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2021 should mark the return of the Patriots’ two-tight end offense

Related: Patriots positional preview: Wide receivers

NFL: New England Patriots Minicamp Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

“Whatever style you want to be, it should reflect the talents of your team.”

Josh McDaniels said those words during the 2019 offseason. He and the rest of the New England Patriots have lived by them before and since.

Be it the spread looks of the late 2000s, the up-tempo and two-tight end attacks that followed it, or the ground-and-pound approach used during the 2018 Super Bowl run, the Patriots’ offensive identity always tells what the team thinks about the players on its roster.

Looking back at the 2020 season, we can therefore say with some confidence that the team felt good about its running game but not so much about its aerial attack. It also felt better about some position groups than others. Among those “others” was, once again, the tight end spot.

All in all, the tight ends who were either on the roster or the practice squad at one point last year — Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Jordan Thomas, Jake Burt — combined to catch only 18 passes for 254 yards and a single touchdown during New England’s 16 games. Even the much-maligned 2019 group led by Benjamin Watson and Matt LaCosse was more productive than that.

The limited role the tight ends played was not just a statistical one, but also manifested itself in the team’s offensive personnel usage and the formations run by the club.

Of the Patriots’ 1,011 combined offensive snaps during the regular season, only 39 came with two or more tight ends on the field (3.9%). All in all, the Patriots used those multiple-tight-end looks as follows last year:

  • 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers): 7
  • 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver): 16
  • 23 personnel (two running backs, three tight ends, zero wide receivers): 3
  • 14 personnel (one running back, four tight ends, zero wide receivers): 13

Only 28 of these 39 snaps actually came with two players listed as tight ends on the field together, though. The others saw New England employ additional offensive linemen filling in as de facto tight ends. True two-tight end sets were played on only 2.8 percent of New England’s offensive snaps in 2020 — easily the lowest number in the league, followed by the Buffalo Bills (12%), Cincinnati Bengals (17%) and Pittsburgh Steelers (17%).

Despite the team investing third-round draft picks in Asiasi and Keene, this presented an even more drastic shift away from two-tight end sets of previous seasons. New England had already played them on just 15.2 percent in 2018 (209 snaps) and 17 percent after Rob Gronkowski’s retirement in 2019 (206 snaps). The 2020 number stands alone.

Fast forward to 2021 and you will see the Patriots overhauling the position.

Last year’s TE1, Ryan Izzo, was traded to the Houston Texans. Jordan Thomas and Jake Burt never played much of a role anyway and are now with the Indianapolis Colts and in the CFL, respectively. Asiasi and Keene, more due to their draft status and potential than their 2020 output, are still around, as is Matt LaCosse coming off his Coronavirus opt-out.

The eyes this year will not be on them, however, but rather on the offseason additions brought in. As part of their massive free agency spending spree, after all, the Patriots signed Jonnu Smith to a four-year, $50 million contract, followed by Hunter Henry’s three-year, $37.5 million pact the very next day.

Both are locks to make the Patriots’ roster this year, and their presence alone should lead to McDaniels going back to his old mantra:

“Whatever style you want to be, it should reflect the talents of your team.”

Bringing back some of the old 12-personnel packages — just like he did during the aforementioned 2018 playoff run that saw the Patriots rely heavily on their ground game to get the job done — should be expected with Smith and Henry in the fold. The Patriots might again be a run-first team, especially if Cam Newton retains his job as the starting quarterback. However, becoming more nuanced and thus harder to defend should be a goal this year.

Smith and Henry allow the team to do just that, and they also give New England flexibility elsewhere. After all, they are both superb receiving talents that also have the skillsets to help in the running game as well. Their ceiling is undoubtably higher than that of any other tight end and possible pass catcher on the roster, even those that were drafted in the early rounds recently.

With the Patriots’ wide receiver group seemingly still a work in progress after having lost Julian Edelman to retirement, McDaniels should therefore use his tight ends to carry the offense no matter what it aims to do. If he wants to be flexible in the passing game, Smith and Henry can do that. If he wants to pound the ball, they can do that too.

Add the developmental depth behind them (i.e. Asiasi and to a lesser degree Keene) and you suddenly get a tight end group with a much different outlook than that of the last two years.

While it remains to be seen whether or not the Smith-Henry tandem can compete with the Gronkowski-Hernandez tandem of the early 2010s, it should still help the Patriots establish a new offensive identity in Year 2 after Tom Brady. Reintroducing 12-personnel and other multi-tight-end sets into their attack more regularly should allow them to build an offensive identity around the strengths of the roster.

Where those strengths are, especially at quarterback, has yet to be found out. By training camp, however, we and most importantly New England’s coaches should get a clearer picture. Regardless of what that picture looks like, though, the multi-tight end attack should be a prominent part of it once more.