The Titans have plenty of new imports to take up the spotlight, but Delanie Walker’s return should provide a bigger boost than most are acknowledging.
These Tennessee Titans have good reason to feel confident.
The summer months are good to every NFL fan base—the promise of a blank slate and all—and, at least on paper, most problems have been solved, most corners have been turned. Rookies hold potential, free agents are invigorated by changes of scenery, injured players have suddenly never felt better. Thirty-two bases have been revitalized.
But the Titans optimism isn’t based on foolish sentiments or baseless talking points. Three consecutive winning seasons have shown they can compete with any team in a given week. A young roster has yet to come together, but the promise is there as Mike Vrabel settles into his head coaching skin and developing stars find their ceiling. It also helps that Jon Robinson enjoyed one of the most underrated offseasons by any general manager in the league.
The Titans will only go as far as Marcus Mariota will take them, of course, but a savvy move to pick up Ryan Tannehill has brought very real competition (and competence) to the depth chart and should push both quarterbacks in significant ways that will benefit the team overall. Plus Mariota’s health doesn’t need to be such a big concern if the former Miami Dolphins starter is next man up.
The offense in particular is going to be greatly improved with the addition of Roger Saffold and third round pick Nate Davis to slot in as two new potential starters (at least long-term with Davis) along the offensive interior. A deeper and more talented line will give whoever is throwing the ball more time to reach the best array of targets since Mariota entered the NFL.
Adam Humphries was the big free agent prize, a free agent receiver from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who reportedly chose the Titans over the New England Patriots. Humphries is an intelligent receiver and crisp route runner who will be a very dependable asset in the passing game. Corey Davis made good on the team’s early investment in him last season with a breakout campaign of 65 catches for 891 yards and 4 touchdowns. He’s taken some time, but he gives the Titans their elite receiver if he can mirror last year’s leap.
Titans fans are also jazzed about the draft’s new offensive addition in second round pick A.J. Brown, a titan of a receiver at Ole Miss who set a school record and then broke it again for receiving yards. This year’s final total was 1,320 yards on 85 catches. His strength, speed, route running and experience should allow him to thwart the learning curve of most rookie receivers and at least make a decent impact in 2019.
The bottom line is this: Mariota has never had it this good in Nashville since his pro debut. Names like Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor are now WR4 and beyond. Three years ago, Harry Douglas and Kendall Wright were the two most accomplished wideouts on the roster. Now Tennessee has the goods to keep up with most offenses.
In the excitement of all these additions, however, it’s the understated return of the Titans’ most dependable pass catcher that should have fans and coaches most excited.
Delanie Walker has been in this position before. It feels as if his entire career has somehow flown under the radar despite a résumé of productivity and longevity that dwarfs the NFL average.
Walker will turn 35-years-old before the regular season begins, a fossil by league standards, and is coming off of a frustrating season in which he played a single game—the Titans’ Week 1 opener against the Miami Dolphins. In the fourth quarter of the game, Walker went up to make a catch and was rewarded with a cast. His right ankle was broken on the play and his season was over then and there.
After missing only 8 games in the last 11 seasons, Walker was suddenly forced to sit on the sidelines for the first extended stint in his professional career. It’d be easy to question his potential return, at least on the surface. Given the extent of the injury, the time away from the game, the age of the player, some teams would be wise to move on or at least develop a contingency plan. But Walker is not that type of player.
In the four seasons before his injury, Walker averaged 74 catches, 896 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns for the Titans. He made the Pro Bowl in three of those four seasons, all consecutive appearances from 2015-17. Walker, a longtime captain, has often been the lone offensive gem for the Titans as he’s waited for a front office to bring in some reinforcements.
Only 10 other tight ends in NFL history have as many seasons of 800 receiving yards or more as Delanie Walker (4), and only 14 tight ends in league history have been more productive in a four-year span as Walker has been with the Titans from 2014-17. For a player who averaged 209 yards per season during his first seven years in the league with the San Francisco 49ers, the chance to start has allowed Walker to blossom in ways no one could have ever predicted.
It’s that anomalous sort of development and recent production that makes Walker such a strong candidate to return well despite the typical factors working against him. Not only does Walker sound pretty motivated to return from injury, but he should also be excited to not feel such a tremendous weight on his shoulders for the first time since moving to Music City. He can help the Titans offense thrive even as he’s giving up targets to new playmakers around him.
The Titans are in better shape offensively than most NFL fans likely realize with a stable of playmakers most front offices would love to have. While the new faces in the room are the ones hogging what little spotlight Tennessee receives this offseason, Walker is rehabbing in the shadows knowing full well what he can bring to the table.