Winds of change are blowing at the tight end position. Bo Scaife led Titans' tight ends in receptions in 2010 for the fifth consecutive season, but he's not under contract for 2011 and is unlikely to return. Into the lineup at the start of 2010 came Craig Stevens to fill the large shoes as a blocker vacated by the departure of Alge Crumpler, and into Scaife's spot as the Titans' most-targeted tight end almost certainly comes Jared Cook.
More on this cast of characters, after the jump.
I'm not going to pull any punches. Bo Scaife sucks. He's simply not explosive or very good as a receiver. Only once in his career has he averaged more than 10.0 yards per catch, and he didn't even make it to 9.0 this year with 36 grabs for 318 yards. He's also a very marginal blocker-a liability as an in-line tight end, which helped limited Chris Johnson's attempts to get the edge, but not worthless as an H-back whose sole responsibility is a backside seal. He spent the last couple games of 2010 inactive, after criticizing Jeff Fisher, but sitting Scaife was an overdue move. Andrew dubbed him the league's most overpaid tight end in the preseason write-up of the tight ends, and it's hard to make the argument his production in 2010 merited the $4.9 million-plus the Titans paid him.
Craig Stevens-he finally made it into the lineup with Crumpler's departure, playing all 16 games and earning 13 starts. He was by a wide margin the Titans' best blocking tight end-not quite the sixth offensive lineman Crumpler was, but more than adequate for what the Titans asked of him. When they ran his direction, there was a chance the play would gain yardage, and if it didn't, it wasn't just Stevens' fault it didn't.
He was less of a factor as a receiver than I thought he might be, catching only 11 balls for 122 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 targets. Only 11 catches on 23 targets isn't very good, but I don't recall Stevens as being a particularly bad receiver. He'll be back in 2011 and likely play the same sort of role he did in 2010, as a blocker with limited receiving work.
One cautionary note: though he stayed healthy in 2009, he's suffered a couple concussions and the next bad hit could be his last.
Ah, Jared Cook. The 2009 third-round pick had a much-improved sophomore campaign, catching 29 balls for 361 yards, a 12.4 yard per catch average. The Titans haven't had a tight end average 12 yards per catch in consecutive seasons since Hall of Famer Dave Casper did it in 1981 and 1982 (Frank Wycheck didn't do it once). Unfortunately, Cook apparently had trouble getting on the field because of issues learning and executing the playbook, and when he did get on the field demonstrated a penchant for making critical mistakes like failing to get out of bounds late in the half and keeping his feet inbounds. Not to be too kind, but he's also a pathetic blocker-poor at blitz pickup, hopeless in-line, and not even as good as Scaife at the backside seal. He needs to improve at that, or he'll be stuck with a limited role, playing primarily on passing downs.
Also on the roster at tight end is Riar Geer, who was signed to the practice squad in mid-November and signed a futures contract after the season ended. He played his college football at Colorado and is more of a blocking-type.
The macro-level question is just how big a role the tight end will play in Chris Palmer's offense. Departed offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was a fan of two tight end sets, and Scaife, Cook, and Stevens combined for 27 starts in 2010. At his press conference, Palmer described Cook as a special talent, which he obviously has the potential to be. Stevens wasn't mentioned by name, but I'd expect him to play the role he plays. Beyond that, the Titans will likely career a third tight end, because teams normally do, and that could easily be Geer or a veteran free agent.
Prediction: Cook and Stevens see almost all of the snaps at tight end for the Titans in 2011. No tight end drafted beyond possibly a late-round pick, while the Titans sign a Sean Ryan-type veteran as insurance for Stevens' injury history and a possible third tight end role if Geer isn't where they want him to be.