Craig Stevens is quick to say that he is willing to do whatever is asked of him. For a tight end in the National Football League, there are plenty of possibilities.
Apparently, though, he won’t have to do everything.
The sixth-year veteran has been noticeably absent from the Tennessee Titans’ passing game through the first two weeks of the preseason. He’s not the only one.
In losses to Washington and Cincinnati, starting quarterback Jake Locker has thrown exactly one pass to the tight ends. Of his 31 attempts through nearly four full quarters, 22 have been to wide receivers and eight to running backs.
That made Monday’s move of free agent Delanie Walker from the physically unable to perform list to the active roster such a critical point in the preparation for this season.
Walker, who took part in team drills Tuesday, never has caught as many as 30 passes in seven NFL seasons (all with San Francisco) but it stands to reason that he is a key piece of the short-to-intermediate passing game the Titans plan to feature.
“If [Walker] is there, yeah, we’ll probably do more with [him],” coach Mike Munchak said. “… But no, there hasn’t been a focus not to throw to [to the tight ends]. It’s just worked out to where they haven’t caught any balls yet.”
Under any circumstances, that is out of character for this team.
In the Titans era (since 1999) a tight end has led the team in receptions three times (Frank Wycheck twice, Bo Scaife once) and in all but two of those seasons (2010 and 2012) at least one finished among the top three in catches.
The height of the tight ends’ prominence in the offense was 2005 when Erron Kinney and Ben Troupe caught 55 passes each (second only to wide receiver Drew Bennett) and Scaife added 37. At the time, their combined total (plus two from Gregg Guenther) was the second highest in league history for tight ends on one team.
That also was the last of George Henshaw’s nine-year run as tight ends coach. Munchak brought back Henshaw this season as part of an offseason overhaul of the staff with the idea that the tight ends would be more involved in the passing game.
“He brings so much knowledge,” Stevens said of Henshaw. “He’s just such a smart guy and it’s great he can relay that to us. He really is. He seems like an offensive coordinator. He’s got great knowledge of the game.”
Stevens has built a reputation as one of the NFL’s best blocking tight ends but last season he caught a career-high 23 passes (two more than in his first four seasons combined) for 275 yards.
That, plus the free agent departure of Jared Cook seemed and the arrival of Henshaw looked to have poised for even more passes to come his way. Thus far, though, Locker has looked elsewhere.
“I’ll do whatever the team wants me to do, and I think I’m improving in the passing game too,” Stevens said. “I had my best year last year and I’m just getting better. … Whatever they want me to do in my role, I’m OK with that.”