Tight end Delanie Walker led the Tennessee Titans in receiving last season with 74 receptions for 807 yards.
He was also the oldest player on the team to catch a pass in 2017.
Walker, who joined the Titans in 2013 after seven seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, has made the Pro-Bowl in three straight seasons. His five years in Nashville have been the best years of his career.
Eventually, the Titans will have to move on from Walker. But how far away is that day?
Well, we can’t know for sure. But there are a few things we can look at that might give us a good idea of what to expect.
Walker hasn’t taken as many hits as some of the other top tight ends in the NFL that have played well into their 30’s.
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who will turn 36 prior to the 2018 season, has 1,152 career receptions.
Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who will turn 38 before the 2018 season starts, has 927 career receptions.
Walker, by comparison, has only 479 receptions. That’s far less hits that Walker has absorbed.
When Does The Decline Start For Elite Tight Ends?
Over the first 12 years of Gates’ career, he averaged 834 yards a season. But in 2015, when Gates turned 35, his production took a significant downturn. Over the last three seasons, Gates has averaged only 498 yards a season.
It’s worth nothing that Gates has missed seven games over the last three seasons, but that’s to be expected when you’re playing football deep into your 30’s.
Still, it’s clear that Gates’ career entered a notable decline when he turned 35.
But how about Witten?
Witten averaged 862 yards a season over the first 13 years of his career. Over the last two years, however, Witten has averaged only 616 yards a season. A lot of that could be due to Witten no longer player with Tony Romo and instead playing with Dak Prescott. But then again, Witten did have 980 receiving yards as a second year player on a 6-10 team with Vinny Testaverde as his quarterback.
With that in mind, I’m going to associate Witten’s downtick in production more with his age than who is throwing passes to him.
What Does It Mean For Walker?
Witten started his decline at age 34, while Gates started his at 35.
Walker will turn 34 just before the start of the 2018 season. Thanks to his light usage early in his career, I think Walker has at least one more season left as a Pro-Bowl caliber tight end. Beyond that, I don’t think the Titans can count on the same type of production from Walker they’ve grown accustomed to receiving.
The goods new for Tennessee, however, is they shouldn’t need Walker to be a Pro-Bowl caliber tight end to be successful in 2018 and beyond.
Obviously the Titans still need to receive solid production from Walker and the tight end position in 2018. But the bulk of production in the passing game is expected to come from second year wide receiver Corey Davis.
The former Western Michigan standout will enter the 2018 season, hopefully, fully healthy.
Not only does Davis have the potential to become Marcus Mariota’s go-to receiver, he should also take pressure off Walker in the passing game.
The Titans definitely need to start making longterm plans at the tight end position, but they should still expect another solid season out of Walker in 2018.
Anything after that, though, will be a bonus.
Featured image via Sports Illustrated