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NFL Draft

Is Jonnu Smith Poised For Breakout Season?

  • The Draft Network
  • July 18, 2020
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The Tennessee Titans shocked the world last season. Some didn’t even think they’d make the playoffs—boy, did people have to eat their words on that one. At 9-7, not only did they make the postseason, they upset both the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens on the road to make it to the AFC Championship Game.

It was quite an accomplishment. So how did they do it?

The team leaned on running back Derrick Henry quite a bit in 2019. With ground-and-pound as their way to play “Titans football,” Henry led the league in rushing, both in volume and efficiency. But the run game couldn’t do it on its own. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a cast of receivers that included A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries exceeded almost everyone’s expectations.

But there was another player who had a nice season that, as we look forward, could have been just a building block to bigger and better things.

That player is tight end Jonnu Smith.

The third-year tight end and former third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Smith had a pretty quiet first two seasons. Standout tight end Delanie Walker had three straight seasons of more than 800 yards receiving from 2014 through 2017 (2017 being the first year Smith was on the team). But in 2018, Walker went down with an ankle injury that ended his season after just one week.

But the emphasis on tight end usage also went out the window when Walker’s availability did. Smith was the “next man up” to take the TE1 role, seeing 611 snaps over the course of 2018, but only saw 30 targets in them. The next season Walker returned but continued to deal with ankle problems that only allowed him to start in four games and only play in seven. Smith was leaned on more during the 2019 season, as he recorded the third-most receiving yards on the team with the fourth-most targets.

With Walker no longer on the team, as well as receiver Tajae Sharpe, who was second on the team in targets in the end zone, Smith should have plenty of room to grow.

First off, Smith is a problem in the open field. His size, speed, and strength make him a moving locomotive when he gets the ball in his hands with some momentum. Because of this, he’s an ideal player to find creative ways to get the ball in his hands.

It doesn’t just have to be at the traditional pass-catching alignments, either.

See the clip above as an example. In that play, Smith was lined up in the backfield as if he were Henry. Smith got the toss, and that playmaking ability had him off to the races. That play above was the longest run by a tight end since 1976.

That kind of stuff won’t happen often, but a few plays in the backfield as an H-back or even a pseudo running back will help keep the defense honest and less aggressive.

Arm tackles do not work against this man. He is so tough to bring down because he will truly fight for every yard on every play—you’re going to have to bring your friends if you want to slow him down.

This makes Smith a perfect player to force the defense to use a cornerback or safety against. But, as shown above, even when linebackers try to get their hands on him, they often can’t do it alone. Smith’s tackle-breaking ability is up there with the best of them. According to Pro Football Focus, the only tight ends who forced more missed tackles on the season were George Kittle and Travis Kelce, and those two did so with more than 100 targets compared to Smith’s 44.

Finally, Smith has a big opportunity to become one of the Titans’ go-to players in the red zone. Smith is a strong hands-catcher, and his catch percentage took a big leap from 2018 to 2019, going from 66 percent to 79.5 percent. 

Smith has a rare skill set of strength and speed that makes every defensive player go “man, I have to tackle this guy?” That’s a valuable weapon. Now it’s time for the Titans to use it.

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