The combination of Smith’s talent, poor performance in 2021 and the sizable contract he signed has made the upcoming season crucial. Pro Football Focus’ Ben Linsey calls Smith the Patriots’ biggest X-Factor in 2022.
Smith has shown flashes of being the kind of weapon in the Patriots’ offense that makes quarterback Mac Jones’ life easier. In 2020, Smith’s last year with the Tennessee Titans, he made 41 receptions for 448 yards and 8 TDs.
What he produced for the Patriots in 2021 was a far cry from that level of production. Smith’s modest totals of 28 receptions, 294 yards and 1 TD weren’t just much less impacting than you’d expect from a player who signed a lucrative free agent deal, the team’s offense was simply worse with him on the field.
For New England’s offense to click on all cylinders, they will need to get something out of their two-tight-end sets. If the Patriots can pass and run effectively out of looks with two receivers, two tight ends and a running back, it’ll add versatility to their attack.
If Smith is as ineffective in 2022 as he was in 2021, that won’t be easy. There is some pressure on Smith this season, but he’s not the only one.
While he didn’t sign a deal as lucrative as Smith’s, the Patriots’ biggest offseason acquisition this year was former Miami Dolphins WR DeVante Parker. The Patriots traded a third-round pick to the Dolphins in exchange for Parker and a fifth-rounder.
The compensation wasn’t heavy, but the load Parker is expected to carry is noteworthy. The Patriots haven’t had a true No. 1 receiver for years. Some would argue it dates back to when Randy Moss was helping Tom Brady rewrite the record books. N’Keal Harry was supposed to end the drought, but that hasn’t worked out since he was drafted with the final pick in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Parker has the size at 6’3 and 219 pounds to be the physical sort of receiver that gives cornerbacks nightmares. He’s also the only Patriots receiver on the roster who has had a 1,000-yard season in his career.
In 2019, Parker had 1,202 yards receiving for the Dolphins. New England is hoping he can recapture some of that magic.
The pressure isn’t just on offensive players. Arguably the biggest weakness on the Patriots’ roster is at cornerback. New England lost J.C. Jackson in free agency to the Los Angeles Chargers.
New England turned to an old face to replace him. Malcolm Butler has been a Super Bowl hero for the Patriots, but he didn’t play football in 2021. The Patriots signed him this offseason in hopes that he could help to solidify New England’s pass defense.
Butler is 32 years old, which isn’t ancient, and he played in all 16 games for the Tennessee Titans in 2020 picking up four interceptions. Still, with him having missed an entire season, it is sensible to wonder if Butler has lost a step.
If he can anchor the pass defense as a true No. 1 corner, he could be the unit’s most important player.
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