The New England Patriots and Bill Belichick stomped all over the narrative that suggests they never spend money on free agents. Through the first week of activity, no team was more active than New England.
Between trades and free agency, the Patriots made 22 deals over a seven-day period to completely revamp their team on offense. Aside from bringing back Cam Newton at quarterback, none of the Patriots’ moves were potentially more impacting than the acquisition of two tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson says Smith is “an opportunity away from a breakout season.”
With both men on the roster and expected to play major snaps in 2021, the Patriots are in a position to get back to the tight-end-centric attack that helped them win six Super Bowls in 20 years.
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Between the two, Smith has the potential to be the bigger playmaker. In fact, he’s being compared to Aaron Hernandez, because of his athleticism and versatility.
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Smith’s Exciting Versatility
We all know things went horribly wrong with Hernandez, the human being. As a football player, his versatility was invaluable to the Patriots in 2011 when he had 79 receptions for 910 yards and 7 TDs.
Hernandez was also used as a running back in the regular season that year when he had five attempts for 45 yards, and in the postseason when the late-Florida alum had five rushes for 61 yards in a blowout win over the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round.
As NBC Sports’ Peter King points out, Smith has similar athleticism, and he’s also experienced comparable success as a rushing option out of the backfield.
Here is a quote from King’s Football Morning in America article and a video he referenced that came from Michael Crawford:
With so many questions about the strength and efficiency of Cam Newton’s arm, the Patriots immediately become a tight end-dominant offense. Think back 10 years ago, when the Patriots were so tight end-centric. That’s the season Rob Gronkowski and the late Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, and the season Hernandez played running back in the playoff rout of the Tim Tebow Broncos. Jonnu Smith got used in the backfield by Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith the same way Josh McDaniels used Hernandez in the 2011 postseason.
Smith will be 26 when the 2021 season begins, and all he’s done is improve since he came into the NFL. His receptions have climbed consistently from 18 to 20 to 35, and 41 in 2020 to go with 448 yards and 8 TDs. He’s a stud and likely entering his prime.
Don’t Sleep on Henry
The best thing about what the Patriots did with their tight end acquisitions is how they paired guys with complementary skill sets. Smith is more of a pure receiving tight end, but Henry is a stronger blocker while still providing a receiver threat.
Despite missing two games in 2020, Henry had a career season with 60 receptions for 613 yards and 4 TDs. Under offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels’ tutelage and Newton’s history of success feeding guys like Greg Olsen, Smith, and Henry might be looking at even bigger seasons in 2021. That’s great news for the Patriots’ offense.
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