Patriots Plan Major Role Change For Disappointing Free-Agent Signing

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If you were to make a list of the 10 most disappointing NFL free-agent signings from 2021, the New England Patriots’ Jonnu Smith would likely be on it.

After signing a 4-year, $50 million deal with the Patriots, Smith  missed a game due to injury, played in less than 50 percent of the snaps on offense, had 37 total touches between rushes and receptions, and found the end zone just once the entire season.

When you compare Smith’s totals to Hunter Henry, the Patriots’ other free-agent acquisition at tight end, the former’s struggles are even more glaring.

Henry didn’t just lead the Patriots in TD receptions. He also had 50 receptions for 613 yards and established himself as the safety blanket option for rookie quarterback Mac Jones. The Patriots have to find a way to get more out of Smith this season, and it appears they may be in the midst of executing a plan.

A Role Change is in the Cards for Jonnu Smith

Tom Curran of NBC Sports was a guest on WEEI’s Gresh and Keefe and he discussed what looks like a major shift in role for Smith.

“I do think the offense will certainly be tweaked significantly,” Curran told Gresh and Keefe “If they’re taking the fullback out — Jakob Johnson saying they’re not going to use a fullback anymore and it’s going to be Jonnu Smith — you’re not going to pay $9 million in salary to Jonnu Smith to run into nose tackles and middle linebackers all year. He has to have a huge role — an [Aaron] Hernandez-style, I would imagine role in the offense — and I’m curious to see whoever the offensive coordinator is, what he has decided for the formula the Patriots are going to employ. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more downfield, press the ball downfield a little bit.”

The decision to move on from a talented and capable fullback like Johnson suggests the Patriots are moving away from that battering-ram style for the third man in the backfield. Smith is not the kind of player built to function as a lead blocker–at least not primarily.

As Curran mentions, Smith’s athleticism and versatility could allow him to thrive in a role similar to what Hernandez played for the Patriots before things went off the rails for the troubled, but talented former NFL player.

At his peak, which was in 2011, Hernandez registered 79 receptions for 910 yards and 7 TDs. Over the course of his three-year NFL career, Hernandez averaged 58.3 receptions, 652 receiving yards and 6 TD receptions. The Patriots would be thrilled if Smith can produce those kinds of numbers.

After such a disappointing first season with the Patriots, Smith should be motivated.

Patriots Owner Robert Kraft Wants More From Smith and Others

In a recent conversation with The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, Patriots owner Robert Kraft made it clear, he expects more from Smith and another free-agent signing from 2021, Nelson Agholor. Kraft didn’t call Smith and Agholor out by name, but the former made it clear he expects more from what was an expensive free-agent class last offseason.

Kraft also mentioned the team had mad changes to help better utilize some of the newer acquisition’s skill set. Kraft might have been referring to what Curran mentioned regarding the fullback position and perhaps more downfield looks for Agholor.

If the Patriots make more of an effort to incorporate Smith and Agholor, the pressure will be on both men to perform.

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