As Drexel noted in our offseason look at the position, 2012 was a year of change at the tight end. The Bo Scaife era came to an end, at long last, and the Titans played three tight ends in relatively major, albeit different roles. As with the fullback, how the Titans use the position is as interesting as whom the player will be.
Those three tight ends all had interesting offseasons, as well; not interesting in a bad way like Kenny Britt, but interesting in terms of their differing fates. One could have departed but was retained, one would have returned had the team not unsurprisingly but not unexpectedly cut him, and one heads into the final year of his deal, unsure if he'll get a new one. The Titans also added a tight end, from whom big things are hoped, though more likely later than sooner.
How then, might the fates shake out in 2012, both for the players involved and what the role of the tight end will be in the offense?
It would be an exaggeration, but not too much of one, to say the Titans basically ran two offenses last year. The most common of them featured three wide receivers, one running back, and one tight end. That offense was pretty efficient (15.1% DVOA, as noted in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012) and threw the ball an overwhelming amount of the time (87%, again per FOA2012). Almost invariably, the tight end in that offense was Jared Cook.
Cook has a well-earned reputation as a bit of an enigma among Titans fantasy (and people who play fantasy). For some stretch of weeks, he is among the most heavily-targeted players in the entire league. At other times, he may be thrown the ball thrice in two weeks. If I had a great explanation for why this was the case, I'd have written that post. I haven't written that post, though, which you may fairly read to indicate I can't really explain it either. Cook has the deep speed to be a serious athletic mismatch at the position, and plays like his 80-yard touchdown Week 16 against the Jaguars are a good example of what he can do. At the same time, he doesn't seem to have the agility to go with his speed and seems to struggle to be in the right place.
Cook put up some pretty good numbers in 2011. He finished within a few yards of Frank Wycheck's franchise record for tight end receiving yards in a season and, buoyed by that 80-yard score, put up a very nice yards per catch number for a tight end. His efficiency numbers were also pretty good. At the same time, he's defined as much by all the passes that weren't thrown his way; I've noted before Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins' efficiency metrics were lousy, but both of them still got thrown the ball. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Cook likely needs a consistently-productive season to earn a new deal from the Titans this year. I'd love to see him do it, but I'd expect the same up-and-down numbers this year and to see him playing elsewhere in 2013.
Now, that other Titans offense. This was the offense that featured the fullback, some of the time, and either one or two tight ends; sometimes, it was even two tight ends and a fullback in addition to the running back. This offense played about 40% of the offensive snaps, about a quarter less than the Jared Cook Offense played. On the whole, this offense was not very efficient (blended DVOA of roughly -16.1%) and much run-heavier (roughly 69% of the time) than the Jared Cook Offense. Almost invariably, one of the tight ends in this offense was Craig Stevens.
A 2008 third-round pick, Stevens was slated to become a free agent this offseason. The Titans, though, locked him up before he hit the market, for another four years at over $3.5 million per season. As I've already noted, I found this decision a bit curious. Stevens is a very fine blocker, and I really like him as a player, but I struggle with his role in Chris Palmer's offense, especially given his predominant 5- and 6-man protection schemes where the tight end normally runs a route. While I (and tight ends coach John Zernhelt) would love to see Stevens play more on passing plays and get thrown the ball, I expect his usage to be much like it was in 2011.
When the Craig Stevens Offense featured a second tight end, that tight end was often Daniel Graham. The Titans cut Graham in June, though, after trading up to select Taylor Thompson in the fifth round of this April's NFL draft. A collegiate defense end at SMU who lost weight and looked impressive in workouts, if he works out Thompson could be the Titans' version of the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, a physical blocker who also has the speed to beat defenders down the field. While Thompson's athletic gifts have been obvious to some training camp observers, my expectations for his 2012 production are still modest.
The question for me about Thompson this year is whether he takes over Graham's blocking TE2 role. While I thought of Graham's production as relatively modest, he did officially start 7 games. Do the Titans trust Thompson as a blocker enough to play him in those roles? Has Cook's blocking skill advanced enough that the Titans are willing to give Graham's snaps to him? Or will the Titans simply play fewer snaps in the Craig Stevens Offense with two tight ends? I suspect the last case is the most likely, but only time will tell and I'll be watching for the answer.
As the only dedicated long-snapper in camp, Beau Brinkley is the clear favorite to win that job. The undrafted rookie was a collegiate tight end at Missouri, thus my mention of him in this preview. Like Ken Amato the last couple years, though, I would expect his non-special teams contributions to be somewhere between minimal and none. I could easily be wrong about that, and will be watching in the preseason to see if I am indeed mistaken.
Cameron Graham was fairly highly-rated for an undrafted free agent, especially as a move tight end. He spent all of 2011 on the Titans' practice squad. If Jared Cook goes down with an injury, there might be a chance for him to make the team. My guess is he's firmly behind the four previously-listed players in his chance to make the team, but could be a candidate for another year on the practice squad as Cook's understudy with perhaps a chance to make the team in 2013 should Cook depart.
Brandon Barden is a local player, an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt. His long road became even longer when he suffered a hamstring injury, as you can't make the club in the tub. I think of him, a bit cruelly, as roster fodder.
Joey Haynos was signed to fill out the depth chart after Barden went down. He has good size and a basketball background, but has never been able to translate his potential into being a decent NFL player. When Kory Sperry outplays you... the Titans likely added Haynos because his experience means he was able to step in in the middle of training camp and stay up to speed. I don't think he has a realistic shot at making the roster.
Cook, Stevens, Thompson, plus the special teamer Brinkley. Barring injury or a surprising development, that's who it'll be and all it'll be. The position isn't entirely without wild cards, like Cook's consistency, the non-Stevens job on running plays, and whether Stevens plays a bigger role in the passing game, but they're at the margins and regular season questions.