Tuesday August 2nd, 2016

The rankings

The SI rankBeller: No. 6 TE, No. 78 overall Fitz: No. 5 TE, No. 67 overall |
The consensus rank— No. 5 TE, No. 72 overall

The skinny

It might not be taken as a compliment if we referred to Delanie Walker as the Betty White of tight ends, but the 10-year veteran is enjoying a remarkably prolific late-career run.

Walker led all tight ends in targets and receptions last season, catching 94 of the 133 throws that came his way. He finished ninth among all pass catchers (WRs and RBs included) in receptions last year and became just the ninth TE in NFL history to record 90 or more catches in a single season. He tied Greg Olsen for fourth in fantasy scoring among tight ends last season, finishing fewer than 10 points behind Gary Barnidge and Jordan Reed but well behind his highness Rob Gronkowski, who still sits atop the Iron Throne. Hitting the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, Walker finished with 1,088 yards, trailing only Gronkowski and Olsen among his positional peers.

This is heady stuff for a guy who spent his first seven NFL seasons as an afterthought in the 49ers’ offense, playing second fiddle to fellow TE Vernon Davis. Walker never had more than 29 catches in any season in San Francisco, but he’s flourished since joining the Titans in 2013. He had 60 catches for 571 yards and six TDs in his first season with Tennessee, finished with 63-890-4 in 2014, and then tore the roof off last year.

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Coming off a career season, Walker is a coveted asset in 2016 fantasy drafts. His average draft position is TE6, and the experts tracked by FantasyPros.com give him a consensus ranking of TE5. But should we be worried about a letdown?

There is an age cliff to worry about, as there is with any NFL player who enjoys success in the golden years of his career. Walker turns 32 on Aug. 12. Over the last 25 years, there have been only 20 instances in which a tight end who was 32 or older had 600 or more receiving yards, and Tony Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe account for 10 of those 20.

Walker caught 70.7% of his targets last season—a sky-high catch rate that seems destined to regress. But Walker has caught 66.8% of his targets during his three years in Tennessee, so it seems unlikely that his catch rate will completely crater. His target total, however, could take a substantial hit.

The Titans’ brain trust is promising to roll out something it’s branding as an “exotic smashmouth” offense. No one outside the organization can explain what will make it exotic. (Palm trees? Piña coladas?) The “smashmouth” part seems pretty clear though, and it doesn’t exactly portend big passing numbers. The Titans ranked 23rd in offensive pace last season, 28th in rushing attempts and 21st in passing attempts. If the offense becomes more run-heavy and continues to operate at a sluggish pace, the Titans could rank near the bottom of the league in pass attempts.

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To at least some degree, a fantasy wager on Walker is a wager against the Titans’ wide receivers, and particularly the enigmatic Dorial Green-Beckham. DGB is a remarkable physical specimen with a boatload of untapped potential, but he has a history of poor decisions and a questionable work ethic. If he applies himself, Green-Beckham could realistically become a top-20 receiver, and if it were to happen this year, Walker would see nothing close to the 133 targets he had last year. Walker’s target total could also be reduced by a breakout year from Titans newcomer Rishard Matthews, a popular sleeper in some circles, or a rebound year from onetime high-volume receiver Kendall Wright.

It should also be mentioned that Walker has never been a prominent touchdown scorer. His six TDs last season tied a career high. For his career, he’s scored on 7.0% of his receptions.

Now that we’ve considered some of the negatives, here’s a big reason to be optimistic about Walker’s 2016 outlook. After the Titans fired Ken Whisenhunt and named Mike Mularkey interim head coach on Nov. 3 of last year, Walker averaged a whopping 9.9 targets over the Titans’ last nine games, catching 59 passes for 727 yards and five TDs over that stretch. The Titans ditched the “interim” tag for Mularkey and officially made him the head coach, which would seem to bode well for Walker. (It’s worth noting that Mularkey is a former tight end himself.)

Another positive for Walker: QB Marcus Mariota played well as a rookie and has already developed a nice rapport with his tight end. If Mariota is even better in his second year and can stay healthy for the entire campaign—he missed four games last season—Walker will be positioned for another fine season.

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The prediction

A bit of statistical slippage seems inevitable, but Walker is apt to remain a vital part of the Titans’ offense. Expect his target total to drop from 133 to something in the 100-110 range. Projecting a 66% catch rate and a duplication of the 11.6 yards per catch that Walker averaged last year, we’d get 69 catches for 800 yards. And recent history suggests that he’ll be good for about 5-6 TDs. Walker would remain squarely in TE1 territory with those numbers, though the expected drop-off in volume suggests he’s being drafted at an ADP that represents something close to his ceiling.

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