Kinney quietly making most of contract year

Tuesday, December 23, 2003 at 1:00am

If you are the boss of a company, you want Erron Kinney as one of your employees.

Sure, having a 6-5, 285-pound behemoth around would do wonders for your own personal security, but where the fourth-year Titans tight end's value really lies is in his work ethic.

Just ask his current boss, Jeff Fisher.

"Erron is a guy who goes about very quietly doing his job and does it right almost all of the time," said the Titans coach. "He has improved significantly as a blocker and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He rarely makes a mistake and is just an easily coachable guy."

In the tight end era of Jeremy Shockeys and Kellen Winslow Jrs., Kinney is indeed a rare breed. He is setting personal career highs in every major statistical category this season, but SportsCenter anchors aren't drooling over his highlights. He's caught a pair of touchdown passes in the past two gut-wrenching wins, yet no game balls are being tossed his way. His contract expires at the end of the season, but Kinney has yet to utter one word publicly about his value.

What gives?

"That's just not me," says Kinney. "I'm not flashy, and I don't want the attention. I take nothing away from those guys, but I'm here for one reason and that's to do whatever it takes to help this team win."

So far, what that's meant has been catching 38 balls (third-highest on the team) for 357 yards and three touchdowns, all career bests. Kinney, along with Shad Meier, ensured the Titans didn't skip a beat when veteran Frank Wycheck was sidelined seven games with a concussion. Thrown into the fire basically since his rookie season of 2000, Kinney has always played but not to the extent he's of what's been asked this season.

"I've been put in a good situation this year, being able to get the ball more and being put into the position to make plays," said Kinney. "I've accomplished some goals that I set out, but as a professional, you can never be satisfied. I'm pleased with the improvements that I've made, but I'm not ready to stop working yet."

Of course, receiving is just one aspect of a tight end's game and Kinney has continued to improve his blocking since being drafted out of the University of Florida. Titans tight ends coach George Henshaw said he's been most impressed with Kinney's ability to "chip" or assist the offensive tackle in containing the opposing defense's outside speed rusher.

"Erron looks at a game plan and asks, 'What can I do to help the team win this week?' He knows that doesn't always involve catching a lot of passes, but he's still more than willing," Henshaw said. "The dependability and consistency Erron possesses is what separates him from other tight ends."

An inflated paycheck may also put Kinney in a class of his own soon, as his original contract with the Titans expires this season. As an unrestricted free agent, Kinney will be allowed to test the open market to assess his value. With Wycheck's possible retirement at the end of the season, Kinney seems like a natural choice to become the team's No. 1 tight end, but the cap-strapped Titans may not be able to afford him.

Wycheck says Kinney can't worry about that.

"He's got to look out for Erron Kinney and his family," said Wycheck. "In this business, you have to go out there and get what you're worth. He owes it to himself to go out and look around at what his market value is. He has earned that right."

But it's a right that Kinney will grudgingly pursue. A quiet, family guy, Kinney has planted roots in Middle Tennessee. His offseason is spent as a member of the Willamson County Rescue Squad and as deputy chief of the Shady Grove Fire Department in Hickman County. He is popular among teammates, and the coaches love the example he sets for the younger players. He's even shown glimpses of the sort of on-field chemistry with quarterback Steve McNair that Wycheck made famous.

"I don't really like the business aspect of this game," admits Kinney. "I wish you could just lock in with one team and get what you want. The business part is difficult because I've got relationships I've built here, my family has relationships they've built here and there's a chance I won't be here after this season's over. But while I am here, I'm trying to make the most of it."

The Titans may not be able to afford Kinney, but the question is can the Titans afford to lose him?

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