The Titans are a weird team to try to read as interesting, especially through the lens of fantasy football. They're a tough, power-heavy team that controls the trenches and gives Derrick Henry a volume workload. Ryan Tannehill's receiving corps is so bereft of talent that the team generates little explosive passing offense outside of play-action passes. The Titans have 823 play-action pass yards per SportsRadar this year, sixth in the NFL, despite running them a surprisingly low 73 times this season. Now, part of that number is because Tennessee has only thrown 339 times this year -- 30th place in the NFL, and part of that is also because Malik Willis started two games in which he attempted 26 total passes -- but 36% of the team's passing yards this year have come on those 73 play-action pass plays.
This is a long-winded way of saying that control of Tennessee's most valuable and explosive plays runs through who is targeted on play-action. Rookie fourth-rounder Chigoziem Okonkwo has captured some of those targets in a way that reminds us of the role that Jonnu Smith inhabited with the Titans. Smith averaged 42 targets a season for the Titans, but turned out 11.4 yards per reception on those and scored 16 times in four years. Okonkwo has four games left, is on pace for 40 targets, has two touchdowns, and is averaging ... 15.2 yards per reception.
Normally, this kind of unremarkable, low-target pattern wouldn't make much of an impact on the fantasy landscape. But this is tight end in 2022, a position so bereft of fantasy production that Taysom Hill is in the top three scorers, that Evan Engram's monster Week 14 game made him TE5 on the season almost all on its own, and where Dallas Goedert, Zach Ertz, and David Njoku are still in the top 12 despite missing several games.
So let's discuss the Chig Okonkwo's role ... and the fact that it's expanding.
Okonkwo's targets have gone up over the past three weeks
Okonkwo is actually third amongst Titans tight ends in snaps on the season, behind both Geoff Swaim and Austin Hooper. Over the past two games, though, Swaim's role has decreased from his almost-always 60% or more of the snaps to 20 and 17 snaps respectively. Swaim is dealing with an injury, or so Vrabel said in his Monday presser. Okonkwo doesn't look to be making much of a move in raw snap count, but that's mostly because the Titans sat on the Packers so badly that they often played 3 TE sets. That 30-snap game was an outlier, whereas the last two weeks feel more like a movement towards Okonkwo.
It must be pointed out that Okonkwo's huge trend up over the past two games has been accompanied by Treylon Burks getting concussed early against the Eagles. Okonkwo, in fact, didn't have a target until Burks left Week 13's game. (Granted, it was early.) Burks is a major threat to Okonkwo's role because he, too, sucks up these play-action targets that we're trying to take advantage of. I imagine you won't have the luxury of figuring out if Burks will play or not in Week 15 by the time waivers are up -- I think I'd probably stake a claim on him clearing protocol after two weeks off, but we can't assume that.
Even if that's true though, I think you can be emboldened by Okonkwo's steady share of 30+ yards per game over the past six weeks. The Titans do not have many players that can claim that sort of yards per target number. And, because we've seen Jonnu Smith do this same thing, this is something that feels fairly sustainable. They also have expanded his role in some interesting ways, using him at fullback and even as a straight-up halfback on his two-point conversion this week:
The Jacksonville game saw Okonkwo used more as a straight-up receiver, sitting in holes in zones and making catches in the structure of the offense than he had been in the early season. His touchdown catch came with him running a simple drag route across the middle of the field in the red zone:
This is, I would argue, a huge role change and an interesting one for fantasy football. The Titans got good production out of Okonkwo without it being a schemed play. His biggest plays this season before that have looked more like this:
What we don't know
We don't know when Burks will return, and we don't know what that will mean for what happened to Okonkwo in Week 14. Vrabel spoke on Okonkwo on Monday but it was just sort of the vague "he's getting better" sort of thing that any coach would say about a rookie he doesn't want to give a big head to. Clipped for posterity:
If you already hopped on Okonkwo last week, I get it, #NotInYourLeague. But for those in sadder leagues, the plebs and the normies, the Week 14 usage encouraged me that Okonkwo can be something the Titans build on even without the big plays.
What I also know is that it really doesn't matter what Okonkwo is because you were getting three catches for 38 yards from your tight end anyway, assuming that tight end was still alive. Maybe Okonkwo isn't going to be used like this with Burks back. I'd argue it doesn't really matter anymore. The way tight end is trending right now, he's a starter. The Titans seem to need him to expand his role and that's good enough for me.