touchdowns. At the combine he checked in with massive 10-1/4-inch hands before running a 4.58-second 40 yard dash and jumping a 37-inch vertical. The 40 time and the vertical are both in the 90th percentile of tight ends in the history of the combine.

Pruitt flashed enough for the Titans in 2018 that I think they would feel OK with him as a TE3 on this roster. It’s unlikely that he’s going to suddenly become a star at the position, but I think his play was good enough to make Luke Stocker expendable (more on that later).

Anthony Firkser

2019 Cap Hit: $570K

2018 Stats: 19 catches on 20 targets (95.0%), 225 yards, 1 touchdown, 11.8 YPC

Ahh yes, my early training camp crush that quickly developed into a preseason crush and then a regular season crush. Anthony Firkser was among the most out-of-nowhere players to have a big impact on the Titans in quite some time.

An undrafted fullback/H-back out of Harvard, Firkser spent 2017 on the Jets and Chiefs practice squads, but never got the call to the active roster for either team. The Titans added him to the roster just before OTAs got started. Firkser stood out early on at training camp and then put up 10 catches, 108 yards, and a touchdown in preseason action before making the 53-man roster as a surprise inclusion.

After bouncing down to the practice squad to make room for Pruitt, Firkser would eventually earn another promotion to the active roster. At the time, head coach Mike Vrabel stated that the team promoted Firkser in part because he kept getting open and making plays as a part of the scout team working against the Titans first team defense in practices.

That ability translated to regular season NFL games as well. In total, Firkser appeared in 12 games in 2018 and hauled in an impressive 19 of his 20 targets. He carved out a role as a third down tight end, taking advantage of his ability to beat coverage and make tough catches.

Where Firkser belongs in 2019 is tough to peg. The Titans rarely asked him to block in the running game. Out of 181 offensive snaps for Firkser, the team ran the ball just 41 times. While the sample size is very small, the returns on his run blocking opportunities weren’t great. He graded out at the worst run blocker among the Titans four tight ends for the seasons. In reality, Firkser functioned as something of a jumbo slot receiver for Tennessee. As much as I like Firkser and believe he can be an effective piece in the right offense, Walker’s return is going to squeeze tight end snaps and could leave him without a defined role.

Cole Wick

2019 Cap Hit: $645K

2018 Stats: N/A

Wick was a late season addition signed off the 49ers practice squad when Jonnu Smith went down with a knee injury. However, he suffered a shoulder injury during his first practice as a Titan that sidelined him for the season.

At 6’-6” and 257 pounds Wick is in the Luke Stocker mold, but he has very little NFL game experience. It would be pretty surprising if he wound up making the 53-man roster out of camp.

Players with expiring contracts

Luke Stocker

2018 Stats: 15 catches on 21 targets (71.4%), 165 yards, 2 touchdowns, 11.0 YPC

Stocker’s first full season in Tennessee was arguably the best season of his career. He tied his career high in receiving yards and graded out as the NFL’s 20th best run blocking tight end (out of 81 qualifying players).

Stocker is a useful NFL player, but heading into his age-31 season with a career high of 165 receiving yards, it’s unlikely that he drives much interest on the free agent market. That could make him cheap enough that the Titans decide to bring him back to compete with Pruitt and Firkser for a spot on the back end of the roster at tight end. However, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see them turn most of his blocking tight end role over to Pruitt and decide that Stocker’s time here has run its course. If he is brought back I would expect him to be firmly on the roster bubble heading into camp.

How can the Titans improve their tight end group this offseason?

The simplest answer to this question is to get a healthy Delanie Walker back in the lineup and watch him do his thing. However, the Titans have to at least be ready for the possibility that Walker comes back looking a lot more like his actual age than he did before he went down in Miami.

Only five tight ends in the last 50 years have had a 500-plus yard season at 35 or older: Tony Gonzalez, Ben Watson, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, and Shannon Sharpe. That list is essentially four of the five best tight ends of all time and Ben Watson who never seems to age. Walker has a chance to join some elite company if he can reach that number this year, but history suggests that the Titans shouldn’t necessarily count on it.

As much as it hurts to think about, the end is close for Walker. He is under contract for 2019 and 2020 thanks to the two-year extension he signed at the end of training camp, but it’s pretty hard to see a scenario where he is still playing in 2021 and beyond. We saw how quickly the drop off came for Brian Orakpo this season and he is actually two years younger than Walker. It’s uncomfortable and sad, but it would be irresponsible for the Titans not to prepare for the possibility.

How the team prepares for that grim scenario will have a lot to do with their opinion of Jonnu Smith heading into his third year. Would the Titans be comfortable with Smith as TE1 if something were to happen to Walker? What about Pruitt or Firkser as TE2?

I suspect that the answer to those questions is no. The Titans could choose to bring Stocker back on a cheap contract to help supplement the blocking in this group, but he really doesn’t bring more to the table than Pruitt at this point. I would prefer to see them bring in a new player at the position that could serve as a complement to Smith long term.

While tight end is often viewed as a “boring” position, they can be immensely valuable when you have guys that can be plus matchups for the offense as both a blocker and a receiver. Spreading the field with three wide receivers on nearly every snap works for the Rams, but it’s certainly not the only way to excel on offense in 2019. The Chiefs — the league’s most explosive offense — ran 12 personnel (two tight ends) more than all but two NFL teams last season per Sharp Football Stats. The Saints and Patriots — the third and fourth ranked offenses in 2018 — were also among the lowest users of 11 personnel (three wide receivers), though they split their heavy packages between two back sets and two tight end sets more evenly than Kansas City did.

If the Titans decide to add to their tight end room this offseason, here are some options for how they can do it.

Free Agent Options

There is a pretty large crop of notable free agent tight ends slated to hit the market in March if they aren’t re-signed prior to the end of the league year.

Eifert and Cook represent the best pass catching options, but they both have drawbacks as well. Eifert has one of the worst injury histories of any current NFL player, appearing in just 28 of the last 80 games. It’s really hard to see the Titans making a move for him given that track record. Cook still remains allergic to blocking which makes him an older, more established version of Jonnu Smith and not a good fit for the Titans.

A few guys that are interesting to me are Maxx Williams, Jesse James, and C.J. Uzomah. Each of these guys are young and have a good blend of receiving and blocking skills. They would all be an upgrade on Stocker and depending on their market they might be able to be added for cheap, giving the Titans a low risk depth option that could be a credible TE2 if needed.

There are some decent options available in free agency, but I think the draft is the more likely spot for the Titans to target help at the tight end position.

Draft Options

Tight end isn’t an immediate need if Delanie Walker comes back and plays at a similar level to his elite pre-injury ability. However, for reasons discussed above that’s a pretty big “if”. Where would tight end rank among the Titans biggest needs if you removed Delanie Walker from the picture? Jonnu Smith, MyCole Pruitt, and Anthony Firkser each had some positive moments in 2018, but none of them have shown they can be a consistent mismatch in both the running game and passing attack.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the draft is as much about needs two to three years down the road as it is immediate needs. That’s why I won’t necessarily dismiss tight end as a possibility, even in Round 1. Fortunately for the Titans, there are some really good tight ends in the 2019 draft class. Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson has become a popular mock draft pick for Tennessee in recent weeks and he’s the consensus top player at the position. At 6’-5” and 250 pounds, the former Hawkeye has prototypical size. He combines that size with good athleticism and outstanding blocking, route running, and body control. Most analysts believe Hockenson to be a better prospect than his former Iowa teammate George Kittle.

Iowa actually has the top two tight ends this year as Noah Fant joins Hockenson at the top of the class. Fant is also 6’-5” but slightly lighter at 241 pounds. His strengths are elite speed and leaping ability that make him capable of both stretching the field up the seams and dominating in the red zone. However, his run blocking, while not as elite as Hockenson’s, is good enough that he’s not just a glorified receiver.

Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. would be the top prospect in a lot of drafts, but he is expected to be somewhere around the third spot this year. Further down the list, Georgia’s Isaac Nauta, Utah State’s Dax Raymond, Stanford’s Kaden Smith, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger, Ole Miss’ Dawson Knox, Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad, San Jose State’s Josh Oliver, UCLA’s Caleb Wilson, and LSU’s Foster Moreau are also considered possible top 100 picks.

I don’t think anyone would say that the Titans need to take a tight end in the first round, but if they believe Hockenson to be George Kittle 2.0 and the best player on their board then I would certainly be open to it. Hockenson would immediately help the running game and the passing attack, giving Marcus Mariota a massive target in the middle of the field (where he just happens to do his best work). The kind of options the Titans would have with 13 personnel would be extremely difficult to matchup with for opposing defenses. Tennessee could bludgeon light defenses with Derrick Henry and the running game and then split Walker or Smith out wide across from Corey Davis and roast heavy looks.

I think the Titans will select a tight end at some point before the end of the draft even if they don’t end up with Hockenson in the first. Delanie Walker only has a year or two remaining at an elite level. Jonnu Smith is a great athlete who is still developing as a blocker and nuanced route runner. MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser are interesting pieces, but both of them are relatively one-dimensional at this point in their careers. This would be a great draft class to find a player who can be a long term complement to Jonnu Smith or even supplant him as the “TE1 of the future”.

Regardless of where you come down on the question of a possible first round tight end, I think we can all agree that seeing Delanie Walker streaking down the seams at Nissan Stadium will be a sight for sore eyes in September.