Secret Superstar: Taylor Thompson
Tennessee’s offense struggled for much of last season, which ultimately culminated in offensive coordinator Chris Palmer’s firing on November 26. The unit finished in the bottom third of the league in points, as well as passing and rushing offense. While you could push culpability on the stunted growth and injuries to second-year quarterback Jake Locker, head coach Mike Munchak knows exactly where the blame lies.
While Locker is undoubtedly in a make-or-break season, Munchak, a Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman, saw 10 players receive at least 100 snaps on the offensive line last season. With solid contributors in Fernando Velasco at center, Michael Roos at left tackle, and David Stewart at right tackle, it was clear the Titans needed upgrades at their two guard positions. After signing Andy Levitre to a big money deal in free agency and selecting a mauler of a guard prospect in Chance Warmack in the draft, Munchak has to feel better about his offensive line.
Although the line is upgraded, Munchak is still looking for capable two-way tight ends. Athletic playmaker Jared Cook was never fully utilized in the Titans’ offense because he couldn’t block. Cook took off for St. Louis in free agency, but Tennessee picked up versatile tight end Delanie Walker. Regardless, Cook and primary blocking tight end Craig Stevens were both losing snaps last season to a rookie who never played a snap at tight end in college: Taylor Thompson.
Converted Defensive End
After being selected in the fifth round in 2012 out of Southern Methodist University, the Titans immediately began converting the 6-foot-6, 290-pounder to tight end. As early as rookie minicamp in 2012, The Sporting News reported, “Thompson showed elite athleticism similar to New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski.” Although that’s obviously the highest possible ceiling a tight end these days can get, the ringing endorsement is a compliment to his tremendous size and athleticism.
The Titans naturally brought him along slowly last season after playing exclusively at defensive end for four years at SMU. He saw single-digit snaps in each of the first three weeks, but as he picked up more of the offense he started to play more. As a willing blocker, he offered Chris Palmer and later, Dowell Loggains more versatility than Jared Cook. He still had to contend with Craig Stevens, so Thompson never saw over 40% of the Titans’ offensive snaps in a single game until the final week of the season, when he saw 54 out of 55 snaps.
However, Thompson didn’t get many chances to catch passes. Of his 265 snaps, just 31% came on a play where he went out for a pass. Additionally, of his 12 targets, just four came 10+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Clearly, the Titans used kid gloves to ease their young tight end into the offense. That could change with an entirely new offense and a make-or-break season for the coach and quarterback.
Last week, The Tennessean reported that OC Dowell Loggains threw out the Titans’ playbook in the offseason. “It’s just a new playbook. There’s nothing leftover from last year,” said second-year receiver Kendall Wright. While there is plenty of speculation about the various influences and philosophies that Loggains will be drawing from, the NFL has always been a copycat league.
General Manager Ruston Webster signed Delanie Walker, who played extensively in the 49ers’ pistol attack that excelled when Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith in the second half of the 2012 season. Jake Locker’s skill-set — specifically his big arm and good mobility — could theoretically excel in a pistol offense. Behind a much-improved offensive line, why wouldn’t Loggains want to feature two versatile tight ends?
Throw in Walker’s +2.5 run-blocking grade, and Thompson’s absurd +7.3 run-blocking grade on just 173 snaps, and the Titans’ rushing attack could take off even if Chris Johnson is on the downside of his career, and Shonn Greene has zero elusiveness. With a healthy Kenny Britt, a second-year leap from Kendall Wright, and rookie Justin Hunter, the Titans offer enough outside weapons to leave the middle of the field open for the athletic Thompson to exploit on play-action. Additionally, with his “Gronk-esque” size and athleticism, Thompson has the potential to be a dynamite red-zone weapon.
Although it remains to be seen what the Titans’ offensive philosophy will be in 2013, Taylor Thompson should be a difference-maker on the field.