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2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: TE

SELF-PROMOTIONAL ITEM: Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, a.k.a. “the annual Football Outsiders preview” or “that thing that kept me away from here from post-draft until a couple weeks ago,” is available for purchase. You can get the book in PDF form at Football Outsiders, while the print copy is currently available through CreateSpace and on Amazon proper. I did the Broncos and Raiders chapters, while my FO colleague Rivers McCown did the Titans chapter. (As I noted on Twitter, I didn’t do the Titans chapter because I’d done it three of the past four times and we like to switch things up.) /end plug

After quarterback, running back, fullback, and wide receiver, our last offensive “skill position” player spot on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2014 regular season is a look at the tight ends.

The Titans seem poised to return their top three tight ends for a second season together, and like last preseason one of the key questions is how many passes the group will get and what the distribution of those catches looks like. As I chronicled in the wide receiver analysis, Ken Whisenhunt’s offense in San Diego last year featured extensive use of the tight end(s) and the Chargers had Antonio Gates (76 catches). His Arizona teams struggled to find a quality receiving tight end, and the tight end was sometimes an afterthought in the offense (Ben Patrick, position-high 11 catches in 2008 and 12 in 2009).

One thing that seems like a good bet is Delanie Walker will have a decent number of catches. I heard him mention 80 in an offseason interview; I don’t see that happening. If you followed the link to last year’s preseason TE look, though, you’ll see I didn’t expect him to come close to the 70 he was mentioning last offseason and he probably would have gotten there if not for injuries.

As I chronicled in the offseason positional analysis back in February, I’m not quite as high on Walker as everybody else around the Titans. He turns 30 next Monday and is heading into his ninth NFL season. Gates, Tony Gonzalez, and Shannon Sharpe notwithstanding, receiving tight end generally has about as harsh an aging curve as there is in the NFL and Walker’s yards-after-catch numbers have been poor for three years running. Gates was coming off a season of similarly depressed YAC in 2012, but arrested that trend in 2013. The change appears to have been driven at least in part by more short passes his way. That won’t be the case for Walker, who had a similar average depth of target to Gates. That Gates averaged 1.8 more yards per catch (11.3 v. 9.5) was basically all YAC. Quarterback play certainly had a role in that figure, but (a) Whisenhunt didn’t bring Philip Rivers with him and (b) this is the tight ends positional analysis, not Yet Another Jake Locker Post. Upside comparison for Walker? Maybe Todd Christensen, another tight end who didn’t play a big role as a receiver until later in his career and was productive through his age 31 season. If he ends up with 40 for 8.5 per, remember (a) I warned you and (b) that’s pretty much what Frank Wycheck did in his age 31 season.

If you thought all that was a dodge to avoid talking about how Walker’s precise role in the offense is still a big question mark, well, you guessed right. He’ll play a role. Whisenhunt and company are talking him up as an important player. I’d expect on the whole numbers roughly akin to what he did last year-60 or so catches at 9.5 per seems about right, though I’d take the under on six touchdowns. Jim Wyatt projected him at 62-646-5, for what it’s worth.

Good news: Craig Stevens is younger than Walker. Bad news: Stevens turns 30 himself on September 1. Between that, the fact that he never actually became 90% of Heath Miller like I thought he would be when he signed his contract extension and was carrying an exorbitant salary for a pure blocker, and a history of concussions, I was skeptical he would be around for training camp. One big paycut later, here he remains. It was only last week Whisenhunt declared he was “excited about what [Stevens and the next player I’ll discuss are] going to contribute to our offense this season.” N.B. the details of Stevens’ contribution are left quite vague. (Whisenhunt is much, much better than Mike Munchak was at talking without saying anything.) I’ve pretty much abandoned the Heath Miller dream, but I still expect Stevens to play somewhere between the 21.5% of the time San Diego’s blocking tight end John Phillips did last year and the 45% he played when he was available to last year’s Titans squad, and to have between 5 and 25 catches.

Doesn’t it warm the cockles of your heart to heart Whisenhunt is excited about what Taylor Thompson is going contribute to the Titans’ offense this season? Okay, that’s a bit harsh, as Thompson may have been a bit unfairly maligned by the expectations placed upon him when he was draft. He was a highly risky draft pick, a collegiate defensive end and project player. Thus far, he’s played a very modest role on offense and done some solid things on special teams. For a fifth round pick, that’s a pretty reasonable first two seasons, really. He was targeted so infrequently last year we don’t have that much better an idea of whether he can catch. I still don’t have a good answer to the question I posed back in February, about whether Whisenhunt and company saw a player with the same potential Chris Palmer did or a blocking tight end and special teams player? He’ll be on the roster and active when healthy in either case, but his plausible reception total ranges from the 3 he had last year to a much bigger number if he improved greatly and age hits Walker as hard as it could. I’m taking the under on 20 receptions and maybe even on 15.

In a way Dorin Dickerson‘s reminds me of Thompson’s, only Dickerson was a seventh-round pick and it was Gary Kubiak with the Texans building him up in his inimitable “Everything is AWESOME” style. Somewhere between a move tight end and an oversized wide receiver, he was an All-American at Pitt and has bounced around from Houston to Buffalo and Detroit (five games, two catches last year) and probably other points in between I’m not going to look up. The Titans are listing him at 226, but Ruston Webster mentioning on one of the training camp videos he’s actually more like 235, which is more a tight end size. I stuck him on my 53-man roster prediction less out of confidence in him than Whisenhunt’s history of sometimes keeping four tight ends and lack of confidence in a sixth receiver. He’s probably somewhere in the back end mix.

With the release of 2013 practice squadder Adam Schiltz when the Titans needed an extra guard once Andy Levitre went out, Jason Schepler is the only tight end on the roster. He’s now listed at a more normal 262 pounds after being at 274 back in February. I don’t remember him from his days in DeKalb at Northern Illinois and therefore have nothing specific to say about him. I do not recall seeing anything specific on his performance at training camp. Consider him an extreme longshot to make the roster.

Conclusion-Type Things
Will Delanie Walker stave off age for another season? Will Craig Stevens and/or Taylor Thompson ever see the ball thrown in their direction? I wish I knew the answers to those and other questions, but I really don’t. I’m expecting continued reasonable usage for Walker and slightly greater usage for Stevens and Thompson in the passing game, but it’s August and there’s still a lot of uncertainty in my mind in terms of what we’re going to see in 2014. All I have are still approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything.