There are lots of exciting things happening in Tennessee in 2018. We have the arrival of new head coach Mike Vrabel, who will look to try and set the tone of this team. With him comes new offensive and defensive coordinators, to try and get the most of out of a talented team. The Titans then added names such as Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Bennie Logan, to add both talent and veteran leadership to the starting lineup. In addition, we also have first round pick Rashaan Evans, who should start at inside linebacker and be a lot of fun to watch. However, I am going to go slightly lower on the depth chart with my selection for the Titans’ one to watch. For me one of the most intriguing players on this roster is Jonnu Smith.
The tight end situation
Entering the 2018 season the Titans have current #1 tight end Delanie Walker entering the last year of his contract. However, little effort appears to have been made publicly to sign Walker to a new contract. In addition, the Titans did not bring in a new tight end in free agency or draft one this past offseason. That leaves Jonnu Smith as the second tight end on the roster and potentially the man earmarked to replace Delanie Walker as the #1 next season.
However, Smith will be coming off a torn MCL, which he suffered in the playoff game against the Patriots. That will present opportunities for the guys behind him on the depth chart to challenge for the #2 spot in training camp. The current expectation is that Smith will be ready for week one. If that is the case I fully expect him to be the #2 as the group of tight ends behind him do not have anywhere near his talent or potential.
Being the second tight end on a team rarely leads you to have stunning numbers. However, what was promising from Smith was the little flashes of talent we saw from him. Smith’s stat line for the season was 18-157-2 with 30 targets. However, in weeks two and three of the regular season he scored touchdowns of 32 and 24 yards in length. Those two touchdowns demonstrated his speed and ability to run with the ball. After three weeks of 2017 it really looked as though Smith could have broken out as the season progressed. However, that was not to be the case and he faded as the season wore on.
Matt LaFleur’s offensive scheme is from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree. LaFleur has worked alongside such noted offensive head coaches as Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, and I expect his scheme to match theirs. LaFleur’s scheme will be by no means tight end heavy but they do utilize play-action well. A particular favorite in the Redskins, Falcons and Rams offenses has been the tight end deep cross coming off of play-action. That is a really difficult play for a defense to stop if it is executed well. It is also an ideal play for someone with the talent of Smith. What we have seen from both Shanahan and McVay is the ability to adapt their schemes to the talent they have available. Hopefully, that means we can see LaFleur get the best from his young and speedy tight end.
The final word
While his rookie season seems underwhelming there is a lot to be positive about for Jonnu Smith going forward. He has the talent, the future opportunity and potentially the right type of offensive minded coach to get the best out of him. One thing he will need to improve is his blocking, because the ability to be a competent blocker is a huge bonus for an NFL tight end. Upgrading his blocking will help ensure Smith is on the field when the play-actions are run. In order for some of them to work the defense needs to believe Smith can run block. If he cannot then the moment he is in the game the defense will be primed for the play-action pass.
Hopefully, in his second year with Marcus Mariota we can see Smith build upon his talent and potential. However, we have seen plenty of young talented pass-catching tight ends fall away because they could not put it together on the field. The Titans will be hoping that that is not the case for Smith in 2018 and beyond.
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