The AFC North is the division that boasts the best tight ends in the league with Jordan Cameron, Heath Miller, Dennis Pitta, Jermaine Gresham, Owen Daniels, and Tyler Eifert, but the AFC South could become well-known for their tight end talent soon. Although the division currently lacks any truly big names at the position, there are three clear breakout candidates worth watching closely next season, and these three players are breakout candidates of varying degrees.
Dwayne Allen is a pretty obvious breakout candidate, and he would have had a big year last season had he not suffered a season-ending hip injury very early in the year. That was the only thing preventing him from possibly entrenching himself as a top ten tight end in this league, because he’s one of those rare, young players who can make a huge impact as a pass-catcher or a blocker. Allen caught a promising 45 receptions for 521 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, but those numbers are even more impressive once you consider that he had a 70% catch rate and, per the Pro Football Focus, averaged 5.7 yards after the catch per reception. Those are both exceptional numbers that speak to his consistency as a pass-catcher, as well as his ability to make something happen with the ball in his hands.
There’s little doubt that Allen can become a star in his third season in the league, but his best asset isn’t his pass-catching ability; he looks poised to become one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. Teammate Coby Fleener may be a bigger name at this point and has the kind of athleticism that makes him a solid threat in the passing game, but Allen is even better, especially when you look at his ability to flat-out dominate as a run blocker. Trent Richardson averaged very little yards per carry for the Colts last year, but he forced a large volume of missed tackles and will certainly benefit from having an athletic TE who can also bring it in the running game.
Allen isn’t the only two-way tight end worth keeping a close eye on next season, as Delanie Walker could also enter the realm of tight end stardom as the position gains more recognition, importance, and quality. Walker will play under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Jason Michael, and both former San Diego Chargers coaches are very TE friendly and have high hopes- and regard- for Walker’s ability.
Walker had a nice, lengthy run with the San Francisco 49ers as star Vernon Davis‘s backup, and he made a significant impact as a blocker and in the red zone. But in 2013 in his first season with the Tennessee Titans, Walker started to make a name for himself, especially when finally given the opportunity to flourish as a receiver. He hauled in a hefty 60 receptions for 571 yards as a standard chain-mover in a rather vanilla offense, and he continued to make a big impact in the red/end zone with six TDs.
One of the most consistent tight ends in the league last year, Walker caught an impressive 69.8% of everything thrown at him, and he was a big safety net for quarterbacks Jake Locker and Ryan Fitzpatrick. He only averaged 9.5 yards per reception, but I think the Titans passing attack will be more aggressive next season under Whisenhunt, and that will allow both Kendall Wright and Walker to generate more yards per catch. The Titans made things easier for Locker last season to help his accuracy issues, but the strong-armed QB looks poised to be challenged more often in a make-or-break year, and I’m willing to bet that the Titans will try and use his arm more often.
Even if that isn’t the case, sheer volume of targets will help Walker garner more national attention. When I say “breakout” with Walker, I’m talking about attention here, because it’s clear that this guy deserves more of it. He also deserves more than the meager 86 targets he was afforded last year. The Titans have a nice group of pass-catchers on their hands, but they will feed their talented players the ball more often. That means Walker should surpass triple digit targets, and he’s deserving of it given his high catch rate. Walker will be featured more in the Titans offense, and that will help him reach new heights, especially when it comes to recognition. Because at this point, both he and Allen have already proven to those watching that they have the ability.
The Houston Texans have arguably the most underrated tight end grouping in the NFL, as they have the steady vet in Garrett Graham, the intriguing two-way rookie in C.J. Fiedorowicz (great blocker, good upside as a receiver), and a potential difference-maker in the passing game in second-year pro Ryan Griffin.
A seventh-round pick out of UConn last year, the 6’6″, 254-pound Griffin has a skill-set worth keeping in mind, and he has the kind of athleticism to supplant Graham and hold off Fiedorowicz as the leader of the passing attack at tight end. The Texans have big question marks at quarterback, but their other skill positions are strengths. Andre Johnson (I doubt he gets traded, but we’ll see if the Texans are forced to give in) and DeAndre Hopkins form a very talented WR duo, and the same can be said of the running back combo of Arian Foster and Andre Brown.
I worry that the Texans quarterback play will be too poor to afford Griffin the chance to break out, but he’s definitely a true darkhorse among these three. Allen and Walker are easy picks who are solely underrated on a national scale, so it’s Griffin who is a true diamond in the rough. But when presented the opportunity to be the Texans TE2 when Daniels went down and Graham moved up to the No. 2 spot, Griffin flashed by converting 19 receptions into 244 yards on a meager 28 targets. For those keeping track, that’s a 67.9% catch rate and an average of 8.7 yards per target despite poor QB play. He had 14 receptions for 177 yards in the final three games of the season, and he deserves more opportunities to show his talents next year. If you are looking for a deep sleeper, then Griffin is your man. If he doesn’t break out, then it also might be because Fiedorowicz had a huge rookie year, as he’s also a name worth circling.