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Patriots free agency analysis: Jonnu Smith gives New England’s offense a dynamic playmaker

Related: Patriots sign tight end Jonnu Smith to four-year, $50 million contract

Tennessee Titans v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It did not take long for the New England Patriots to make their first big splash of free agency. Just one hour into the legal tampering period, they addressed one of their biggest weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball by signing tight end Jonnu Smith to a four-year, $50 million contract.

Given his contract and talent it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that Smith will take over as New England’s new number one tight end this season. With that said, let’s find out more about the 26-year-old.

Hard facts

Name: Jonnu Smith

Position: Tight end

Opening day age: 26

Size: 6-foot-3, 250 pounds

Contract: 4 years, $50 million ($31.25 million guaranteed)


Coming off a solid four-year career at Florida International, Smith joined the NFL as a third-round draft choice by the Tennessee Titans in 2017. With veteran Delanie Walker undisputed as the Titans’ TE1 at the time, the youngster saw comparatively limited action early on his professional career: he was given regular playing time on both offense and, to a lesser degree, special teams, but caught only 41 passes for 434 yards and five touchdowns during his first two seasons in the league.

From Year Three on, however, Smith saw increased action in the passing game besides his regular contributions as a blocker and pass catcher. He caught a combined 84 passes for 955 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019 and 2020, while establishing himself as a dynamic option in Tennessee’s at times rather pedestrian passing attack. Along the way, he also played a key role in helping running back Derrick Henry become one of the most productive ball-carriers in the entire league.

All in all, Smith has appeared in 60 regular season games and six playoff contests during his time in Tennessee.

Patriots preview

What is his projected role in New England? The Patriots invested third-round draft picks in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene last year, but Smith is now expected to take over as the number one tight end due to his ability to serve not just as an in-line blocker but a big-bodied receiver as well. As such, he is expected play a sizable role in the Patriots’ passing and running games and will hardly ever leave the field. He is a true all-around tight end capable of making a difference regardless of how he is employed.

Where does he fit on the tight end depth chart? Smith will take over as the Patriots’ number one option at the tight end position and hardly ever leave the field — essentially filling the role New England was unable to fill ever since Rob Gronkowski’s departure after the 2018 season. In turn, the other tight ends on the roster will be pushed down the depth chart: Devin Asiasi will now likely be the number two, with Dalton Keene, Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse competing for the depth spots alongside them.

Does he have positional versatility? Smith offers an intriguing athletic skillset, which means that the Patriots will likely try to get him in as many favorable situations as possible. While he was mostly used as a traditional in-line tight end in Tennessee, New England will also move him around the formation to create favorable matchups in both the running and passing games. He will align him not just on the line, but split out wide or in the slot as well.

What is his special teams value? As mentioned above, Smith saw some action in the game’s third phase earlier in his career. When his role on offense started to grow, however, his contributions in the kicking game decreased — something that is also expected to happen in New England. While the Patriots have never shied away from using tight ends on punt or place kicking protection units, for example, Smith will likely not be employed that way.

What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? The Patriots entered the start of the NFL’s legal tampering window with around $65 million in salary cap space available. Smith’s four-year, $50 million contract — a deal that includes $31.25 million in guarantees — will cut into that quite a bit, but the final structure will obviously determine its impact on the salary cap this season. Nevertheless, the team should have used a healthy portion of its cap right away.

What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Adding Smith to the tight end picture means that the position is no longer a significant need for the Patriots to be addressed in the draft. While a mid-tier option could always be added for competition purposes, early-round targets such as Florida’s Kyle Pitts, Penn State’ Pat Freiermuth, or Miami’s Brevin Jordan will likely not find their ways to New England.

One-sentence verdict: The Patriots needed to upgrade their offensive skill positions this offseason, and Smith is a premier target to do just that.


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