Delanie Walker has talked this offseason about how he could have up to 70 catches. When I tried to project catches for the Titans, I had him at 45. Even that more modest figure, that would be the first time he's had even 30 catches, let alone 40. 2013 will be Walker's eighth season in the NFL. Just how rare a feat would having 45 catches be for that kind of player?
By and large, tight end, particularly receiving tight end, is not a position with a long shelf life. If they don't have 40 catches in any of their first couple seasons in the league, they're probably not going to have 40 catches. Over half century or so tight end has been a featured position, though, I did find a dozen tight ends who had 40+ catches in their eighth season and whose first 40+ catch season came in their fifth season or later.
Based on the names I came up with, if Walker does end up with 40+ catches this year, that will be a unique feat. He would become the first tight end in NFL history whose first 40+ catch season came in the eighth year of his career. That bare factoid would overstate the merits of his accomplishment, though, as two players had their first 40+ catch season in their seventh year and two others did it in their ninth year. It's just that eighth year that's been skipped over.
After the jump, I'll try to break down some of the dozen tight ends to see which ones may fit Walker's profile.
Surprisingly, the majority of the players (8 of 12) were chosen in the first three rounds of the draft. Unsurprisingly, they're a bit of a hodgepodge. The name that might have surprised me the most was Dallas Clark, who didn't break the 40 catch barrier until he had 58 in his fifth season (2007, when Marvin Harrison fell off a cliff). Russ Francis is probably the worst comparison to Walker-a #1 pick and starter basically every year, he had 35 catches as a rookie in dead ball 1975 and 39 in back to back seasons before finally getting to 41. The best comparison among high picks might actually be Kyle Brady. Chosen 9th overall in 1995, he played a lot and blocked very well, but never had more than 32 catches until he had 64 in his sixth season for the 2000 Jaguars.
Among the lower round picks, the most encouraging name is probably Jay Novacek, who spent five seasons with the Cardinals before having 59 catches in his first season with the Cowboys. He did have one very productive season, though, with a 38 catch season in the fourth year of his career.
Brady and Novacek are two of the six players on the list whose first 40 catch season game on their second team. The other four were Pete Metzelaars, Brian Kinchen, Wesley Walls, and Visanthe Shiancoe. All of them had the same problem Walker and Novacek did, a lack of playing time. Most took advantage of the new situation quickly. For example, Walls had 9 catches in four seasons with the 49ers, then had 38 catches his first year in New Orleans before 57 in his sixth season. Jim Kelly joined the Bills in the fifth season of Metzelaars' career, and he had 49 catches that year.
Looking over the full list, there are two names that particularly intrigue me. The first is Kinchen. Unlike the other players, he did not find immediate success on his new team, as he did not start a game or catch a pass his first two years with the Browns v.1. He then had three seasons with 20-29 catches before a 55 catch breakout at age 31 in his ninth season, 1996 when the Ravens had a great passing offense and lousy defense. The second is Shiancoe. A third-round pick, he's more pedigreed than Walker, but he was similarly stuck behind a first-round pick (Jeremy Shockey) with his initial team and limited to serving primarily as a blocker. He became a starter his first year in Minnesota, but had only 27 catches in a very dysfunctional Tarvaris Jackson-led passing game that also included starts by Kelly Holcomb and Wee Brooks Bollinger. With a little more stability the next year and the arrival of B**** F**** in year three, he then had three straight 40 catch seasons and a 36 catch season before the NFL decided last year he was pretty much done at age 32 (4 games in NE, 0 catches).
It's tough to find comparables for Walker, in part because tight ends are rarely 6'0", but I think Shiancoe is in some respects about as close as it gets and, thankfully, a relatively encouraging comparable.
For the curious, here's the fill list
Year of Career