NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Replacing TE Jonnu smith won’t be easy for the Tennessee Titans in 2021.
“He was a huge part of our offense. He played a very important role in everything we did, run game, pass game,” said Titans TE Anthony Firkser. “It’s going to be difficult to fulfill the jobs he did.”
Though replacing Smith will be difficult for the Titans, it won’t be impossible.
That’s mostly thanks to the abilities of Firkser and TE Geoff Swaim, the players who will likely be tasked with filling the void created by Smith’s departure.
While neither Firkser nor Swaim is as talented or versatile as Smith, who signed a $50 million contract in free agency with the Patriots, they should be able to ease the blow of losing Smith for the Titans.
“He was a huge part of our offense, played a very important role. It’s gonna be difficult to fill the jobs he did.” – Firkser on Jonnu Smith. #Titans
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) March 17, 2021
Smith’s biggest contribution to the Titans during his four years with the team, especially in 2020, was his versatility; Smith consistently proved to be both a capable blocker in the run game and an athletic, reliable weapon in the passing game.
His statistical production, though, was never terribly impressive. In 31 games from 2019-2020, Smith totaled less than 900 receiving yards. He did catch eight touchdowns in 2020, but touchdowns rarely accurately indicate a receiver’s value.
That’s not to say that Smith wasn’t any good or that he won’t be missed by the Titans—both of those notions are patently false.
However, to act as though not having Smith will prove to be some sort of monumental loss for the Titans would be to ignore the fact that he merely played a supporting role in the passing game and served as a run blocker.
Both of those roles are replaceable. They’re not necessarily easily replaceable, but teams can fairly easily find tight ends who can run block and play complementary roles in the passing game.
BRING IN THE REPLACEMENTS
Loved this quote from TE Geoff Swaim⬇️ pic.twitter.com/zD0ywAbqx4
— Kim Smith (@Kim_ASmith) March 17, 2021
Luckily for the Titans, they already have capable candidates to fill those positions.
Firkser proved in 2020 to be a very effective weapon on third downs, an ability he developed by working in the film room with Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing, formerly the team’s TE coach.
“Todd Downing spent a lot of time with me going through extra film, just working on third-down plans,” Firkser said.
“We’d go through our plays we were running and see how they’d match up against the defenses they were running. He really did a great job preparing me for what I would see on the field. I think having that type of knowledge going into the game just gave me confidence and the ability to kind of be where I needed to be.”
That work led to Firkser catching 26 passes in 2020 that resulted in first downs for the Titans offense.
Firkser isn’t only effective on third downs, though. His athleticism and elusiveness allow him to make plays up the seam as well. As a result, Firkser’s 2020 receiving-yardage total was only 61 yards short of Smith’s.
As a blocker, Firkser is a work-in-progress, to put it kindly.
“I definitely need to keep improving my blocking, and I know it’s something I’ve been working on all through coming into the NFL,” he said.
That’s why it’s great for the Titans that they also have Swaim in the fold.
Swaim’s primary role with the Titans’ offense in 2020 was as a run blocker, and he did it well. Along with Smith and the offensive line, Swaim helped pave the way for RB Derrick Henry’s 2,000-yard rushing season that led to him winning the 2020 Offensive Player of the Year award.
While Swaim’s role in the offense will likely increase in 2021 as a result of Smith’s departure, he’d seemingly be fine with continuing primarily as a blocker for the team.
“Obviously, you want your role to be expanded because you’re competitive. The truth is I really like what I do,” Swaim said. “I like blocking. I’ve done it for a long time. I’ve kind of made my career on it. For me, blocking is a natural part of football that I love.”
The ability of Smith’s that the Titans will miss the most moving forward is his versatility.
Though Firkser can fill his receiving role and Swaim can take over the blocking, their inability to do both jobs at a passable level will make it easier for defenses to guess what the Titans are doing.
When Smith was on the field, it was usually unclear whether the Titans were going to run or pass. In 2021, when Firkser is out there, a defense can safely bet on a pass. When it’s Swaim, a run is probably going to be on the way.
Sometimes, though, teams are faced with obstacles like that in the NFL. That’s what the salary cap does.
Would the 2021 Titans be better if Smith were still on the team? Absolutely. But with limited salary cap space and other, more pressing roster needs to fill, it was always in the Titans’ best interest to let Smith walk.
He’s not some sort of irreplaceable commodity.
His absence will be felt, certainly, but it won’t be a killer, because Firkser and Swaim, and potentially a draft pick, should be able to keep the Titans’ offense afloat.
“We have kind of unique skillsets and different play-strengths and play-styles,” Firkser said. “I think we can really benefit and play off each other and have good mismatches for defenses.”
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today