With training camp underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with tight end Jonnu Smith.
Name: Jonnu Smith
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: 81
Opening day age: 26
Size: 6-foot-3, 250 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 UFA)
What is his experience? 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 3 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 a combined 66 regular season and playoff games during his time in Tennessee. He has 125 receptions for 1,389 yards and 17 touchdowns on his NFL résumé, as well as 6 rushing attempts for 82 yards and an additional score.
What did his 2020 season look like? Coming off the most productive season of his career up until that point, Smith entered the final year of his rookie contract as Tennessee’s clear-cut number one tight end. While the season as a whole was a challenging one for the entire league due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the former third-round draft pick was able to make the most out of it: Smith proved himself a productive player yet again, and set new career-highs in most major receiving statistics.
Appearing in 15 of the Titans’ 16 games as well as their wild card playoff loss against the Baltimore Ravens, he was on the field for 779 of a possible 1,125 offensive snaps (69.2%). Along the way, Smith was targeted 66 times in the passing game and caught 48 passes for a combined 457 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns — all new career marks. Furthermore, the fourth-year tight end was given a pair of hand-offs, which he took for 4 yards as well as the first rushing touchdown of his NFL career.
Playing in an offense alongside A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, Smith did not post Pro Bowl numbers as a receiver. However, he was still a valuable member of Tennessee’s offense both in the passing and the running game: almost half of his snaps in 2020 — 387 of 779 (49.7%) — saw him pave the way for the team’s ball carriers, most prominently NFL Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Henry. With Smith playing a prominent role up front, the Titans finished the season with 2,690 rushing yards.
For as well as Smith played, his 2020 season was not entirely positive. Not only did it end in the wild card playoff round, he also had to deal with a myriad of minor injuries throughout the year. Smith missed one practice each because of ankle and quad injuries, and later had to be held out of the Titans’ Week 13 game versus Cleveland due to a knee ailment — his first missed game since the 2018 season. All in all, however, the 25-year-old can feel good about his performance heading into unrestricted free agency for the first time.
What is his projected role? The Patriots invested third-round draft picks in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene last year, but Smith will take over as the number one tight end alongside fellow offseason acquisition Hunter Henry 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.
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.
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 not just on the line of scrimmage, but split out wide or in the slot as well.
What is his salary cap situation? Smith arrived in New England on a four-year contract worth a total of $50 million. As far as the 2021 season is concerned, he will count $5.63 million against the Patriots’ cap (the 10th highest number on the current roster): Smith is playing on a $1 million salary and $3.75 million signing bonus — both of which fully guaranteed — and also has active roster bonuses with $882,353 classified as likely to be earned.
What is his roster outlook? Unless the injury bug bites him, there is no question that Smith will be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this season. The main question is how he will adapt to playing in New England, but his early training camp performance is encouraging: Smith has looked like a bona fide top tight end, and impressed as both a receiver and a blocker. He will play a huge role on the team’s offense this season, and help revitalize a tight end group that struggled mightily the last two years.