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'It's a game of patience': How Jonnu Smith's journey can help the Falcons stay the course 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Football is a game of patience.

That's how Falcons tight end Jonnu Smith describes it. Smith knows a thing or two about patience.

Smith came into his own in his third year in the league with the Tennessee Titans. He doubled his yards receiving from his previous two years combined; in the following season he notched a career-high in yards (483) and touchdowns (8).

"You got to let this thing come to you," Smith said. "You can't press it."

Now, he's on pace to overtake his career-high yards receiving in his first season in Atlanta. Through four games, Smith has recorded 179 yards and 15 catches on 20 targets. Smith is second to only Bijan Robinson in yards after catch (87).

Smith is a tight end by position but has worked well as a slot receiver, with about 60 percent of his routes starting from that inside spot. He's been exceptionally efficient there, with Ridder achieving a 109.2 quarterback rating when targeting him. He also an overall catch percentage of 75 when targeted, according to Next Gen Stats.

There's a striking commonality in the tight end's most successful seasons. His breakout year in 2019 aligned with Falcons coach Arthur Smith's promotion to Titans offensive coordinator. Jonnu Smith had another strong season in 2020 with Arthur Smith as OC.

The Titans made it to the playoffs in those two years with Tennessee, going all the way to the AFC championship game in 2020.

"There's a lot of familiar things that I've been able to experience for the first four years being with Art," Jonnu Smith said. "You're obviously gonna find some comfortability in that — it's one of the reasons why I'm here."

After the 2020 season, the Smith duo departed from Tennessee. Arthur Smith took the Falcons head coach vacancy and Jonnu Smith signed with the New England Patriots as a free agent.

Jonnu Smith's numbers dwindled while in New England. In two seasons he registered 539 yards with just a single touchdown.

Again, he stayed patient.

The Falcons traded for Jonnu Smith in the offseason, as Arthur Smith knew the potential that the tight end could unlock. After all, he has seen it prevail before.

In Atlanta's most recent outing, the tight end finished with a game-high 95 yards receiving, including a 33-yard long catch against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"Jonnu made some big plays," Arthur Smith said of the tight end's Week 4 performance. "(He) gave us a chance."

Unfortunately for Atlanta, the offense couldn't capitalize on that chance as the Falcons dropped their second straight game.

For a team that started 2-0 and finished 2-2 a month into the season, patience is key. It's something that Arthur Smith hammered home heading into the Falcons Week 5 game. Atlanta's head coach cited Jonnu Smith's trajectory as evidence that sometimes staying the course is necessary if that's with a young quarterback or a developing tight end.

In those moments, veteran leadership is vital.

Jonnu Smith, in his seventh season, provides guidance for the young talent in the room. Whether it's with Kyle Pitts or John FitzPatrick, Jonnu Smith is there to be that veteran presence.

"I can go to him with whatever comes up in practice: 'What do you think about this? What do you think about this route versus this coverage?'" FitzPatrick said. "Just having that willingness to help allows other guys to grow in the room."

The veteran tends to lead by example but said he's vocal when he needs to be.

Jonnu Smith believes that this Falcons team can get to where they want to go, but they have to stick with it and hold onto their identity.

"We just have to continue to be patient and play our brand of football," Jonnu Smith said. "We'll all be successful in our own ways, and eventually that will lead to those wins."

He instills in teammates to put others in front of themselves and wait for the energy to come back around. Ultimately, the patience pays off.

It's a simple example to set because that's been the story of his career.

"I'm not trying to be special, we are special," Jonnu Smith said. "You don't have to do anything extra, we are extraordinary."

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