Tennessee Titans Strengths and Weaknesses: Tight Ends

Thus far, we’ve discussed the Tennessee Titans’ Quarterbacks, Running Backs, and Wide Receivers. We will focus on the tight ends in this installment of Tennessee Titans: Strengths and Weaknesses.

Evaluating the tight ends position is different than any other in football. Primarily, the measurables are different across teams. If Travis Kelce plays an entire season in 2022 and catches 50 passes for 600 yards and 6 TDs, people will criticize and question his poor season. If a Titans tight end posts those same numbers, the fanbase in Nashville will go nuts.

Does this disparity in perception mean the Titans’ tight ends aren’t as good? In this case, probably. Kelce is one of the more talented players to ever play the position in any era. That said, we can’t overlook the difference in the styles of offenses the two teams run.

The Titans are the most run-oriented team in the league. Everything goes through Derrick Henry, and rightfully so. He’s one of the most dominant forces in recent NFL memory. This anachronistic approach to offense dictates the flow of the game and the personnel.

In short, the Titans’ tight ends are often blockers first and receivers second. Heck, sometimes the same goes for their receivers, but that is just the way that Mike Vrabel wants his offenses to be run. It isn’t unusual to see Patrick Mahomes chucking the ball 50 or more times in a game the Chiefs win handily, but if Ryan Tannehill throws 50 times it is because the Tennessee Titans have been forced into a corner and are in a bad spot.

But this article isn’t about the Chiefs and their players…who cares about Kansas City with their fancy Lombardi Trophies and championship rings.

We’re not even jealous.

Okay, maybe a little, but don’t tell them that.

This article is about the Tennessee Titans, a team that has historically had a very steady procession of good tight ends. Players like Frank Wycheck, Delanie Walker, and Jonnu Smith all got better and better every year and were fan favorites because of their gritty blocking and efficient receiving skills.

Last year, things went off the rails at the position, And not in a cool, Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train” blaring over Nissan Stadium’s speakers,” kind of way either. The team’s tight ends disappeared like dinosaurs at a meteor party.

For the first time in recent memory, the tight end became an afterthought in Tennessee. Anthony Firsker was supposed to be a revelation. We knew going into the season that he wasn’t a dominant blocker, but the expectation was that he would turn into Kelce-lite after Jonnu Smith left for New England.

After all, Firkser caught nearly as many balls as Smith the season before, with the two sharing opportunities. It didn’t quite work out according to plan. With no one to take the pressure off him, the former Harvard product was held to 34 receptions (5 less than the previous season sharing production with Smith) and averaged a yard less per catch.

So, what was to blame for the decline in production? Was it simply that Firkser couldn’t get open on his own? Did we overestimate him? Or was Todd Downing’s offensive philosophy to blame? Perhaps a little of “all the above?”

Either way, Firkser is gone. So is MyCole Pruitt. Except for Geoff Swaim and some of the practice squad guys, it’s a new tight ends room.

Tennessee Titans have revamped their tight ends in one offseason

One of the off-season’s most significant additions was former Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Brown’s tight end, Austin Hooper.

The former Stanford product is a two-time Pro Bowler at the position. He caught 71 and 75 passes in his final two seasons in Atlanta for 660 and 787 yards, respectively. He also scored 10 touchdowns in that span.

The Forest City wasn’t nearly as kind to Hooper. Like the offense he’ll find here in the Music City, the Browns were also run-heavy. His production dipped to 46 and 38 receptions over the last two seasons in Cleveland.

But two factors stood out in that expected drop. During his last two years in Atlanta, Hooper posted an 80% catch rate and a 77% rate. In Cleveland, those numbers fell to 65% and 62%. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a 62% catch rate. That’s even better than A.J. Brown’s 60% last year, but it’s still a significant drop-off. The question is, how much of a role did poor quarterbacking play in Hooper’s statistical decline? Matt Ryan vs. Baker Mayfield is a big difference. Not surprisingly, the meager numbers in Cleveland track eerily close both years with Baker’s accuracy numbers.

The second factor was the emergence of David Njoku in Cleveland. His production increased from 19 to 36 receptions from one year to the next. Toward the end of last season, Njoku saw most of the targets. In effect, Hooper became expendable.

Are the Tennessee Titans taking another team’s hand-me-downs? Hardly.

Hooper is still a very capable tight end who possesses excellent hands and is possibly the best blocking tight end in the NFL. Derrick Henry is going to love this guy. Last season, the Tennessee Titans’ offense was predictable, depending upon who lined up at tight end. If it was Swaim, it was likely a run. If Firkser or Pruitt were out there, teams played the pass. It won’t be so easy with Hooper on the field. He can do both well.

Behind him is last year’s blocker extraordinaire, Geoff Swaim. Remember last season when everyone in Titans Land was giddy about the Julio Jones signing? Who would have believed that Swaim and Jones would finish the season with the same number of receptions? Or that Swaim would triple Julio’s TD production?

We often think of the former Texas Longhorn as an immovable object who anchors himself at the end of the line and as a liability when the ball is in the air, but that’s not the case. Swaim is sneakily efficient in the passing game. In two seasons as a Titan, he’s caught 40 of the 52 balls sent his way. That’s a solid 76.9% catch rate. Perhaps we should nickname him “Possum” because no one thinks he is going to make a play until he suddenly springs to life and moves the chain.

We see you, Possum.

The Tennessee Titans drafted Chigoziem Okwonko with their second 4th round pick at #143 overall. He played collegiately at Maryland, and many analysts compared Okwonko pre-draft to Jonnu Smith; his game is very similar. He’s 6-3 and 238 lbs. with nimble feet and is a north-south runner with the ball in his hands. He’s athletic and can line up anywhere on the field, operating 71% of the time out of an inline TE position in College Park. Like Smith, he’s comfortable taking a sweep from the end spot or even lining up in the backfield.

Okonkwo was the fastest tight end at the combine and that athleticism should serve him well in the NFL, even in a Tennessee Titans offense that prioritizes blocking first and receiving second from their tight ends. Coaches at Maryland raved about his vision with the ball in his hands, comparing him to a running back.

The negatives on Okonkwo are that he’s still raw in the blocking department and has a limited passing tree. Another yellow flag to consider: he sat out the 2020 season with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. He did play in 2021, however.

But as Jimmy Johnson used to remind everyone, “Speed kills.” Did I mention Okwonko was the fastest tight end at the combine?

Tommy Hudson is an intriguing prospect. He was signed by the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona State following the 2020 NFL Draft. He played as a blocking tight end during his time in Phoenix but caught 25 passes in his 4 years with the Sun Devils.

Hudson appeared in 5 games last season, catching 3 passes for 31 yards and no TDs. He was placed on injured reserve twice, ending his season on December 11th.

Briley Moore was signed by the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas State following the 2021 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL during camp and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

The Tennessee Titans liked Moore enough to bring him back, though. Covid made it so we fans didn’t get to see anything from him at all, but his background is impressive. He played only one season for Kansas State, coming via the transfer portal from Northern Iowa, where he was honorable mention All-Missouri Valley Football Conference as a sophomore after catching 38 passes for 494 yards his sophomore year.

He followed that performance with a 39 catch, 536 yards, and 4 TD season performance as a junior, earning him 1st team All-MVFC honors. His senior season was cut short by a shoulder injury that occurred in the season’s opening game. Moore entered the portal after the season and attended Kansas State. He was named 2nd Team All-Big 12 as a senior, posting 22 catches for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns on the season.

All that is to say, Moore can play. I look forward to watching him compete in the preseason. He will likely battle Hudson for a possible 4th TE spot if the Titans keep one. If either makes the roster, it will be via special teams and likely as a member of the practice squad.

That brings us to Eastern Michigan’s Thomas Odukoya, a Dutch national who played football in America. Each year the NFL selects a division to field an eligible international player per team for the NFL International Player Pathway Program. These players were not drafted or signed to an undrafted free agent contract. It’s a real advantage to the teams selected because they will receive a roster exemption to stash their international player on the practice squad if he doesn’t make the final 53-man roster.

Odukoya served primarily as a blocking end in two TE sets at Eastern Michigan. He did catch 21 passes for 191 yards and 4 touchdowns during his time in Ypsilanti. Don’t think this selection was charity, however. Odukoya may be from the Netherlands, but he’s a football player. He checks in with a massive 6-6 frame tipping the scales at 263 lbs. Phil Steele named him 1st-team Preseason All-MAC, finishing the season as a 2nd team member. He was a William V. Campbell Trophy semifinalist. This trophy is often referred to as the Academic Heisman and is awarded to the player with the best combination of athletics, academics, and community involvement. He was also on the John Mackey Award watchlist. The Mackey is awarded to college football’s most outstanding tight end. The ability to stash a player of this caliber on the practice squad could prove beneficial in the long run.

And so, we’ve reached the big moment. Are the tight ends a net positive or negative toward the Tennessee Titans’ championship goal?

Many analysts would probably rate them a negative, or at least in the lower half of the league. However, many of them consider passing statistics only. The group assembled by the Titans excels in the style of football Vrabel and company want to play. They’re big, they’re tough, and they’re physical. It’s a good marriage. When the team needs to pass, several players on this list have demonstrated excellent hands and the ability to get open. The numbers won’t wow you, but I rate the group a net positive toward the team’s championship goal.

And that’s not just playing Possum.