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'Push the needle': How Jonnu Smith is evolving in first year in Atlanta, but seventh year of career 

The veteran tight end has a serious approach to the game, and he's serious because he has goals to reach in 2023. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the cardinal rules of journalism is to never enter into a story with a preconceived notion of how you expect it to go. Sure, you have your story idea and your topical questions, but you don't force an angle. You definitely don't pre-write it, either. Well, I did on Monday. And here I am scrapping the hundreds of words I had already written about Jonnu Smith in favor of the words you're reading now. (Another cardinal rule of journalism is to not insert yourself into a story, and here I am breaking that rule, too, but I digress).

On Sunday, I was in charge of writing the camp report from practice. It was a shells-only day, so I didn't think I would have many notes. But what I wrote about Smith stuck with me as I went home that night.

So, I wanted to talk to him about the fun I (personally) feel like he's having with the Falcons in 2023 after the organization traded for him back in March, sending a 2023 seventh-round pick to New England in exchange. I put in the request with our communications department. When Monday's practice rolled around, I put in another request, too, this one to Jay, one of our team photographers. I told him I needed a picture of Smith for a story I was working on, but I added the caveat that I needed Smith to be smiling in the picture. With a thumbs up, off Jay went to capture.

This is where my story issues began, because Jay never saw Smith smile throughout the two-hour practice he was shooting. After practice, Jay approached me to tell me that, "the man doesn't smile!" That's OK, I thought, there are other ways to tell this story without a smiling picture.

But then I talked to Smith himself after practice, and I realized I had the wrong angle. The original angle that I entitled: "Jonnu Smith having fun with the Falcons in Year 7 of career" is not what materialized when I spoke to him. He's a bit more serious than that headline implies. He's a bit more professional, too. He's a man of few words, not someone who is going to give me a manifesto of why he's happy in Atlanta.

He has a serious approach to the game, and goals to reach in 2023.


The story of how and why Smith ended up with the Falcons has already been told. He was traded to Atlanta, yes, but he came here for head coach Arthur Smith. The two Smiths began their partnership in Tennessee. They spent four years together after Jonnu Smith was drafted by the Titans in 2017. At the time, Arthur Smith was Jonnu Smith's tight ends coach, then his offensive coordinator two years later.

Jonnu Smith experienced the best production of his career working with Arthur, to the tune of 16 touchdowns and over 1,000 receiving yards in four seasons in Tennessee. It's production that set Jonnu Smith up for signing a whopping four-year, $50 million deal with New England. It set Arthur Smith up for the head coaching position he has with the Falcons.

After two seasons with the Patriots, Jonnu Smith reiterated on Monday that he's in Atlanta now is because of Arthur Smith.

"He's the reason I'm here," Jonnu Smith said.

The duo of coach and player have an agenda to push together, and it's not necessarily about having fun. It's getting the job done.

"We try to push the needle," Jonnu Smith said. "Arthur knows the caliber of player that I was,and the skillset that I had, and all I can do is enhance those. We're going to try to push the needle and put me in as many positions as I can to help, ultimately, this team win."

Arthur Smith has always had high expectations for Jonnu Smith. That fundamental thought doesn't change. Neither is letting their foot off the gas. If anything, they're pushing it closer to the floorboard.

"When it's time to snap the ball between those lines," Jonnu Smith said, "we know it's all work."

Tight ends coach Justin Peelle said after Monday's practice he appreciates Jonnu Smith's professionalism. He may run out to the field with a smile on his face, but when he steps between the lines, he's all business. He knows he has an opportunity in front of him.

"It's a new start for him, so to speak," Peelle said.

Jonnu Smith doesn't take that start lightly, nor does he diminish the ask of coaches for him to be a leader on this 2023 team, seeing as it's a team with more skill players on their rookie deals than not. Jonnu Smith said this is something he takes on, and sometimes, yeah, that means he leans a bit on the serious side.

"Something that a lot of people overlook and underestimate is someone's ability to be a leader," Jonnu Smith said. "Championship teams, they need leaders... There are so many different ways you can lead, and I'll never take that for granted. Going into Year 7, being one of the older guys in this unit, that's definitely something that I am gunning towards."

I went into my conversation with Jonnu Smith thinking I was going to get one thing, and I came out with something else entirely, seeing the professionalism of Jonnu Smith standing before me. I knew the story had to change to better fit this (more accurate) version of the tight end.

That doesn't mean he didn't play into my original angle, though. He at least gave me this:

"As long as I still feel like a kid playing this game I'll always play it," he said.

So, maybe the original idea wasn't too far off after all.

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals during Preseason Week 2.

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