Patriots Re-Work Contract for Free-Agent ‘Bust’

Getty Jonnu Smith

An underlying story of the New England Patriots offseason has been their struggles to create flexibility with the salary cap. On Friday, the team made a move that created a little bit of breathing room.

According to ESPN’s Field Yates, the Patriots restructured the remaining three years of tight end Jonnu Smith’s contract by converting a portion of it into a signing bonus. Per Yates, the restructure saves the Patriots almost $5.5 million.

Patriots salary cap guru Miguel Benzan posted a breakdown of how Smith’s salary will be paid for the remainder of the five-year, $50 million deal he signed before the start of the 2021 season.

How Does the Contract Restructuring Help the Patriots?

There is an operating cost for NFL teams throughout the season. For example, basic roster moves require some level of usage from funds that impact the salary cap. Before the restructuring of Smith’s deal, the Patriots were right up against the edge in this category.

New England has essentially borrowed salary cap funds from the next two seasons to lighten the load for the 2022 season. Does this mean the Patriots are OK with paying Smith more in 2023 and 2024 and perhaps having his cost count more heavily against the cap?

Not necessarily, as the veteran tight end still has much to prove after his disappointing 2021 season. It will be interesting to see how he responds, considering his back could be against the wall in 2022.

Does This Put More Pressure on Smith to Perform?

It’s hard not to imagine Smith feeling the pressure ahead of this season. In 2021, after signing his $50 million deal, Smith posted just 28 receptions for 294 yards and a TD. Those numbers were significantly lower than what he posted with the Tennessee Titans in the last two years.

NESN’s Dakota Randall called Smith “a total bust.”

Why did Smith struggle so much with the Patriots in 2021? In a report from ESPN’s Mike Reiss from earlier this year, Smith’s absence from the voluntary OTAs ahead of last season was mentioned as a potential stumbling block, and was pointed to as at least a factor in his disappointing season.

“Some close to Smith wonder how much not taking part in the Patriots’ voluntary offseason program last year was a significant factor as to why (he struggled),” Reiss wrote. “While few scouts and coaches question his raw ability, they say he’s the type of player who needs refinement, which traces back to his college days and early years in Tennessee where he also experienced slow starts.”

How Much Does Bill Belichick Believe in Smith?

It would appear as though Bill Belichick has a ton of faith in Smith’s ability to rebound and perform up to their original expectations. Based on Reiss’ report, there is a belief within the organization that health played a role in 2021. Also, there appears to be thought that Smith is the kind of player who desperately needs the cohesion with a quarterback–especially a young one like Mac Jones–that is usually built during the offseason workouts.

With Smith having had that time with Jones this offseason–even with the transition taking place on that side of the ball with New England–we should see a marked improvement.

If Smith registers 50 or more receptions for 500 or more yards and 5 TDs in 2022, he’ll have become the kind of player New England needs to help elevate Jones and the offense on a whole.

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