NASHVILLE — Upgrading the tight end position was among the top priorities for general manager Jon Robinson this past Spring. Signing veteran Austin Hooper and drafting Chig Okonkwo in the fourth round last month immediately did so for the Tennessee Titans.
Yes, before either of them has even played a snap in their new uniform.
Three different offensive coordinators have coached under Mike Vrabel since his hiring by Tennessee in 2018. Matt LaFleur was saddled with an oft-injured Marcus Mariota at quarterback, but stayed true to the team’s personnel values. Arthur Smith, with quarterback Ryan Tannehill at the helm, was able to take it to the next level and transformed Tennessee’s offense into one of the most effective and efficient in the league.
The latest additions of Hooper and Okonkwo may well give current coordinator Todd Downing the tools he needs to succeed.
Hooper and Okonkwo represent a return to form
Both LaFleur and Smith went on to become head coaches in the NFL after their stints with the Titans.
During their time here, both stuck to a certain core identity that was in line with recent offensive football trends. According to Sports Info Solutions, LaFleur ran 12 personnel in some form (2 TEs, 2 WRs) on 29% of the Titans offensive snaps. It was the 3rd highest usage rate of that personnel grouping in the league during the 2018 season and proved effective 76% of the time LeFleur ran it.
Smith upped the ante when it came to two tight end sets.
in 2019, the then-Tennessee play-caller used 12 personnel on 30% of his plays (5th). That number went to 34% in 2020 with an additional 10% of snaps coming in 21 personnel. 21 is defined as two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers on the field. The versatility provided by that season’s tight end group of Jonnu Smith, MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser allowed for tight ends out of the backfield for more creative looks.
With Pruitt, a diminished Firkser and Geoff Swaim as the options in 2021, running the same offense was not possible for Downing. The hope is that Hooper and Okonkwo with Swaim as a third option, the Titans can return to form.
Downing can make the Titans offense better
On face value, the 2022 collection of skill position players might be a net improvement over what Tennessee trotted out last season.
Downing, however, knows he has to remain adaptable.
“I definitely learned last year that you don’t want to bank too much on a certain personnel grouping, because you don’t know who is going to be available,” Downing said last week. “We’re fortunate to add Austin (Hooper). He’s another veteran guy that brings a lot of savvy. We’ll be looking for ways to highlight his skillset.”
The lack of ability by the Titans tight ends, among other things, contributed to the drop in efficiency.
Downing increased the usage of three wide receiver sets to 57% last season. While it was well below league average (23rd), it was the highest usage rate of that personnel grouping by a Tennessee offense since 2018 and nearly a 20% jump year-over-year. The result was a labored effort on that side of the ball, bogged down further by injuries and protection issues.
Okonkwo and Hooper cannot fix all of those issues, but both represent progress in the right direction.
Featured Image: USA TODAY Sports.