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Fantasy War of Words: Jonnu Smith (2020 Fantasy Football)

Jul 15, 2020

Welcome to our Fantasy War of Words series, in which two of our analysts go head-to-head via email to defend their rankings position on a notable player ahead of the 2020 fantasy football season. In this edition, Dan Harris and Kyle Yates go toe-to-toe over their respective rankings of Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith (Dan has Smith as the TE16 in his latest 1/2 PPR re-draft rankings, while Yates has him all the way up at TE8.)

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Dan Harris: I figured if we were going to have to argue over the fantasy value of a player this year, it would be Jonnu Smith, if only because I couldn’t possibly have him high enough to match you, Yates. Here’s the weird thing, and I know you’re aware of this: I’m not even bearish on Smith this year. I have him at 16th at tight end, matching our expert consensus ranking, and even recently drafted him in an FSGA PPR draft.  But you have him eighth, the highest of ANY expert in the industry!! I’m just going to put the ball in your court here – how can you justify having Smith ranked ahead of the likes of Tyler Higbee, Jared Cook, Austin Hooper, Rob Gronkowski, and Evan Engram, to name just a few??

Kyle Yates: It’s quite simple, Dan. Smith is an extremely talented tight end that is now walking into an incredible opportunity. If you look at the Titans and the success that they had last year, they did that on the back of 445 rush attempts and only 448 pass attempts. There was only one other team in the NFL that threw less than the Titans and that was the Ravens. The pass attempts have to come back up and the targets have to go somewhere.

Corey Davis doesn’t have Ryan Tannehill‘s trust and is unlikely to account for more than a 17% target share. Adam Humphries did next to nothing last year and I have him projected for a 14% target share. AJ Brown will see plenty of targets, where I have him down for a 24% target share, but Smith is the next in line. I have him with a 20.6% target share right now, which is just around 100 targets on the season. If that happens, Smith is too talented of a tight end to not take advantage of those targets. He’s an incredible athlete and he’s set to take advantage of Delanie Walker‘s absence this year. I feel like I’m being conservative and he may even end up finishing higher than TE8 when it’s all said and done.

DH: I love few things as much as I love the Yates bold tight end takes! Yes, I agree, Smith has upside but let’s really drill down on the targets. Tennessee had 448 pass attempts last year and 432 pass attempts the year before. I agree that they’ll throw more this year than either of the past two years, but they’ve averaged fewer than 59 plays per game in each of the last two years. Tennessee is not going to suddenly morph into a passing offense.

And that’s really the rub to me – the targets, or lack thereof. Last year, the Titans targeted their tight ends 26% of the time, seventh-most in the NFL. Yet they ranked just 15th in total targets to the tight end position. So for me, unless the Titans drastically change their offensive philosophy – which they almost certainly won’t – I don’t see how Smith can possibly approach close to 100 targets. After all, only six tight ends in the NFL had at least 97 targets last year.  And expecting Smith to approach that number seems like a stretch considering that in the 10 games Delanie Walker missed last season, Smith had just 36 targets total! And that was with the same cast of characters at receiver that the team has now.

So, are you expecting the Titans to throw a TON more, for them to just suddenly realize how good Smith is despite having success last year with him being only somewhat involved, or what?

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KY: Great question.

It’s not necessarily an argument about more passing volume, but simply looking at the other receiving options and not feeling confident sending a significant amount of targets their way.

For the Titans, here are my passing projections:

PLAYER TARGETS TARGET %
A.J. Brown 107 23%
Jonnu Smith 102 22%
Corey Davis 79 17%
Adam Humphries 56 12%
Darrynton Evans 51 11%
Anthony Firkser 28 6%
Derrick Henry 23 5%
Cody Hollister 19 4%
TEAM TOTAL 465 100%

__________

Adam Humphries was not a part of the offense last year, but if he takes a step forward it’s certainly a possibility that he takes away some work from Smith. Otherwise, Davis has done nothing up to this point to warrant any sort of significant target share and Evans is not going to see significant work out of the backfield as a rookie. Smith’s incredibly talented and he’s walking into an incredible opportunity, in my opinion.

DH: Phew, that is not the most inspiring group (other than A.J. Brown, of course). And thinking about it the way you are, I understand those projections. But here’s where I can’t get on board. The Titans’ pass-catchers look pretty identical to last year, right? Once Delanie Walker went down, and Smith started playing at least 72% of the snaps per game, he saw 36 targets, as I mentioned. In those 10 games, Ryan Tannehill attempted 270 passes.  That means that Smith saw a . . . carry the 1 . . . 13% target share last year in games in which he was the primary tight end like he will be this year. And the Titans went 7-3 in those games.

It’s the same coaching staff. It’s pretty much the same exact group of pass-catchers and given the maturity of Brown and the addition of Darrynton Evans, it’s probably better. So, your underlying theory – Smith is a pretty dynamic playmaker on a team bereft of similar options so he should get a ton of targets – makes absolute sense, but I just don’t think the numbers will support it.

But even if Smith sees a hefty increase in targets, how much yardage will he get? Among tight ends with at least the 44 targets that Smith saw last year, he ranked 26th out of 30 in terms of average depth of target with just 5.8 yards. He’s a great athlete, of course, but it’s really hard to see him putting up monstrous numbers when he’s so often targeted near the line of scrimmage, no?

KY: I totally get your argument. However, I think 270 total passes is too small of a sample size to try and extract absolute data from…If you open that up to the 465 that I’m projecting, it becomes a little bit easier to see how the targets can go Smith’s way.

In my opinion, George Kittle is the best tight end after the catch in the NFL. However, after Kittle, it might be Smith next in line. Very few players in the NFL can scoot the way that he can and he’s been preparing this offseason as the starter. He’s a contested catch specialist too (check out his catch against Baltimore) and the Titans coaching staff is going to be able to get him the ball in a myriad of different ways this season. Whether that’s end zone shots or screens, Smith’s going to be a focal point of the offense.

I understand that my ranking of Smith is aggressive. However, I just can’t find a way to bump up the other receivers on this team to take targets away from Smith. Fantasy football superstardom is created by talented players walking into an amazing opportunity. Smith’s a talented player; he’s just finally getting the opportunity.

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