AFC South Reporter
The NFL world is well aware of what DeAndre Hopkins can do for the Titans; how his dynamic receiving ability can lift what was an abysmal passing attack last season. It knows Derrick Henry is still the engine of the team. And it knows what 2022 first-round pick Treylon Burks could be, after a rookie season disrupted by health issues (asthma last spring; turf toe and a concussion during the season) and Hopkins’ presence. Burks left Wednesday’s joint practice with the Vikings with an apparent leg injury, though the severity is unclear.
Chig Okonkwo, however, could be the Tennessee offensive player drawing the most intrigue once the season gets rolling.
“I know that I have a big role on this team this year,” Okonkwo said during the offseason program, “and I embrace that because that’s the type of player I want to be.”
Okonkwo was the Titans’ best offensive weapon last season not named Henry. And as the team’s undisputed TE1 entering 2023, he’s poised for a breakout campaign.
In 17 games last year, the fourth-round pick had 32 receptions for 450 yards (second on the team) and three touchdowns. His receiving yardage led all rookie tight ends in the NFL and set a new franchise record for rookie tight ends.
Among all NFL tight ends with at least 30 targets, he ranked first in yards per reception (14.0), according to Pro Football Focus. His PFF receiving grade (84.6) and overall grade (75.4) ranked second and sixth in the league, respectively, out of the sample size. His production came in just 194 pass snaps last season, dead last of the 43 NFL tight ends who were targeted at least 30 times, per PFF. He also started just eight games.
If the Titans get him the ball more in 2023, Okonkwo has a chance to be one of the NFL’s most productive tight ends. With Hopkins, Henry and Burks all drawing attention, the second-year tight end could see plenty of favorable matchups.
His chemistry with quarterback Ryan Tannehill has grown, too.
“I feel like there’s a lot more trust between us, a lot more familiarity,” Okonkwo said during the offseason program. “Our timing has definitely been a lot better.”
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Okonkwo wants to be one of the greats in the league. Tight end coach Tony Dews gives his players cut-ups of some of the NFL’s best; Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Mark Andrews. Former Titans great Delanie Walker, who was a three-time Pro Bowler with Tennessee, is also featured.
Walker is the player Okonkwo has watched the most so far.
“A lot of guys have different ways of winning,” Okonkwo said last week of pass-catching tight ends. “Not everybody wins the same. Everybody plays to their strengths and what works for them. So for me, it’s just learning that I have to find out what works for me might not work for (George) Kittle, (Travis) Kelce, (Mark) Andrews or Delanie.”
Okonkwo worked on his entire game this offseason.
As a pass-catcher, he wanted to improve on his route craft in man-to-man situations so he could be on the field longer. To get open in short spaces, not depending on his speed as much.
As a blocker, the priority was getting stronger. As a smaller tight end (listed at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds on his Titans bio), he knows the quickness of his get-off and his leverage are pivotal.
“He’s fearless,” Dews said earlier this month. “He’s going to come off the ball and he’s going to give everything he has in terms of being physical. He’s proven that through the course of last season and so far in pads (in training camp). The big thing is continuing to make sure he’s using the proper footwork that you may need in (a) particular play, getting his hands inside (as a blocker) and getting your head in the right place — understanding the concept of each play and where it’s going and where he needs to be.
[Arthur: NFL young talent: No. 27 Titans have aging core but DT Jeffery Simmons leads next wave]
“He’s continued to work on that and obviously, we’re never perfect,” Dews continued. “But you don’t ever reach perfection if you don’t strive for it.”
Okonkwo has also stepped up as the leader of the Titans tight-end room, according to coaches. As a second-year player, he’s been a resource for the rookies. He has stressed the importance of special teams, where he made his initial impact last season.
Okonkwo has a “contagious” smile, per offensive coordinator Tim Kelly.
“There’s a personality to him,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “There’s an energy to him. I think that’s what we need each and every day. I think that’s what that room needs each and every day.”
Being a leader means bigger expectations.
What does that mean from a production standpoint for Okonkwo?
“Just go out there and play with confidence,” he said, “and we’ll see what the numbers say at the end of the year.”
By then, he could be considered a top-flight tight end.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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