No tight end group in the NFL put up worse numbers over the last two years than the New England Patriots’. Entering free agency week among the league leaders in salary cap space, however, they were determined to upgrade what had been a major weakness for them ever since Rob Gronkowski’s departure in 2019.
And so, New England went to work.
On the first day of the legal tampering period, the Patriots already reeled in one of the top-two players that were available on the tight end market this year: Jonnu Smith agreed to join the team on a four-year deal worth up to $50 million, instantly upgrading the entire position group.
Just one day later, the second half of those top-two was brought aboard as well: Hunter Henry and the Patriots agreed to a three-year, $37.5 million pact. In not even 24 hours, New England had therefore transformed its tight end group from arguably the weakest in the league into a major position of strength — one already drawing comparisons to the “Boston TE Party” of the early 2010s.
Smith believes that the Patriots can find similar success again now that he and Henry have both joined the club.
“I’ve seen the success that they had with two-tight end sets years ago, and it just shows how creative they can be,” he said during an appearance on NFL Network earlier this week. “Me and Hunter — I’m a competitor, and I’m sure he’s a hell of a competitor as well. Just being able to go in there and always try to outwork each other is only going to make us better I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited for the opportunity, and I’m just ready to get to it.
“A lot of teams really don’t lean on two-tight end sets the way the Patriots do, but the Patriots win. That’s what they’ve been known for doing in the past couple of years, so I’m ready to get this thing going.”
Before arriving in New England, Smith spent four seasons with the Tennessee Titans and developed into one of the better tight ends in the league. While his raw receiving numbers — 125 catches for 1,389 yards and 17 touchdowns in 66 games — are not jumping off the page, the former third-round draft pick showed some steady progress and became a matchup weapon for his previous team.
Smith did just that due to a versatile skillset that allows him to play the F-tight end position, now opposite the more traditional Y-tight end Henry. For the 25-year-old himself there is no doubt: he is the most versatile player the NFL has to offer at the tight end spot.
“I just feel like I’m the most versatile tight end in this league,” Smith said. “That’s really not up for other people to tell me or not — I know what I can do. I know what I can do once the ball is in my hands, and I just feel that there’s no tight end in the league better than me at that. I’m just going to go out and prove that.”
Versatility is a major part of Smith’s game, but he pointed out that he would add more than that to the Patriots.
“They are definitely getting the hardest worker that’s ever come through Gillette Stadium,” he said. “That’s what I believe in, that’s all I know. I was never the highest recruited high school player, never labeled the best tight end in college. Even at this level, I just had to carve out a path for my own self. That’s what kept me going. That’s what kept me in that weight room an extra 30 minutes more than other guys. That just kept me going. Staying after practice on the JUGS every day. That’s all I know. That’s what I believe in.
“There’s not a guy, when I walk in that building, that can outwork me. I’m sure the Patriots, that’s what they believe in. Just being around a lot of guys with that same mindset, it is a great feeling to have. To know that everybody over there breathes success and stands for the same thing, they’re getting a hell of a worker.”
The Patriots are certainly banking on that, and that Smith’s skillset translates well into their offense alongside Henry. Otherwise, they would not have handed him a contract tied with Henry for the third most expensive in the league in terms of average annual value. Only the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle — arguably the top tight ends in football at the moment — are getting more per year.
For Smith, however, it’s all about what the Patriots saw in him and how he can justify their trust.
“Coach Belichick saw it. He had a certain belief in me, and I’ve got all the respect in the world for him. My plan since Day One is to come through that door and just work. That’s all I know. That’s what’s gotten me here. I’m extremely blessed, and I’m just excited for the opportunity.”