When the Patriots made two splash signings in free agency at tight end, New England was expecting to party like it was 2011.
The selling point to Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith was the Patriots, as they did from 2010-12, would unleash a two-tight end offense on the league in 2021.
However, the Pats’ offense never became as tight-end heavy as we all expected, or as when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were one of the NFL’s most formidable duos.
Instead, Henry and Smith didn’t spend nearly as much time together on the field as anticipated despite mostly good health for both tight ends.
According to Sharp Football Analytics, the Patriots ranked 27th in using 12 personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB), the personnel grouping many expected them to live in during the 2021 season.
(via Sports Info Solutions)
Although the production in a smallish sample size was above average, the Pats only threw 67 passes out of 12 personnel last season (24th in NFL).
Now, even after adding four free-agent pass-catchers last March, the Patriots find themselves still searching for offensive firepower in the 2022 offseason.
However, the challenge for Bill Belichick is that Henry and Smith are occupying $28.8 million in cap space on New England’s books next season.
Suppose a big move for a true number one weapon comes along. In that case, the Patriots can theoretically move money into future years or cut several rostered players to fit a new playmaker under the salary cap.
Still, even though Henry held up his end of the bargain, making their tight end duo a bigger part of their plans moving forward might be their most likely path to finding more offense next season.
Since Henry did what was expected, that brings us to Jonnu Smith, who has a $13.75 million cap hit in the second season of a four-year, $50 million contract with the Patriots.
Despite the big payday, Smith was mostly an afterthought in the passing game and looked awkward when targeted—leading to questions about why the Pats signed him to such a lucrative contract in the first place?
What was the plan for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to implement Smith in the offense, and why did it go awry? Because there was once a plan to help Smith reach even another level this past season.
Believe it or not, Smith was more efficient with his opportunities in his first season with the Patriots than his last season with his former team in Tennessee.
But the tight end only ran a pass route on 31.2% of his offensive snaps, had 20 fewer targets compared to 2020, and was fighting the ball all season long on his downfield opportunities. Plus, his touchdown production drastically took a downward turn (eight in 2020 to one in 2021).
After reviewing his targets and touches from recent seasons with the Patriots and Titans, my findings might surprise you: although the volume wasn’t as high, the schemes were relatively the same.
For various reasons, one being a hip injury that limited Smith in the second half of the season, the big-play ability just didn’t translate with the Patriots.
Starting with the downfield opportunities, you can find tremendous overlap in the routes Smith ran last season relative to his route tree with the Titans.
One example was off play-action on crossing routes over the middle. The Pats run power PA here and use Kendrick Bourne’s motion out of the backfield to move the zone defenders over, creating space for Smith. Unfortunately, the throw is a little too far in front of Smith, causing him to reach for the ball and stumble rather than catch-and-run. There’s a much bigger gain there if Smith has a chance to break Kevin Byard’s tackle attempt.
Here’s almost the exact same play-action concept by the Titans. Instead, Ryan Tannehill’s throw hit Smith in stride, and he’s off to the races.
Smith could’ve had better balance to receive Jones’s catchable pass and regain momentum. Was Mac expecting Smith to keep running at full-speed across the formation, or was the ball thrown too far in front? Either way, the ball placement being slightly off prevented a bigger play.
Another instance where the Pats tried to push the ball downfield to Smith resulted in an A.J. Terrell interception above. New England uses a four verticals concept against cover three to stress the deep zone defenders. Mac looks off the post-safety but doesn’t see Terrell jumping Smith up the seam, and Smith gets beat at the catch point by the Falcons corner.
The Titans ran Smith up the seam on a similar concept with two inside vertical threats, and the outside corner even came off the deep third to jump it. This time, though, Smith climbs the ladder and makes a catch in traffic for his quarterback.
We could pin some blame on a throw that hung up a bit by Jones and credit Terrell for an excellent play, but the difference in explosiveness in Smith’s jumps is also glaring.
Then, there were the red zone opportunities, or the lack thereof, with Smith receiving only ten targets inside the opponent’s 20-yard line on 20 routes. In his last season with the Titans, those numbers were 17 targets on 47 routes (hence the eight-to-one touchdown discrepancy).
Whereas Tannehill trusted Smith to win against single coverage in contested situations, Mac wasn’t as willing to throw the ball up to his 6-foot-3 tight end when the opportunity presented itself.
At the bottom of the screen, the Bills rotate into a two-man (cover two) structure after the snap, and Smith has a step on the corner route with an out-leveraged half-field safety. Although there’s pressure on Jones, that’s where you’d like to see him trust Smith to make a play.
The main aspect of Smith’s game that drew the Patriots to the tight end in free agency was his ability to create yards with the ball in his hands.New England tried to tap into Smith’s abilities as a ball carrier, where he once again ranked near the top of the league in YAC over expected, but it was mainly on schemed touches.
McDaniels tried to get Smith going with rush attempts on jet sweeps and handoffs from the backfield. In fact, Jonnu had more carries this past season (nine) than his four seasons with the Titans combined (six). But his longest gain on those nine carries was only nine yards.
Along with touches out of the backfield, Smith was targeted seven times on screen passes with six catches for 61 yards, which produced three of his five explosive plays. Smith was targeted four times on screens with Tennessee two seasons ago.
As always, there’s never a singular reason as to why a player with high expectations underperforms.
Although we can get on McDaniels for not feeding Smith the rock more, his usage overlapped nicely with how the Titans got him involved. The newness of the Smith-Jones relationship was a factor, as was Smith’s health and confidence in the scheme as a first-year Patriot.
Smith carries a dead cap number of $26.5 million if he’s cut by the team before June 2, meaning it would cost the Patriots $13 million in cap space, per cap expert Miguel Benzan (aka PatsCap).
And based on his production this past season, good luck finding a team that will bail the Patriots out of the two remaining years with hefty guarantees on his four-year deal.
New England could also approach Smith about a pay cut, but why would he take less money? There’s no incentive for him to do so, or they could save cap space in 2022 by converting Smith’s salary into a signing bonus, which would raise his cap hits in future years.
The best path forward is to hope another year in the system increases Smith’s comfort level, leading to more targets in the passing game and a desire for quarterback and play-caller to give him more opportunities.
Smith and the Patriots are stuck with each other, so make the best of it.