NASHVILLE – Over the past seven years, Delanie Walker has earned a prominent place in the hearts and minds of Tennessee Titans fans. Not to mention the franchise record book.
In the last eight weeks he has lost his place as the Titans’ top tight end.
That’s how quickly things can happen in the NFL.
One of the undeniable truths of this season is that Jonnu Smith’s time has arrived. He is about to complete his third year in the NFL, which for many players is a career. In his case, he looks like someone who is just getting started – and who should be a starter next season and beyond.
The job has been his – by default – since late October, when Walker was sidelined and ultimately placed on injured reserve due to an ankle injury. It is his now – in reality – because of his play.
“I’m just taking advantage of the opportunities given to me,” Smith said recently. “The coaches are putting me in position to help this team win. That’s what I’m doing.”
Smith already has set a career-high with 35 receptions and enters Sunday’s regular season finale at Houston with an opportunity to finish this season with more catches than he had in his first two seasons combined (38).
It is what he does when he has the ball in his hands, however, that really sets him apart from every other Titans tight end, Walker included. At 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, Smith has a combination of size and speed that make it difficult for tacklers to get him on the ground and for pursuers to catch him.
More than half of his 439 receiving yards (also a career-high) have come after the catch. Last Sunday against New Orleans, he turned a 12-yard reception into a 41-yard touchdown play because he raced through the Saints secondary untouched. It was his second reception of 40-plus yards, which makes him one of five NFL tight ends with multiple gains of 40-plus yards this season.
His average of 7.8 yards after-the-catch is second among all tight ends to Denver rookie Noah Fant. He also is one five at his position with an average of 12.5 yards per reception on 35 or more catches.
“He works hard at his job, understanding the playbook, what multiple positions and spots that we put him in,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “He’s worked hard at catching the football. He’s worked hard at running routes versus zone, and also being able to work the route and proper technique against man. It’s been great to see him improve.”
And he has done so at a time when the 35-year-old Walker, the Titans’ leader in career receptions by a tight end, is clearly in decline.
When the Titans selected Smith in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the idea was that he one day would replace Walker. Then, for a time, it was fair to wonder whether that day would come. Smith caught just 18 passes as a rookie while Walker made his third straight Pro Bowl appearance and earned a two-year contract extension a few months later.
Walker not only missed virtually all of 2018 when he first injured the ankle that continued to be an issue this year, he was dearly missed. Smith led Tennessee’s tight ends with a mere 20 receptions.
It would be inaccurate to say that over the last two months he has relegated Walker to an afterthought.
But Smith has given a lot of people a lot to think about in the coming months. Franchise officials have to decide whether they want to honor the final year of Walker’s contract (he is due a $750,000 roster bonus on March 22, 2020) or to cut him loose. If he is not released, Walker has to consider whether he is comfortable ceding his long-time role to a younger player, as linebacker Wesley Woodyard did this season.
What’s certain is that Jonnu Smith’s time is now.
“He’s grown a lot,” offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. “He’s done a nice job every year since he’s been here, from Year 1 to 2 to 3. … I think there’s a lot to learn at that position because you’re asking them to do so much. And he’s done a really nice job – from year to year and week to week – improving.”
Just like that, he is the best the Titans have.