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Film room: Jonnu Smith seems ready to take over the Patriots’ fullback role

With Jakob Johnson gone, the Patriots have to find a new lead blocker. They might already have him on their roster.

Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is no sugar-coating it: Jonnu Smith did not meet expectations during his first season with the New England Patriots. Signing a four-year, $50 million contract with the team during the offseason, the tight end caught just 28 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown in his first 17 games with the team.

Smith also gained 40 additional yards on nine carries, but the gist remains: he was a relative non-factor as far as him touching the football is concerned. That being said, not all about his first season as a Patriot was necessarily disappointing.

Take Smith’s work as a blocker, for example. The former Tennessee Titans tight end performed well in this area, after all, and showed some potential that might have contributed to the Patriots’ decision not to retain fullback Jakob Johnson as a restricted free agent.

Smith seems poised to take over Johnson’s previous role as a lead blocker in the running game, and his 2021 tape shows just how New England might be using him this upcoming season.

The Patriots primarily used Smith as a traditional in-line tight end on either the left or the right end of the line during the 2021 season, but he was moved into the backfield on occasion as well. In total, 19 of his 547 offensive snaps came as either a lead blocker in I-formation looks or in a halfback alignment.

The play above is one of the latter, with Smith (#81) motioning across the formation before the snap to set up shop behind left tackle Justin Herron (#75) and left guard James Ferentz (#65). The delayed hand-off to running back Damien Harris (#37) is designed to go this way, with Smith playing a prominent role in opening a hole.

He does that quite well: Smith patiently waited for linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (#51) to attack the pocket as a second-level blitzer, pinning him to the outside and keeping him engaged throughout the process. This effectively took him out of the play, and would have helped open up a significant rushing lane for Harris. Unfortunately, though, Ferentz was unable to sustain his own block and the run was blown up for no gain.

Smith, meanwhile, combined upper-body strength and a firm base with some active hands and a good dose of patience. While he will not always be able to register wins like this one, his performance in a limited sample size was encouraging.

The following play is further proof of that:

Essentially the same concept but mirrored, Smith takes on Houston Texans linebacker Christian Kirksey (#58) in the right-side B-gap. On this play, he was unable to take advantage of his opponents’ forward momentum but still able to keep the defender contained. Smith lowered his shoulder into contact to halt Kirksey’s forward push, which in turn allowed him to reset his feet to mirror the linebacker and keep him from impacting the play.

Once again, the Patriots’ tight end was not the reason why the run failed to generate positive yardage. While wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (#16) was unable to clear out safety Justin Reid (#20), right tackle Yodny Cajuste (#72) got turned just enough to close the edge. As a result, rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson (#38) maneuvered directly into traffic on the left side of the line.

New England did not just use Smith as a halfback-type blocker, the team also employed him as a traditional I-formation lead blocker in a classic fullback alignment:

With the Houston defensive front flowing to its left, the Patriots were able to open up some space on the other side for a big Damien Harris run — one that would not have been possible without Smith making another block on second-level linebacker Kirksey. The key on this one is the tight end correctly reading what is happening in front of him.

Smith essentially had two targets here, depending on what fellow tight end Hunter Henry was doing (#85). If Henry kicked inside to take Kirksey, Smith would be responsible for Zach Cunningham (#41); if he stayed on the outside as he should, Kirksey would become his man.

The latter is exactly what happened, with Smith again showing the proper physicality at the attack point and some stout base to seal the linebacker off and create a hole for Harris to exploit. New England gained a solid seven yards on the play to set up a manageable 3rd-and-3 situation.

Smith performed well in between-the-tackle situations like those three, but he also showed that he can find success as a blocker on the move:

With Mac Jones (#10) handing the ball off on what looks like a read-option call on the surface, Smith was asked to serve as the lead blocker on a perimeter run. With N’Keal Harry (#1) unable to fully secure his block, however, both he and left tackle Isaiah Wynn (#76) out-run ball-carrier Brandon Bolden (#25) to the left-side perimeter.

Smith, however, does a solid job identifying his target on the fly — Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kenny Moore (#23) — and staying engaged just long enough to help open the edge. With the timing messed up that did not really matter, but the Patriots’ tight end still looked good on this otherwise messy play.

One underrated aspect of it is him trying to avoid a penalty. As soon as Moore started to gain leverage to the outside, Smith let go off him.

All in all, Smith showed plenty of promise in a lead-blocking role. This, in turn, could prompt the Patriots to give him more responsibilities in this area moving forward.

Obviously, the team did not pay $50 million for a fullback. But Smith making some major strides as a receiver and being able to fill that additional role would certainly be a net positive for the club.

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