Coming off back-to-back seasons of subpar tight end production, the New England Patriots opened the checkbook to rebuild the position group. The Patriots signed the two best tight ends available during the NFL’s 2021 free agency period, bringing both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry aboard on multi-year contracts.
Smith joined the club on a four-year contract worth $50 million. Henry was brought aboard a day later via a three-year, $37.5-million deal. The Patriots had completely overhauled their tight end corps in less than 24 hours, and already had fans thinking about the glory days of the early 2010s when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez revolutionized the use of multi-tight end sets in the NFL.
However, that never happened. In fact, Henry and Smith spent only a fraction of their snaps on the field together: according to Pro Football Focus’ Doug Kyed, New England used the two-tight end offense on just 18.6 percent of its offensive snaps.
What was the problem? That is one of biggest questions about the Patriots’ 2021 season, and one only the coaching staff will truly be able to answer.
Given that Bill Belichick and company will not publicly discuss the matter in detail, though, those outside the Gillette Stadium walls are left wondering. However, we can make some assumptions based on the facts that are available.
We do know, for example, the Patriots used 12-personnel on almost half of their opening day snaps. Smith and Henry played 55 and 54 snaps against the Miami Dolphins, respectively, with the two sharing the field on 37 of them; New England gave its two-tight end look a shot that day but never really went back to the well.
Obviously, the Patriots are a game-plan team and will adapt their personnel usage based on the opponent. However, they had multiple opportunities to bring back the two-tight end offense and its versatile elements but simply decided not to.
One reason for that appears to be Smith’s and Henry’s skillsets as evidenced by their usage. Smith was the team’s primary in-line option, aligning there on 71 percent of his snaps. Henry, for comparison, played in-line on just 39 percent of his own snaps: he was used more as a receiver, whereas Smith was the number one blocking option.
Why New England used them that way is anyone’s guess, but it appears that two factors were at play:
- Smith’s blocking was superior throughout the season compared to Henry’s.
- Smith was slowly phased into the offense during what coordinator Josh McDaniels called a foundational year.
“Jonnu’s tried really hard to do all the things we’ve asked him to do. I always think the first year that we have an opportunity to have a free agent in our system is kind of a foundational year,” McDaniels said about the former Tennessee Titans tight end back in November.
Smith did not agree with that notion at the time, but he is not in a position to make personnel choices. Something in his preparation or adaptation to the offense and rookie quarterback Mac Jones led to McDaniels and Belichick limiting his role to that of a blocker more than a receiver. Henry, on the other hand, was used in an opposite way.
When asked about Smith in particular during his end-of-season media conference call, Belichick did not give a concrete answer. Instead, he referred to New England’s usual process at this time of the year.
“We’ll go back and talk about each player, everybody’s situation and so forth, and scheme and all that,” Belichick said. “I’m sure there’s probably a number of things with every player, I don’t want to single anybody out here because that’s really not what this is about.
“It would be a detailed look at every everything we do: every offensive play, every defensive call, every player, every aspect that goes into a day, whether it’s meeting, practice, walkthrough, film, just how we do things and again, for each player, what they need to work on, what they did well, what we want to continue to do and what we either we’re going to change, or they need to change, or maybe some combination of both.”
With Smith and Henry both being paid considerable amounts of money — they hit the salary cap with $13.8 million and $15 million in 2022, respectively — the Patriots will need to find a way to get better production out of them. Henry was solid in this area last year, catching 51 passes for 633 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns; Smith, on the other hand, ended the season with just 28 receptions for 294 yards and one score.
The goal heading into 2022 has to be to get both more involved, especially Smith. As Pats Pulpit’s own Brian Hines put it earlier this week, “the Patriots can’t afford to pay him all that money to be used as Dwayne Allen.”
One thing is clear: New England using two-tight end sets on 18.6 percent of its offensive snaps again next year might be a cause for concern.