Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans hoping added weapons at tight end can revamp pass game

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown 25 of his 76 touchdown passes to tight ends since 2019. Mark Humphrey/AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As the Tennessee Titans draw closer to training camp, one of the biggest questions about their offense revolves around the passing game's success.

There will be a new cast of characters catching passes from quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whose 14 interceptions last season were the second most of his career.

Tannehill lost his top target when the Titans traded wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles on draft night. In fact, Tannehill will be without four of his top five pass-catchers from last season.

To combat that, Tennessee acquired veteran receiver Robert Woods in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams this offseason and took former Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks with the No. 18 pick in the 2022 NFL draft shortly after the Brown trade was announced.

While Woods and Burks figure to be top options for Tannehill in the upcoming season, a couple of under-the-radar moves should also have an impact.

Tennessee bolstered its tight end room by signing Austin Hooper to a one-year, $6.5 million deal and using one of its fourth-round picks to select Maryland's Chigoziem Okonkwo. The onboarding process started as soon as Tannehill got on the field with his new group of playmakers.

Tannehill and Hooper made the most of their time on the field during OTAs and minicamp by getting extra reps in during down periods of practice when the focus was on special teams. Tannehill said he is still getting to know Hooper off the field and as a pass-catcher during practice.

"Just reading his body language, how he comes in and out of breaks," Tannehill said. "There are little things that you probably don't notice from the outside that I can file away and learn from. He's got such a savvy feel for running routes, his route craft, and how he's able to use his size/quickness at the top of the routes to get open. You gotta see it a few times, whether it's on tape or in person. That way we're on the same page and I can anticipate where he's going to be."

Hooper would start reps right before the point where he makes his break while Tannehill throws it to the spot he needs to get to.

"Like any other relationship, it comes with reps," Hooper said. "I'd definitely say we're further along than we were months ago. It's huge being a new guy here with a new quarterback."

Added Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing: "They take advantage of the extra time they have to work some one-on-one situations."

Since taking over as the starter in Week 6 of the 2019 season, 24% of Tannehill's targets have gone to tight ends, according to ESPN Stats & Information. More importantly, 25 of Tannehill's 76 touchdown passes over that span have gone to tight ends.

Tannehill takes the initiative to show the tight ends and receivers exactly how he wants them to tweak their routes against different coverages during the offensive install period of practice. He's also in constant communication with his pass-catchers after reps during practice.

The details are especially important in the red zone, where there is a lot less room to operate. That's where the tight ends play a crucial role in the Titans' red zone offense that has been among the top five in touchdown scoring percentage over the last three seasons.

All 25 of Tannehill's touchdown passes to the tight ends have come in the red zone. Tennessee's 74.2 red zone scoring percentage in 2020 was second only to the Green Bay Packers (76.8%). Former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith was Tannehill's favorite red zone target that season, when he hauled in eight touchdowns.

Last season without Smith, the Titans finished fifth with a 63.9 red zone scoring percentage, and Tannehill's passing production was down from 3,819 yards passing and 33 passing touchdowns in 2020 to 3,734 yards and 21 passing touchdowns last season (and that includes an additional game).

Tennessee hopes to rediscover similar red zone success this season with Okonkwo, whose stature (6-foot-2, 244 pounds) and versatile play style have drawn comparisons to Smith. Okonkwo had a solid showing at minicamp, where he caught four touchdown passes during two days of 7-on-7 work in the red zone.

Tannehill found Okonkwo on a diving catch in the corner of the end zone, in traffic across the middle, and another time when the rookie broke open on a QB rollout. Those three connections will help build Tannehill's trust in Okonkwo and help build a connection that could lead to more visits to the end zone in the upcoming season.

"I’m proud of the way [Okonkwo has] come in, learned what to do, and we’ll continue to push him on that," Tannehill said. "But just physically, to see his size, his strength, his speed, how he’s able to play through contact, he definitely gives us another weapon."