The Tennessee Titans are hopeful that their tight ends can contribute thanks to an expanded role in 2020. With the season on the horizon, the Titans are hoping to find a long-term solution at the position after the departure of long-time starter Delanie Walker. Backup TE Jonnu Smith has already been pegged as the early favorite to replace Walker. Smith has some big shoes to fill, but he’s already shown that he’s more than capable of doing so.
Depth at tight end will be critical for the Titans offense in 2020
If there is one position on the Titans roster where they have continued to stockpile talent, it’s the TE position. With the Titans run-heavy offense, two TE sets have become a common scheme for offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Smith is the former TEs coach for the Titans, and it’s obvious he has a love for the position. In 2019, the Titans were one of the top five teams in terms of usage of 12 personnel sets.
With Walker no longer a member of the Titans, MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser are going to have much larger roles in 2020. The battle between these two for more playing time will be something to monitor throughout the training camp. Smith will likely be an every-down player this season because of how good he has demonstrated with his blocking and receiving element.
Jonnu Smith is underrated as a blocker
Entering his first season as the full-time starter for the Titans, Smith is ready to show just what he can do if given an expanded role in the offense. In his first two seasons in the NFL, Smith was used more as a blocking tight end in 12 personnel sets. Even with Walker having a Pro Bowl season in 2017, Smith was still on the field for 50% of the Titans’ offensive snaps primarily due to his ability as a blocker.
Last season, Smith was a contributing factor to the success of Titans running back Derrick Henry. When NFL teams have a TE that is as equally talented at blocking as he is receiving, it can create matchup problems for opposing defenses. That dynamic also allows offenses to disguise what type of play they are running. Being able to rely upon Smith to block for Henry around the edge is a big reason in regards to what made the Titans offense so dangerous last season.
Smith is ready to take the next step in the passing game
While Smith has always shown flashes in the passing game, it wasn’t until his third season that he really showed the organization his full potential. Smith spent a large portion of his off-season in South Florida training with quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The two developed some chemistry in 2019, but both are looking to take that next step in 2020. This is the first time Smith has entered the off-season fully healthy, and he’s expressed how big of an impact that should have for him throughout this season.
“The past two years for me, the offseasons, you know I’ve kind of been in recovery mode. From my rookie year going into my second year, this was the first season I actually got to really go in and just hit it at one-hundred miles an hour as soon as the season ended.”
Smith was already one of the most productive players in the NFL in 2019. Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) ranked Smith as the number one player last season from a production standpoint. OSM measures just how efficient a player is with the targets that they are given. If he improves this offseason and is given a larger role in the Titans passing game, the 2020 season could be Smith’s coming out party.
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Training camp battle to watch: Anthony Firkser vs. MyCole Pruitt
Firkser and Pruitt both signed one-year deals this offseason, and their salaries could be an indication of what the Titans plan is for both players in 2020. Pruitt is set to make $2.5 million this season, and Firkser is scheduled to make $750,000. Pruitt has been more of a blocking tight end over the course of his career, whereas Firkser has been more of a receiving threat.
The Titans’ decision to bring Pruitt back likely means that the team could be planning on him to be their blocking TE in 12 personnel sets. Smith will take on more of a receiving role with Pruitt on the field.
Firkser was brought back on a one-year deal to serve more as an insurance policy for Smith if he were to get injured. If Firkser wants to compete for playing time this season, he is going to have to improve in his run blocking technique. If Firkser spent this offseason getting stronger and working on this area of his game, he could eat into both Smith’s and Pruitt’s playing time in 2020.
The Titans could keep four tight ends on the active roster in 2020
Parker Hesse and Tommy Hudson are the other two TEs heading into training camp with the Titans. Hesse spent his first season on the practice squad after joining the team last season as an undrafted free agent. Hesse made the transition to playing TE last year, after previously playing linebacker in college at Iowa. The Titans liked what they saw in Hesse’s development, and he will be competing for a spot on the active roster as the fourth TE.
Hudson joined as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona State. He possesses great size coming in at 6’5 and 255 pounds. Hudson was the starting tight end for the Sun Devils but wasn’t very involved in the passing game last season. He’ll look to impress head coach Mike Vrabel during training camp in hopes of earning a spot on the Titans practice squad in 2020.