The New England Patriots turned a lot of heads when they inked deals with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry instead of splurging on a No. 1 receiver.
Those signings compelled fans to think Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels were planning on bringing back their old two-tight end sets from when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez terrorized opposing defenses.
That hasn’t been the case through 10 games, though.
While Henry has largely been an afterthought in the passing game, he’s currently tied for third in the NFL in touchdown catches with seven. He’s tops amongst TEs in that regard, so his impact is pretty much undeniable.
Smith, on the other hand, has had a rough go of it in his first year in Foxborough. We’ll dive into his stats, or lack thereof, in a minute.
For now, though, we have to bring attention to a worrisome quote McDaniels dropped about 2021 being a “foundational year” for Smith.
Patriots OC Josh McDaniels’ comments on Jonnu Smith are concerning.
The last thing Patriots fans need is McDaniels likening the team’s big-money tight end to a rookie learning a new system.
We know it’s more complex than just comprehending a playbook. Belichick has noted countless times through his coaching career that he prefers to brainstorm game plans from scratch depending on the opponent. That can be a difficult process for some players, especially ones that came from a franchise that went about things a little differently.
However, that doesn’t change the fact Smith has underwhelmed in virtually every facet this campaign. His four drops lead all Patriots receivers and he has just four catches over the last three games.
To make matters worse, his blocking has also produced lousy results. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith owns a 57.3 pass-blocking grade, which ranks 15th on the team, and a 39.6 run-blocking grade, which lags behind the likes of Yodny Cajuste and Yasir Durant, both of whom have played themselves out of the OL rotation.
We all know Belichick asks a lot of his tight ends in the blocking game. The fact Smith, who’s often times the best athlete on an NFL field, is struggling so much in that regard indicates he’s actually having trouble “learning the system.” After all, TEs coach Nick Caley raved about Smith’s work ethic when he was asked about the criticism surrounding the 26-year-old.
"“I don’t really pay attention to honestly any outside noise Just being honest with you. He’s always come to work with an incredible work ethic. He’s locked in, he’s unselfish. And he comes to work every single day, ready to go. So I’ve never noticed one thing that you know from his preparation from his attitude, anything like that. I’ve been pleased with everything.”"
It’s a relief Smith is in a good headspace amid his struggles, but these quotes indicate the former third-round pick isn’t going to be much of a factor down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs, if the Pats make it that far.
We’re all for developing players and helping familiarize them with the playbook, but it admittedly looks a lot different when there’s a $50 million contract ($31.25 million guaranteed) attached to your name.