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Jonnu Smith enters contract year eager to prove he can be Titans' TE1

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The 2020 season is an opportunity for Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith to take a big step forward. Unlike in past years, the fourth-year tight end entered the offseason without having to rehab from injury. Instead, Smith has spent the offseason focused solely on taking on an integral role in the offense.

Smith, drafted in the third round of the 2017 draft, is playing on the final year of his rookie contract. Any talk of a new contract or an extension is something he leaves for his agents to worry about. He has taken the approach that hard work equals big dividends -- something Smith has seen other teammates, such as Kevin Byard and Ryan Tannehill, get rewarded for.

"Having been around more guys that went through that process, they’ve just been professionals about it and just kept their heads down and kept working," Smith said. "That’s what I took from it. Just control what you can control. I’m not negotiating the contracts. All I focus on is just getting better and improving. If you aren’t able to maximize your abilities, you’re in the wrong business."

The arrow appears to be pointing up for Smith with Tannehill as his quarterback. Smith had been targeted only eight times in six games before Tannehill took over as the starter. Tannehill targeted Smith 36 times over the next 10 regular-season games and nine times in three playoff games.

Perhaps the best example of Smith's chemistry with Tannehill came in the Titans' 28-12 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs when the two connected for a 12-yard touchdown on a fade to the corner of the end zone.

"He's made some big catches for us," Tannehill said after the game. "Contested catches for us. There's a lot of confidence in Jonnu in tight coverage. He has the ability to go up and make a play."

Smith and Tannehill are both in the South Florida area, which allows them to meet for throwing sessions at a local, privately owned park. It's a good opportunity for them to further develop timing and chemistry.

Added Smith, "Ryan [Tannehill] is making me better, I’m making him better, and we’re just building that chemistry. I’m sure it will give us a great advantage, just learning my speed, learning his speed. Feeling the football come out of his hands and just catching the football, knowing the spin on that thing. I’m only learning him more and he’s only learning me more."

Smith has shown improvement in each of his past three seasons. Smith finished last season with a career-best 35 receptions for 439 yards and three touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith took advantage of Smith's talent in more than just the passing game. For example, he had Smith line up in the backfield and take a toss play that went 57 yards.

Knowing he is going to be the leader in the Titans' tight end group in 2020, Smith can expect a bigger package of plays this season. That will be a challenge, but the biggest one will be playing his first NFL season without mentor Delanie Walker.

"That’s the OG right there," Smith said of Walker. "You’re talking about a guy that took me under his wing from day one and has been nothing but a great person to be around, a great role model, a great player, but an even better person off of the field.

Walker was one of the players who helped transform the tight end position in Smith's opinion. During his time with the Titans, Walker was one of the team's top pass-catchers and posted 94 receptions for 1,088 yards in 2015.Walker has only played in eight games over the past two seasons due to injury. Smith started 26 games over that same stretch.

"Even with Delanie [Walker] out there, I think Jonnu [Smith] was starting to get a little bit more comfortable," coach Mike Vrabel said last season. "The thing that I appreciate is him attacking the football. He’s got a unique skill set -- he’s a very fast and powerful player with the ball in his hands."

Walker had a forecast for Smith's future before the 2019 draft, when the veteran was asked if he felt disrespected by rumors of the Titans addressing the tight end position.

"It makes me upset when people forget that we just drafted a tight end," Walker said in May 2019. "People tend to forget about Jonnu Smith. He was just drafted [in 2017]. It's not even me, it's him. He's going to replace me when I leave."

Added Smith: "It’s going to be tough not to look over next to me and see my guy next to me in those meetings and on the field with me. But for me, I’m tight end 1 now. I’m just going to take advantage of the opportunity that I have in front of me."