Back in January, the Titans re-signed impending free agent tight end Craig Stevens, locking him down for another four years at over $3.5 million per season. That's definitely starter-type money, so it seems fair to assume Stevens will play a reasonable number of offensive snaps in 2012.
The Titans were in some ways a very predictable team in 2011. As I noted several times, they threw virtually every time it was third down and they had two or more yards to go. That wasn't the only reliable indicator, though. Another one of them was who the tight end was. I didn't keep formal track, but if Stevens was in the game, the chances were pretty good the Titans were going to run the ball. If Jared Cook was in the game and Stevens was not, the chance were even better the Titans were going to throw the ball.
That sort of play-tipping ties into one of the changes implemented by new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, as the Titans went from a heavy-protection team to a light-protection team. In 2011, the Titans had only 5 blockers on a pass play 56% of the time, 33% more often than they did in 2010, and had 7 or more blockers 6.5% of the time, half as often as they did the year before. To an increasing degree, pass-protecting is simply not something the Titans ask their tight ends to do.
If Stevens, or any other tight end, is in on a pass play, then he'll very likely be a receiver. Palmer noted in a recent media session tight ends coach John Zernhelt has asked for more passes for Stevens; given the competition for targets, I'm not sure will get thrown the ball more, but that's not the question. The question is, who gets to play. Stevens is clearly a stronger run-blocker than a pass-catcher, while Jared Cook is the opposite. The drafting of Taylor Thompson is an attempt to find a player who can be good at both.
There's also a broader philosophical question. If the drafting of Kendall Wright was part of Palmer's general trend toward emphasizing the passing game, what should we make of the Stevens extension? Yes, I'd rather pay Stevens $3.6 million per to be what he is than the departed Daniel Graham $2.7 million per to be what he is, but if that player is just going to be a blocker, why not use a sixth offensive lineman in that position? The Raiders and Patriots, and a player like the re-signed Mike Otto ($1.25 million per) is an even cheaper option at the position, and a Ben Hartsock-type would've been about the same.
Don't get me wrong; I love Craig Stevens, and was happy to see the Titans re-sign him. Unless his usage changes, though, I'm not sure the Titans' decision to commit to him was the wisest team-building decision they could have made. We shall see how 2012 unfolds.