The blocker. The receiver. The project.
Craig Stevens. Jared Cook. Taylor Thompson.
The Tennessee Titans’ three tight ends all fit neatly into their respective boxes of responsibility. As a unit they form a collection that seemingly lacks any significant holes. They work as complementary parts that not only are functional in terms of the present, they spur the imagination about what is possible in the future.
“I think we have exactly what you want. …” coach Mike Munchak said. “I think we’re right in there with what you need. I think you see those guys as guys who can create problems for defenses.”
For a franchise that has featured the position for much of its time in Middle Tennessee, this is about as good as it gets. At the very least, it is as good as it has been.
Between now and the days when Frank Wycheck led the team in receptions five years running and got support from Jackie Harris and Mike Roan, the personnel department’s search for capable tight ends resembled an episode of American Pickers. They found a number of interesting and useful items but nothing that could be considered a true treasure or was exactly what they wanted.
Two separate waves of the draft designed to restock the position failed to pan out as planned.
Erron Kinney and Shad Meier were third-round picks in consecutive seasons (2000 and 2001, respectively). Ben Troupe (second round, 2004) and Bo Scaife (sixth round, 2005) comprised the next reboot.
Although raw (he caught just 18 passes in 40 games at Kansas State), Meier looked to have the size-speed combo to make him a prototype receiving threat. Instead, he caught just 42 passes in 52 games over four seasons, one of the “highlights” of which was when he had nine receptions for a whopping 31 yards in a 2004 loss at San Diego. Kinney, on the other hand, at 6 foot 5, 275 pounds, became a much more reliable target with 178 receptions in 83 contests.
Troupe lived up to his billing as a downfield threat in his second season, when he made 55 receptions for 530 yards with four touchdowns. He had just 18 catches over the next two years, though, while Scaife caught between 29 and 58 for six straight seasons and led the team in receptions in 2008. His development as a receiver prompted the free agent signing of Alge Crumpler to provide a sturdy presence up front.
Stevens and Cook, on the other hand, came as third-round picks in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and thus far have developed as expected.
Cook had 90 receptions and averaged nearly 14 yards per catch through his first three seasons. He was fourth in the NFL and the only tight end among the top 10 in receiving yards over the final three games of 2011 and this season’s opener.
Stevens earned a long-term contract this past offseason with just 22 career catches to his credit.
“They’re always throwing new stuff in [to the passing game], it’s whether it gets called in the game or not,” Stevens said. “I know my role as a player. So I know what they want me to do, and I’m just going to do the best I can at it.”
More and more NFL teams want their tight ends to catch passes.
The Titans came face to face with that trend through the first two weeks of this season. They opened with New England and its pair of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who combined for 12 of Tom Brady’s 23 completions in that contest.
“It’s not like they’re just pass receivers. It’s not like they’re just run blockers,” Brady said. “I think they’re able to do both, and they’re a threat at both, which makes the defense really respect that.”
Last Sunday’s challenge was San Diego, which for the past decade has featured Antonio Gates. A basketball player in college, he helped usher in the age of pass-catching tight ends when he entered the league in 2003. Twice he has topped 1,100 yards receiving in a single season, and he has averaged more than nine touchdowns per season over the past eight years.
It was in that vein that the Titans selected Thompson in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. A defensive end in college, he showed enough speed to go along with his size (6-6, 268) at a college all-star game to allow him to return to his primary high school position.
He projects as a receiving threat, but — as history has shown — nothing is certain.
“There have been times when I sort of overthink stuff,” Thompson said. “So I’m just trying to learn and do as much as possible. … It’s just getting better at the small things every day and improving.”
Given all that the position requires, it is rare to find someone who can do it all.
In that regard, the Titans’ current division of labor between Stevens and Cook makes perfect sense. Still, it’s folly to think that Cook never delivers a block or that Stevens is incapable of catching a pass.
“They have developed almost to that complete tight end status,” position coach John Zernhelt said. “Craig is an incredibly efficient blocker who has very good speed and is a very dependable route runner for us. Cook, on the other hand, has way above average speed and hands, and his blocking skills have improved drastically over the last few years.”
Still, their roles remain perfectly clear.