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TE’s to Target: Jonnu Smith

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The purpose of this series is to highlight lesser valued, lower ADP tight ends who have the potential to offer fantasy owners a very high return on their invested capital. They are not the bonafide stars who come equipped with a high price tag and somewhat guaranteed production. The previous article in this series examined new Faclons’ TE Hayden Hurst and can be read here for those who are interested http://fantasyfuru.com/2020/06/05/tes-to-target-hayden-hurst/.

Jonnu Smith has been a very intriguing tight end prospect since he was drafted 100th overall in the 2017 NFL draft. Some of the biggest contributing factors to this were Smith’s exceptional SPARQ score and breakout age (18) but more on that later. Yet, during Smith’s first three seasons in the NFL he has delivered anything but reliable results for fantasy owners. As many of us are sadly aware, patience is a virtue in the tight end landscape and finally, Smith looks poised to take the next step.

College Career

Smith earned a scholarship to Florida International for the 2013 season where he starred as a freshman, and not just in liberal studies. Below I’ve posted his receiving stats through his four years at FIU.

GPReceptionsYPRYardsTouchdowns
4317811.22,00118

Smith turned heads on film and was able to produce meaningfully in each season. Additionally, he had the good fortune of not suffering any major injuries during his time in college, missing a total of four games to a knee sprain during his junior season. 

Following his time at FIU, Smith took part in the senior bowl and NFL combine where he saw his draft stock rise after a stellar performance. Let’s take a look at some of his metrics seen below.

College Dominator RatingBreakout Age40-Yard DashSpeed ScoreBurst Score
33.0 (92nd %)18 (100th %)4.62 (88th %)106.9 (83rd %)130.0 (94th %)

This factored into a 93rd percentile SPARQ score for Smith and surely caught the eye of fantasy players in what was a loaded TE class. Ultimately, the Titans ended up selecting Smith at 100th overall, making him the 6th TE off the board. Sadly, they passed on George Kittle.

NFL Career

As we look ahead to the 2020 season, Smith will be entering his fourth NFL season having freshly turned 25. The first three seasons of Smith’s career have been indisputably mediocre from a fantasy perspective. Below, I’ve posted some of Smith’s major receiving stats from his first three years.

YearGPTargetsReceptionsYardsTDSnap %
2017163018157254
2018133020258362
2019164435439371

Nothing from the table really jumps off the page at me. The steady rise in snap share is quite encouraging and we should expect that to continue. In large part, this is due to the departure of Delanie Walker and Smith becoming the de facto TE1 in Tennessee. In my opinion, a massive contributor to Smith’s mediocre receiving stats is the system he finds himself in. Over the past three years, the Titans have finished as the 8th, 2nd and 3rd most run-heavy team as a percentage of offensive plays. Surely, this is going to put a dent in receiving totals. We also can’t dismiss the subpar QB play the Titans struggled with in 2017 and 2018 before finally turning to Tannehill at the end of Week 6 last year. While expecting the Titans to remain run-heavy in 2020, there’s reason for optimism.

2020 Outlook

The 2020 NFL season presents an inflection point for Smith and should play a meaningful role in shaping his career arc going forward.Now that’s a pretty bold claim for anyone to make, so let me outline why I think so. First, Smith steps into his first full season with Tannehill at the helm. Second, Smith is now the undisputed TE1 in Tennessee and should benefit from a full season atop that depth chart. Third, he’ll be 25 years old at the start of the 2020 season and in the final year of his rookie contract. It’s well-documented that the golden window of age for tight end’s begins when they are 25 and there are few better motivators than a new contract worth millions.

Tannehill and the Titans’ Offense

The Titans went on an improbable 7-3 run to finish the regular season after turning the reins at QB over to former 8th overall pick Ryan Tannehill. With Tannehill starting, the Titans looked exponentially better and played their way to the AFC championship game. By the end of the regular season alone, he finished with the highest passer rating in the NFL among qualified QB’s. Am I anticipating him to do that again? Nope. It has to be expected that there will be some regression headed Tannehill’s way this year in terms of efficiency but he remains a solid upgrade from Mariota.

With Tannehill as the starter, Smith was able to finish as the overall TE 12 from Week 7 onward. While a TE 12 finish would be respectable, we’re hoping that Smith can find his way into the top 10, and preferably the top 8. In order to do so, Smith must continue to improve upon his chemistry with Tannehill. Fortunately, in an offseason, unlike any in recent memory, there have been encouraging reports of Smith and Tannehill taking the time to get together in Florida for throwing sessions. As they continue to develop rapport, we have reason to believe that Smith should see an uptick in the number of looks his way. 

With an entire offseason to tweak the offense to Tannehill’s strengths, it’s quite possible we see him eclipse his career high in passing yards (4208) that he set in 2015. If that’s the case, it’s almost certain he improves upon last year’s touchdown total (22) and, given the Titans usage of their TE’s in the red zone, means more scoring opportunities for Smith.

Path to Snaps and Competition

One of the most important variables in predicting any breakout is examining that player’s path to playing time and competition for targets. Let’s begin by taking a closer look at Smith’s path to playing time. Below, I’ve listed his average offensive snap share per game through the first six games of last season when Delanie Walker was in the lineup.

GPSnap Share
655.6%

Those numbers are pretty discouraging and obviously had some impact on his weak output through those weeks. Now, let’s take a look at his snap share with Walker out of the lineup.

GPSnap Share
1381.9%
*Playoff games were included

We can see that without Walker in the lineup, Smith’s snap share shot up an average of 47% per game. With Walker out of the picture in 2020, Smith owners can reasonably expect him to be on the field for 80% of the Titans’ offensive snaps. If that projection holds true, it would place Smith among the top 10 TE’s in terms of snap share and as we know, more time on the field equates to more opportunity.

In terms of competition, Smith has little of it when we examine the TE’s behind him on the depth chart. No disrespect to Firkser or Pruitt, but they’re not legitimate threats to Smith’s role. As we look out wide, we can view the whole picture. I’m a big fan of AJ Brown and I anticipate him being the #1 option in the Titans’ passing game this year. After Brown, we have Corey Davis and Adam Humphries. Smith has the opportunity to siphon some of Davis’ targets and challenge him for the #2 spot in the passing game hierarchy. An interesting observation is that Davis’ receiving numbers didn’t spike with Tannehill in the lineup. In fact, they declined. Will this trend continue into the 2020 season? Given that the Titans already declined Davis’ fifth-year team option, it’s not much of a stretch to think so.

Age, Contract Year and Efficiency

As mentioned earlier, Smith will be turning 25 this August and entering the 2020 season at the time when most tight ends start to see a substantial rise in production. This is no guarantee that Smith will begin to perform in 2020 however the phenomenon exists for a reason. Furthermore, Smith will be entering the final year of his rookie contract as the clear starter and has never had more to play for.

I also thought it was worth noting how efficient Smith was last season. For starters, he hauled in 79.5% of his targets last season which was good for #4 overall among receivers and tight ends. Next, he was a YAC monster, again finishing #4 overall on a per reception basis among receivers and tight ends. Meanwhile, he also recorded top 3 finishes in Target Separation and Fantasy Points per Target.

Closing Thoughts

In closing, there’s always going to be inherent risk when seeking out undervalued players and the TE position exudes volatility. I want to clearly state that Smith is by no means a guarantee to become a starting fantasy tight end this season. However, based on the reasons I’ve mentioned above, and a few others I was too lazy to include, I believe he presents players with a very favorable risk/reward profile given his current ADP of 144 (TE 15) in dynasty and 125 (TE 14) in redraft formats. If forced to choose between Smith in dynasty or redraft, my choice would undoubtedly be dynasty.

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