NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Titans are hoping some quick, young legs and a pair of proven hands will return the team’s tight-end group to one of the NFL’s more productive units.
The tight ends were a prime piece of the offensive foundation in 2020, when Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim and MyCole Pruitt combined for 94 catches (sixth-best among NFL tight-end groups), 967 yards (ninth-best) and 12 touchdowns (third-best).
But when Smith left to New England and Firkser failed to improve his performance, the Titans didn’t get anywhere near the same tight-end production in 2021.
The totals for Tennessee’s tight ends fell to 82 catches (14th-best among NFL tight-end groups), 667 yards (24th-best); and eight touchdowns (tied for eighth-best).
Even when the Titans got the ball to their tight ends – Firkser, Swaim, Pruitt and Tommy Hudson – the gains were not impressive. That group averaged just 8.26 yards per catch in 2021 (31st in the NFL), more than two yards below the 10.29-yard average of 2020 (18th in the NFL).
Enter rookie Chig Okonkwo, a fourth-round draft pick in the recent 2022 NFL Draft, and veteran Austin Hooper.
The Titans are hoping Okonkwo’s breakout senior season at Maryland – 52 catches for 447 yards and five touchdowns – is a sign of things to come. His overall average per catch (9.3) wasn’t a huge eye-opener. But Okonkwo’s 4.51 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine – fastest among all tight ends there – and the fact he’ll have a better receiving cast around him in the NFL should give Okonkwo the opportunity to create some mismatch issues.
“Okonkwo is speed,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson said. “Stretched the seam vertical (at Maryland), get the ball in his hands.”
Added Okonkwo: “There’s so much speed involved in the game now. You want a tight end who can win those matchups, and I feel like I’m that person who can win those matchups and beat people with speed and just make plays for us.”
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As has become clear under coach Mike Vrabel, Titans tight ends must show some ability to block before they get receiving opportunities.
The 6-foot-3, 238-pound Okoknwo won’t ever be a road-grader at the position, but Robinson thinks his blocking skills will suffice, noting that Okonkwo fared well against some of the Terps’ tougher opponents in 2021.
“I’m not saying he drove his guy 15 or 20 yards, but he occupied his guy long enough so that (the defender) didn’t impact the play,” Robinson said. “There were good players that he was kind of fit up on, and he was able to stay engaged with those guys, keep their feet moving, keep his feet moving, so that the defender really didn’t factor in the play. I think if you can — as a tight end — if you can kind of do that, then that’s usually a win for the offense.”
The 27-year-old Hooper brings the kind of pass-catching resume that the Titans haven’t had in the tight-end room since Delanie Walker last played in 2019.
His name doesn’t necessarily resonate like some other tight ends around the league, but since entering the NFL in 2016, the 6-foot-4, 254-pound Hooper ranks fourth among all tight ends in catches (298), 10th in yards (3,024 yards) and 11th in touchdowns (23).
He made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and 2019 with Atlanta, averaging 73 catches over those two seasons.
“He is competitive at the point of attack,” Robinson said. “He is a smart route runner. He is crafty. He has good catch skills. He has good size.”
Swaim also returns after recording career highs of 31 catches and three touchdowns. With the additions of Hooper and Okonkwo, Swaim likely won’t be targeted as often as he was in the passing game last season. But his receiving and blocking skills still help the round out the room, making the tight-end unit as a whole look much better than it did heading into the offseason.
“I’m excited about looking at and watching that position group come together,” Robinson said. “I think they all kind of have a little different skillset, and they hopefully will play off each other. Skills to give us a couple of different looks that teams will have to try to defend.”