Falcons’ Jonnu Smith catches, passes, provides locker-room support

Falcons tight end Jonnu Smith (81) breaks the defensive line during the second half against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. 
Miguel Martinz/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons tight end Jonnu Smith (81) breaks the defensive line during the second half against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  Miguel Martinz/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons tight end Jonnu Smith’s reunion with coach Arthur Smith has been one of the highlights of the season for the franchise.

Jonnu Smith will play a key role in the passing attack when the Falcons (4-4) host the Vikings (4-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Falcons sent a seventh-round pick (245th overall) to get Smith from the Patriots in March. He originally was selected by the Titans in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft. He had his best season in the NFL in 2020 when Arthur Smith was the Titans’ offensive coordinator.

He’s on pace to shatter career highs in receptions and yards. In 2020, Jonnu Smith, who played at Florida International, had 41 catches for 448 yards and eight touchdowns. He has 29 catches for 332 yards and a touchdown with the Falcons. He’s on pace for 62 catches and 706 yards.

“It’s always a good feeling when you can contribute in many different ways,” Smith said. “You just hope those contributions equate to wins. That’s what it is ultimately about.”

Smith senses the Falcons are close through to a breakthrough.

“We come in week-in and week-out, you put the work in and good things happen,” Smith said. “My mindset is, I don’t worry about numbers are anything like that, I just come in here and try to prepare and win for my teammates.”

The Falcons have not been able to get on a roll. They won the first two games and then lost the next two. Then there was a win followed by loss, another win and then a loss to Tennessee, 28-23 on Sunday.

“We are .500 right now,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of football ahead of us. We are looking forward to getting this thing back to where it needs to be.”

Smith’s integration into the offense has been seamless.

“Being with (Arthur Smith) ... in our past and him utilizing me in different areas of the field and me being able to capitalize off of that,” Jonnu Smith said. “He’s found a lot of ways to get me the ball and take advantage of my skill set.”

After that 2020 season, the Patriots signed him in free agency to a four-year, $50 million deal. Playing with young quarterbacks he had 28 and 27 catches in 2021 and 2022. He was elated with the trade.

“That’s part of the reason why I’m here,” Smith said. “His trust in me and him knowing what kind of guy I am, bringing me into the locker room. We’ve got a great group of guys here. I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

Smith has been a steadying influence in the locker room.

“Jonnu is somebody I met before we even started the season,” Falcons safety Jessie Bates III said. “Somebody who’s been in this league for a long time. Just hearing his experiences, he’s been with New England, he’s been with the Titans. Just hearing his experience and his approach to every day, he’s a true pro.”

Smith’s presence has been especially helpful this week as the Falcons elected to bench Desmond Ridder for at least one game and start Taylor Heinicke against the Vikings.

“I’ve been a part of a few QB changes with Marcus (Mariota) to Ryan (Tannehill in Tennessee),” Smith said. “From Mac (Jones in New England) to (Bailey) Zappe and back to Mac. Now, I’m on this one.”

For those who may not handle change well, he’s been spreading his message to them.

“Just control what you can control,” Smith said. “You know that I mean, part of being a pro is doing your job and worrying about your job and not another man’s job.”

Smith is ready to roll with Heinicke.

“I’m confident in whoever is back there,” he said. “Ultimately, that decision is out of the player’s hand. We feel like whatever 11 is out there we’ve got a chance to win. I’ve got confidence in both of those guys. I would keep the mindset of, control what you can control. Be a pro and show up when your number is called.”

Smith’s leadership and guidance comes off as very genuine.

“I have to attribute it to my faith,” Smith said. “I was raised up in a Christian household. Being a man, is vital to me first, more than being a player. Ultimately, we play this game. We live life. My faith has been able to keep me afloat.”

While exposing his beliefs and tenets for football, Smith doesn’t comes off sanctimonious.

“I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “But I’ve been able to kind of understand certain things. It’s been able to kind of guide me through life. I’m thankful for that.”

Arthur Smith trusts Jonnu Smith so much that he put him at running back and had him throw a halfback pass to tight end MyCole Pruitt. It was an incompletion, but there was a story behind the play.

“It looked open, but coverage-wise I didn’t want to give the ball away or make a bad mistake in the red zone,” Jonnu Smith said. “That’s a very important part of the field. As every part is, but especially, it’s critical in the red zone, especially with our struggles down there. We were just trying to make the smart play. If I couldn’t get it to him, I wasn’t going to let them get it.”


Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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