Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker may have been absent from Saturday’s practice of Tennessee Titans Training Camp, but he was the biggest story of the day nonetheless.
For the second day in a row, the focus at Saint Thomas Sports Park was a contract extension. This time, everyone wanted to talk about the new contract given to Walker.
When he joined the Titans in 2013, Walker was not the proven commodity that he is today. In his previous seven years in the NFL, all with the San Francisco 49ers, Walker had never topped 350 receiving yards. He had always been a backup player.
Fast forward five years and Walker has become one of the NFL’s premier players at the tight end position. His athleticism and versatility have made him the go-to guy in the Titans offense ever since he arrived.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson rewarded Walker’s production with a new contract on Friday afternoon, less than twelve hours after extending franchise left tackle Taylor Lewan. The new deal will pay Walker an average of $8.5 million over the next two seasons. He will be 36 years old when the contract expires.
Delanie Walker’s teammates and coaches have often used the analogy of a fine wine to describe his ability to improve with age. Arguably the best game of his career came against the Green Bay Packers in the 2016 season, when he was 32 years old.
The Titans were very thin and lacked talent on the outside at wide receiver, but it didn’t matter for the offense. In spite of the Packers’ defense’s best efforts to cover Walker—they triple-teamed him multiple times—he ran wild, finishing the game with 9 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Before turning 30, Delanie Walker played 114 games, gained 2,080 scrimmage yards, and scored 14 touchdowns.
Since turning 30, Delanie Walker has played 61 games, gained 3,630 scrimmage yards, and scored 21 touchdowns.
— Brian Malone (@BrianMaloneFF) July 27, 2018
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel had high praises for his tight end when asked about his ability to get better with age. “He’s taken care of his body, he’s a really good pro. He’s gotten better every year; he’s developed. This is a guy who wasn’t some first-round draft pick and that has been a starter since day one, he’s worked and gotten better every year and continues to do that. He takes great care of his body and football is very important to him.”
Despite his age, Walker is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the Titans offense, thanks to his ability to be a consistent playmaker on the field and to be a vocal leader off of it. When he spoke to the media on Saturday, he made it clear that he knows his role and just how much his teammates and coaches count on him. “I think getting me back, you get a savvy vet that plays the game as hard as he can. Everyone in the locker room respects me, so I think that it shows our team that if you play hard, you will get rewarded.”
Walker’s teammates, however, respect more than just his ability to be a leader. They also admire his on-field ability, and they’re probably glad that they never have to play him in a real game. LB Jayon Brown, who’s faced Walker plenty of times in practice, feels he should definitely be in the same conversation as the NFL’s other elite tight ends.
“He’s one of the best tight ends in the game in my opinion. I say top three between Gronk and Kelce. You could put him at one, two, or three in my opinion. I think he’s one of the best and I’m glad that we extended him and that we have him here to help us score touchdowns.”
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) July 28, 2018
One of the most amazing things about Walker’s success with the Titans is how consistent he has remained in the midst of turmoil. Since joining the team in 2013, Walker has played for four head coaches (Munchak, Whisenhunt, Mularkey, Vrabel). Those head coaches have brought with them four different offensive systems. Yet, Walker’s production has never faltered.
We’ve known for a while that Walker takes good care of his body and maintains a strict regimen to make sure that he is still good to go on Sunday’s at age 34. But on Saturday, we learned some of the little things Walker does on the field to maintain consistency. When I asked him about the keys to his continued success, Walker identified his ability to be constantly locked in and focused.
“Even when I’m not in on a play, I’m always talking to the coaches trying to figure out ‘how can we make that play better.’ And then when I step on the field and I’m in there with the quarterback, I’m always telling Marcus ‘I’ve got your back, I’ll make this happen. Throw it to me and I’ll be there for you.’”
Walker went on to admit that sometimes, he can’t even explain how he’s become a dominating force this late in his career. “I really can’t explain it, I just turn on a switch when I step on the field. I’m just a different person.”
It has been well documented as of late just how inexperienced the Titans are this year at the wide receiver position. If nothing else, those young pass catchers will be able to rely on Walker. His rise from underwhelming free agent acquisition to franchise cornerstone has been fun to watch.
Cover image via Titans Online.