Hayden Hurst would represent a shrewd free-agent signing for Titans

The Tennessee Titans must secure the services of several upgrades across the tight end position this offseason, via both free agency and the NFL draft. The trio of Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt and Geoff Swaim are all set to reach free agency in March, and the Titans should have little to no interest in retaining all three players. A proven and more productive pass-catching threat is undeniably needed at the position. Last year’s offseason departure of Jonnu Smith catapulted Firkser into a larger starring role, but the former Harvard standout spent the majority of 2021 as an afterthought in Tennessee’s passing offense. Firkser finished fifth among the team’s receivers in yards (first among tight ends) with just 291 yards, or 19.4 yards per contest (Firkser appeared in 15 regular-season games).

Firkser’s season didn’t go to plan, and the expected outcome is that both parties agree to go their separate ways this offseason. It’s an outcome that would indicate the Titans must be players in the tight end free agent market, which is luckily loaded with quality veterans and proven assets. The likes of Mike Gesicki, Dalton Schultz, Zach Ertz and Rob Gronkowski are expected to land sizable contracts, and it would be considered a surprise if the Titans entered the race for these types of expensive players. The Titans don’t overly value the position, proven by their willingness to let the productive Smith walk a year ago. That, paired with their current position against the salary cap will almost surely prevent general manager Jon Robinson from making a jaw-dropping splash at tight end via free agency.

Robinson will almost surely prefer to make a shrewd affordable signing. Hayden Hurst qualifies as an extremely intriguing candidate. Hurst entered the league as a first-round selection (No. 25 overall) of the Baltimore Ravens in 2018. His career never properly launched in Baltimore, and after two disappointing campaigns, paired with the breakout of fellow tight end Mark Andrews (who was also drafted in 2018), Hurst was traded to the Atlanta Falcons in a move that was intended to provide him with more opportunity as a pass-catcher and every-down player. Hurst responded by having a personal-best season in 2020 that included career-highs in receptions (56), yards (571) and touchdowns (six).

Hurst’s professional arrow was finally pointing up as he proved plenty capable of serving as Atlanta’s TE1. And then the 2021 draft arrived. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot opted to select Pitts with the fourth-overall selection, a pick that could hardly be argued against due to Pitts’ special abilities at the position. It was hardly an indictment on Hurst, and more of a compliment to Pitts’ rare skill set. The outcome meant Hurst became an afterthought for the second time in his career, and his numbers expectedly plummeted while playing second fiddle to the more-talented Pitts. Hurst now reaches free agency and will almost certainly search for greener pastures. The Falcons are also facing some financial difficulties against the salary cap due to Matt Ryan’s inflated contract. Fontenot is unlikely to make an attempt to retain Hurst, nor can the Falcons realistically afford to, given their needs elsewhere.

Unrestricted free agency looms large for Hurst, who’s presence serves as an intriguing option for teams looking to upgrade the athleticism and pass-catching ability in their tight end room. Analyzing the performances of Tennessee’s tight ends in 2021 paired with their current depth chart almost guarantees they will sign a veteran, and Hurst makes as much sense as anybody. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill would enjoy playing alongside a security blanket at the tight end position in 2022 as Tennesee attempts to recapture his 2019-2020 form. Hurst qualifies, seeing that Matt Ryan enjoyed a passer rating of 113.7 when targeting Hurst throughout 2021, via Pro Football Focus. In the aforementioned career-year that was 2020, Hurst was a sure-handed tight end that moved the chains consistently in Atlanta’s pass-happy attack while only being credited with two drops. 35 of Hurst’s 56 receptions were of the chain-moving variety, and the former South Carolina standout averaged a respectable 10.2 yards per reception. Hurst’s presence in Tennessee’s offense would allow him to do damage underneath while the likes of A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, and hopefully an early draft pick (more on that eventually) are commanding the attention of opposing secondaries. 

The Titans should wisely identify a quality free agent tight end while going bargain bin hunting (Ok, Hurst won’t be that cheap). There are other candidates (O.J. Howard comes to mind), but Hurst should appear near the top of Tennessee’s wishlist. Robinson and the scouting staff are unlikely to draft a tight end capable of playing significant snaps as a rookie. First-year tight ends typically have difficulty acclimating to the league in their first campaign, and the 2022 class lacks a Kyle Pitts-like unicorn, nor would the Titans land that type of prospect towards the end of the first round. There are, however, plenty of quality tight end prospects that should be available between rounds two and four, and the Titans should draft a tight end in that range. Pairing a developmental rookie that can serve as a No. 2 or 3 TE in 2022 with a proven veteran is the correct way for the Titans to address the position this offseason. Signing Hurst to a reasonable contract would take care of the “proven veteran” aspect of that equation.

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