Everyone’s looking for the next good tight end. Whether you’re a general manager setting your draft board, a coach formulating a game plan, or a fantasy football owner trying to steal some extra points in your weekly matchup, everyone is looking for who is going to be that next breakout, X-factor player from the tight end position.
Every year we run through the league’s current depth charts to find the guy we believe is under the radar or next in line to have their name talked about among the best or most impactful at the position. One name that is making early noise in 2020 is Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith.
Now, I’m not saying Smith is on the level of guys like George Kittle or Travis Kelce. That’s not my objective here. But, as we have often seen throughout the league, sometimes teams just need those three or four plays per game where they really get to exploit a matchup that makes all the difference on the scoreboard. A prime spot to find that mismatch potential is at tight end. So far, Smith is one of those players.
From 2015-17, veteran tight end Delanie Walker was a big part of the Titans’ offense. Walker recorded more than 1,000 yards receiving in 2015, and then more than 800 in each of the two seasons that followed. But in 2018 and 2019, Walker only played in eight total games because of injury. That caused the Titans to move in a different direction with the top of their tight end room for 2020.
Walker’s age and limited availability were factors in the switch, but if you ask me, so was the emergence Smith, the team’s third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Three years into the league and Smith had yet to record more than 500 yards receiving in a single season. However, his yardage has gone up each year. He’s been a steady presence for them at the position as a secondary complement to Walker, but now it’s his time to shine as their TE1. The evidence for that comes from his first two games in 2020, where Smith has recorded a combined 120 receiving yards off eight catches, which are both top 10 stats for his position, and also leads all tight ends around the league with three touchdown catches.
Billed as an all-around tight end, the Titans have been playing Smith quite a bit. He played in 73% of the team’s offensive snaps in their opening game against the Denver Broncos, and then 87% of the offensive snaps in Week 2 against the Jaguars.
When analyzing Smith’s presence and role on the Titans this season, we have to start with how the team trusts him as their go-to blocker at the end of the line of scrimmage.
As seen in the clip above, the Titans have no reservation putting Smith (81) one-on-one against the opposing team’s edge defenders. And they don’t even do that just on plays that don’t go his way. They’ll use Smith’s blocks as the key block to forming a run lane.
Smith (81) is a nice blocker in space, and that’s something that is difficult to do.
Anytime you have to try to block more space from a defender, you’re multiplying how hard it is to stay in front of them. This brings into the fold some scouting tips of why some offensive linemen are billed as just interior offensive linemen and why some have a higher ceiling as offensive tackles.
When you’re on the inside, you usually have help to your right or left. This means that even if you don’t have super quick feet or the longest arms to lock guys up, you can still have success if you have good chemistry with the linemen around you. As offensive tackles, you have less help and you face more speed, which is why more length to stay in front of defenders is necessary.
Blocking in open space is a different beast entirely, especially when you’re out that far away from the line of scrimmage. It’s just you. You have to have shoulder discipline staying square with defenders, strong hands, good hand placement with them, active feet, and good leg drive to get your man off balance and away from the ball carrier.
As shown above, Smith can do that, and Tennessee trusting him to do so speaks highly of him.
The Titans like to get creative with how they use Smith on and around the line of scrimmage. Over the course of the first two games, I saw him on the line with his hand in the dirt, standing up just off the line in a two-point stance, and also as a wing player a step behind the end of the line, as seen above.
The Titans like to use Smith in this alignment because they often motion him before the snap to help identify the defensive coverage and also to get numbers in their favor on one side of the line. They’ll also use Smith as a split blocker, as seen above, coming behind the line of scrimmage to pick up free rushers on the opposite side of a run play or play action.
I chose the play above not only because it highlighted how the Titans use Smith as a wing player, but also to show how smart and how technically sound he is as a blocker.
In that play, the Titans actually had two free Broncos defenders they had to worry about: the defensive end and the rush linebacker—odd front formation can sometimes make the blocking roles tough to sort out at the snap. Instead of blocking the first guy he saw, Smith got in a spot where he was a threat to both rushers but then chose the outermost rusher to lock up with, knowing he had help more toward the middle. If he would have taken the inside man just because he was closer, the outside rusher would have likely got home for a sack.
Plus, did you see how smoothly Smith was able to ride the edge rusher around the back of the pocket? Very nice stuff there.
Since we have established the run portion of this breakdown with Smith as a blocker, it’s time to get into his usage in the passing game. As stated in his yearly stats before we go to the breakdown, he’s on pace to have a career year in that department.
Smith is primarily the first and second down tight end the Titans use. When he has been featured in the passing game, it has almost exclusively come on early-down work.
The play above is a perfect example. That was the very first play of the Denver game. Everyone knows that with the reigning rushing champ (running back Derrick Henry) on their roster the Titans are going to look to dominate their opponents on the ground. This makes them a very lethal play-action team—even though play action works, even if you’re not a great rushing team, but I digress.
Smith didn’t see a target on this nake bootleg play-action, but he was the primary target, and if the linebacker covering him would have turned his eyes to keep tabs on Tannehill, Smith would have likely seen this pass.
The reason I showed that previous play, despite Smith not seeing the ball, is because the Titans ran the exact same look later in the game, and Smith was, in fact, the target player.
It wasn’t the exact same play, but it was the same look and concept to it. As the early-down tight end, most of Smith’s pass-catching work will likely come off plays that are similar in thought process where they have running back Derrick Henry as the main threat on the play, ensuing Smith getting some late coverage off play action to create separation.
Why am I so confident to bet on that trend? Because I already saw the Titans build off Smith’s success from such looks even more the following week against the Jaguars.
It wasn’t the same passing concept, but it was the same thought process of getting him open. On the play above, Smith’s presence sold the play-action even more, as he even engaged with a defender before breaking off and heading up the seam for what was his longest catch of the year at 63 yards.
With how good at blocking Smith is, combined with how much of a legit threat the Titans are to hand the ball off, such concepts with Smith (who was an 80th and 90th percentile Combine tester for his position), make him a tough player to plan for.
You can really do everything with him on early downs.
Where Smith doesn’t seem to be the primary receiving tight end on the roster for Tennessee, when they can get the 6-foot-3, 250-pound tight end lined up in man coverage in the red zone, they aren’t afraid to toss it up there to give him a chance to come down with it. Smith wasn’t the primary in the play above, but he was still a viable option.
In his touchdown versus the Denver Broncos, he was the primary, as the Titans had multiple tight ends on the field and used play action to get Smith wide open in the corner of the end zone.
Smith isn’t in the play above, the final play I’ll be showing in this breakdown. The reason I am showing it to you is because it is the area in which Smith can potentially ascend to and occupy.
As stated before, Smith is the early-down tight end for the Titans. But on third downs and in obvious passing situations, they almost exclusively have third-year tight end out of Harvard Anthony Firkser on the field in Smith’s place.
Now, Firkser is often aligned more in the slot when he comes in. If they want a tight end still on the line of scrimmage for third down, Smith has been in there a handful of times. But anytime they want to spread it out, Firkser is their go-to guy.
Firkser received the pass above. Those are looks that I think Smith can still get that he just doesn’t. Perhaps it is because the Titans want to keep their tight end rotation specialized and fresh. Perhaps it’s that Smith can’t navigate slot alignments well as Firkser can.
All in all, it’s been a great start to the season for Smith. In the areas they want to play him, the Titans trust him to do his job, which we’ve seen can be a wide variety of tasks. Perhaps an expanded passing game role could be in the cards for him later in the year. But even if it’s not, he’s still on pace as an early-down tight end to have a career year.