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Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wants to get Jonnu Smith more involved

Related: Patriots vs. Bills snap count report: New England keeps rotations tight in 33-21 loss

Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

When Rob Gronkowski announced his departure from the New England Patriots after Super Bowl LIII, he left a hole the team was unable to fill for the next two years. As a result, the Patriots’ tight end group became one of the least productive in the NFL between 2019 and 2020.

Heading into the 2021 offseason as one of the league leaders in salary cap space, however, the Patriots vowed to rebuild the position. They did so by bringing in the top two players available on the open market, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.

Henry was signed to a three-year, $37.5 million contract and has quickly developed a rapport with rookie quarterback Mac Jones. The former Los Angeles Chargers tight end has caught 42 passes for 480 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns so far this season, becoming one of the Patriots’ most productive and consistent offensive skill position players.

Jonnu Smith, on the other hand, has not yet lived up to his price tag: he has caught only 27 passes for 274 yards and one touchdown. Smith has bought into the operation after signing a four-year, $50 million deal, but his opportunities have come primarily as a blocker.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is aware of that, and recently admitted that he wants to get the 26-year-old more involved.

“There’s no question about that: he’s a player that can do some things with the ball in his hands. We know that,” McDaniels said during a recent media conference call. “Very talented guy, works really hard. I’ve got to do better to get him the ball.”

McDaniels pointed to the game scripts in recent games against the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills as one of the reasons why Smith has been relatively quiet as of late. He caught one 3-yard pass on three targets versus the Colts, and did not see the ball come his way versus Buffalo.

New England lost both games.

“Sometimes, when the game gets out of hand, you don’t really get to call everything you’d like to call in the game the way you’d like to call it,” McDaniels said.

“There’s certain things, certain aspects of your game, that become less productive when you’re behind and when you’re behind by multiple scores. That can become challenging because the defense doesn’t necessarily allow you to do those things when they’re in a different mindset of pass rush or what have you.”

The game scripts are only one part of the explanation. Smith, after all, also only saw limited opportunities to make plays with the ball in his hands during New England’s seven-game winning streak earlier during the year. Between Weeks 7 and 13, for example, he saw only 16 combined targets in the passing game.

Over that span, Smith caught 10 passes for 147 yards. He also carried the football four times for an additional 17 yards. In the meantime, he continued to see most of his snaps as a run blocker.

Still, it appears that the Patriots are happy with what he brings to the table.

“I see the same guy every single day. He comes to work, he’s a professional, and he works his butt off. And he always has a good attitude,” said tight ends coach Nick Caley.

“He’s very unselfish and committed to working to improve like we all are. I’ve seen that from day one, and it’s been consistent. I have nothing but confidence in Jonnu. Him and Hunter play off each other very well. They understand the positions and the different variations of things we’re doing. I’ve got nothing but confidence in those guys.”

Where will the Patriots and Smith go from here? That remains to be seen, especially considering how late we are in the season.

One thing cannot be denied, though: Smith offers a unique skillset as far as the tight end position is concerned and might be one of the best run-after-the-catch players in the league. New England has only used him sparingly in this capacity so far, but he has generally produced whenever given the chance. It appears Josh McDaniels wants to give him more of those down the stretch.