NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker made a statement when he stepped onto the football field in Week 2 of the preseason on Saturday. It was the first time he had played -- that's 343 days between games -- since a gruesome ankle injury in the 2018 season opener against the Dolphins landed him on injured reserve. Whether the 35-year-old Walker could return to his pre-injury form was one of the main questions facing the Titans this offseason.
Those doubts intensified Walker's already ultra-competitive spirit. He made it his mission to prove everyone wrong.
“I always say that I am motivated every year, but coming off an injury like that and then me being 35 going into next season, I’ll be extra motivated," Walker said via the team website in April. "I feel like this is the year I need to show everyone I came back from an injury, I’m 35, and I am still the best tight end in the NFL."
Mock drafts were suggesting the Titans might select a tight end in the first round to replace Walker. The idea didn't go unnoticed by Walker, who in 2015 posted the most recent 1,000-yard receiving season by a Titan. Walker didn't pull any punches when he was asked about the suggestion of bringing in a young tight end to take his place.
"The NFL disrespects me all of the time saying I am too old and I can't do it. It doesn't bother me," Walker said at teammate Ben Jones' celebrity clay shooting event in June. "If they drafted a tight end, he still wouldn't have played. He wouldn't have beat me for my spot. I like when they have mock drafts because most of these dudes have never played football and don't know what they're talking about. I'm still here."
The Titans showed faith in Walker by not drafting a tight end. Head coach Mike Vrabel and the team's training staff implemented a management program for Walker that resembles the way the Toronto Raptors managed Kawhi Leonard's practice and game participation to allow him to gradually recover from a quad injury that cost him all of the 2017 season. The Titans are resting Walker a lot during camp to make sure they have him fresh and ready to go for the regular season.
Vrabel credited Walker for going along with whatever plan the staff wanted him to follow for maintenance days.
Walker lobbied hard for a chance to play in the preseason game against the Patriots and get back on the field with his quarterback. Since 2015, Walker and Mariota have combined to average 71.2 receptions, 831.2 yards and 5.2 touchdowns per season. It's no coincidence that Walker was on the receiving end of Marcus Mariota's first pass for a first down on Saturday and first touchdown pass of the preseason.
Having Walker back is a tremendous boost for Mariota, who likes to find Walker. From 2015-17, Mariota's first three seasons in the league, no other Titans pass-catcher came close to the 346 targets and 2,695 receiving yards Walker had.
"It’s nice seeing 82 out there," Mariota said. "Again, it’s a privilege to play with somebody like that. We’ve been together now for five years, and that guy continues to make plays game in and game out. He’s just fun to play with, and he makes my job easy."
"I feel like this is the year I need to show everyone I came back from an injury, I'm 35, and I am still the best tight end in the NFL." Titans TE Delanie Walker
Walker attacked his rehab this offseason by running on an anti-gravity treadmill early in the process. A chicken and broccoli-based diet helped him slim down to put less stress on the ankle. Even though he is older, the leaner Walker looks quicker on the field. He's smoother in and out of his breaks.
There aren't many tight ends who present the versatility Walker brings. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Walker caught 91 passes on 143 targets from 2016-17 when lined up in the slot or out wide. Among tight ends, only Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz caught more passes in the slot or out wide, and only Kelce was targeted more frequently.
This extra motivated version of Walker could spell even more trouble for teams looking to stop the Titans this season.
"They got dudes that ain't even played a snap in the NFL ranked higher than me," Walker said. "That's just ridiculous. I've been doing this for 14 years. The disrespect. That's like someone coming in my face and disrespecting me. I look at that and take it. I feed off of it. It makes me hungry. That's why I strive to come back 10 times better than I've ever been. I am going to show everybody this year."