Can the Patriots have another iconic Tight End duo this season?

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 28: Kevin Byard #31 of the Tennessee Titans tackles Jonnu Smith #81 of the New England Patriots in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 28: Kevin Byard #31 of the Tennessee Titans tackles Jonnu Smith #81 of the New England Patriots in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

It has been several years since the Patriots have had a commanding tight end pairing. Could this be the season that finally changes?

The 2021 free agency period is one many Patriots fans will remember for years to come. The unprecedented spending spree by Bill Belichick was intriguing and the players he was able to sign were certainly thrilling.

Throughout all the chaos, however, there were a few names that stood out most.

When it was reported Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith were going to be joining the Patriots, a giant sigh of relief was heard around New England, on top of disbelief that New England was able to snag both top free agent tight ends available.

The Patriots have had tremendous difficulty over the years finding a reputable replacement since the retirement of Rob Gronkowski in 2019. But even before his departure, the struggle to pair him with another star at the position seemed nearly impossible as well.

Were Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez really that good?

Throughout the last 10 seasons, the Patriots have struggled to recreate their once dominant and legendary tight end duo of the past. There was some hope during the 2016 season, with the addition of Martellus Bennett that a new intimidating tight end force was on the horizon. But that fizzled rather quickly with Gronkowski sustaining an injury and Bennett signing with the Packers after the season.

It would be difficult for any pairing of players to bring the type of supremacy and record-breaking production that Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez accomplished during their years together from 2010-2012. And it’s clear from Belichick’s lack of success in developing a new duo that it is also not a cakewalk for even the most respected of coaches, either.

  • Rob Gronkowski: 43 games played 187/262 REC (71.4%), 2,663 yards, 38 touchdowns, 14.2 Y/R, 61.9 YPG
  • Aaron Hernandez: 38 games played, 175/260 REC (67.3%), 1,956 yards, 18 touchdowns 11.2 Y/R, 51.5 YPG
    (stats from seasons played together during 2010-2012)

During their few seasons together, Gronkowski and Hernandez were the best pairings in football. Gronkowski had the most prolific season ever by a tight end in NFL history in 2011, while Hernandez finished in the top 5 of his position in several categories that same year.

The two made history with their record-breaking performances and constant mismatches for opposing defenses. They were an unstoppable force that consistently gave the Patriots another leg up over their opponents, as if they needed anything more with Tom Brady under center.

The dominance ended not long after it began, though, as the pairing dissolved with Hernandez’s release before the 2013 season.

Since then, New England has tried to recreate the magic it once had but has come up short in its efforts. But do they have the perfect match on the team now?

Could Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith become a dynamic and powerful TE duo?

If Belichick has ever had a chance to reinvigorate his offense with an impressive tight end duo, the 2022 season is his best opportunity to do so.

Although the 2021 season was not what most were expecting from Henry and Smith, some slack should be given considering it was their first year with a new team. Learning the Patriots playbook has been said to be difficult for many years, even for veterans. Plus some believed fault should be given to former offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, for not properly implementing double tight end plays.

  • Hunter Henry: 10 games started: 50/75 (66.7%), 603 yards, 9 touchdowns, 144 YAC, 12.1 RECAVG, 35.5 YDS/G
  • Jonnu Smith: 11 games started – 28/45 (62.2%), 294 yards, 1 touchdown, 4 drops, 232 YAC, 10.5 RECAVG, 18.4 YDS/G
    (Henry and Smith’s stats for the 2021 season)

With McDaniels now out and no new OC officially named, there is some doubt about how successful New England’s offense will be, particularly with the returns of Joe Judge and Matt Patricia. But because Belichick has had title-less staff in the past, there may be nothing to worry about.

Regardless of who inevitably calls offensive plays, Smith needs to be utilized far more than he was last season. Henry has already cemented himself as a solid piece for Mac Jones to use on the field, but Smith was never properly implemented in game plans week-to-week.

Can Jonnu Smith step up his game to match Henry’s production?

There’s a reason both Henry and Smith were the most sought-after tight ends during the 2021 free agency period. Their performances with their previous teams speak for themselves and show the potential the two could bring to the Patriots.

The 2020 season was the best of Smith’s career; 41 receptions for 448 yards and 8 touchdowns. He is an outstanding pass-catcher with the quickness to knock a defense off their feet and instincts that can’t be taught.

The pure talent he possesses has been overshadowed by an underwhelming season with a new team and system.

With new play-callers and a quarterback poised to have an even better second season with potentially more say in the playbook, the possibilities of creating another scary tight end tandem are there for the taking. There’s no reason for Smith to take a backseat to Henry when the team would be better if both are used together and consistently.