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Jonnu Smith among Patriots’ ‘boom-or-bust’ players in 2022

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

New England Patriots v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

If we’re being honest about it, you could make a pretty good argument that the New England Patriots are one of the most boom-or-bust teams in the entire NFL this season. Outside of maybe Miami, Denver, and San Francisco, if we traveled back to the future and told our future selves that the 2022 Patriots rattled off 12 wins, we’d probably nod along and figure, “Ah, well, Bill Belichick remains elite, Mac Jones took that second-year leap, and everyone’s playing like we all know they’re capable of playing at their best.”

On the other hand, if we told our future selves that the Patriots went 5-12, 2023 us would probably figure, “Hey, brutal schedule, Josh McDaniels finally actually left this time, it’s another 2009, time for a new generation and the young guys are still finding their own path”, and then our past selves would really, really want to know if the Red Sox ended up keeping Xander Bogaerts and/or Raffy Devers. (They better. You’re worth $3 billion dollars, Red Sox. Figure it out.)

And as much as Bill Belichick likes to plan to have reinforcements waiting in the wings for everyone a year early, life happens and sometimes you gotta take the lemons and find the person whose life gave them vodka and make the best of it. Which is pretty much the entirety of what the Patriots have been doing in the post-Tom Brady era.

Belichick went absolutely bananas in free agency in 2021, taking as much advantage as he could of half the league being in cap jail, and then got back to the dad-at-a-yard-sale ways we all know and love this past offseason, while adding cost-effective talent on both sides of the ball on draft day.

Anyway, we’re all at the point of the offseason where every NFL podcast is pretty much just reading a list of who’s on what team, and it’s been Top-10/11/15/20 listicle season for at least a month now. So that made Football Outsiders — the analysts that gave us the DVOA metric, among other things — assembling an All Boom-or-Bust Team for the 2022 NFL season a fun way to pass the dog days of summer.

Whether or not you agree with the pair of Patriots on the list, well, that’s another thing entirely.

The rules were pretty simple:

“a player must be an expected starter on a team with a reasonable chance of reaching the playoffs.”

OK, so, no Jets or Jaguars. Got it.

There must also be a wide gap between what a player is expected to do and what he has recently done. Maybe he’s a former All-Pro coming off an injury-marred season or three. Maybe he’s a recent first-round pick who has fallen short of expectations. Perhaps he’s a journeyman who is suddenly asked to be a lynchpin starter. Maybe he has thrown for 5,000 yards and 30 interceptions in the same season.

Well, guess we know who the quarterback is.

Jokes aside, a pair of Patriots made the list, and somewhat surprisingly, neither of them is noted former Patriot-Killer/trade acquisition DeVante Parker.

The first one, though, is one of those 2021 free agency prizes that we initially thought would be an absolute monster in a Belichick/McDaniels offense, and by the end of the season, he was one of those guys that you’d see on your fantasy football waiver wire the week you need a replacement tight end and think “eh, I can probably do better than that”.

Tight End: Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots

Best-Case Scenario: [Read aloud in a stereotypical pahhhk the cahhh Boston accent] Ya see, the plan all along was for Smith to be invisible after signing a reported $50-million contract in 2021. The Patriots knew he would need a full year to soak up the coaching wisdom of Josh Mc … um, er, some of Bill Belichick’s most experienced and trusted lieutenants! Belichick was building for the 2022 season, when he knew Mac Jones would be ready to ascend into Bradyhood with the help of an unstoppable Smith/Hunter Henry one-two punch at tight end.

Worst-Case Scenario: [Same accent] Sure, Smith’s weekly 4-yard reception on two targets is unimpressive if all you care about is fantasy football. But actually, Bill Belichick signed him for his blocking. And his leadership. And the versatility he provides. The brilliance of the 2022 Patriots offense is that it’s designed to work without the need of explosive playmakers! You’ll see. Just wait until 2023.

Real talk, Smith’s freshman year in New England was objectively meh at best. Expecting Jonnu and Hunter to be the gritty Christopher Nolan reboot of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez was always preposterous, but ending the season with 28 grabs, just shy of 300 receiving yards, and a single, solitary touchdown all year long... Well, let’s put it this way. That’s almost the exact same stat line Chad Ochocinco posted in his 2011 Patriots campaign. Not great.

The Occam’s Razor explanation is pretty straightforward; Smith’s talked on multiple occasions about how he missed out on quite a bit last spring/summer when he chose to stay home with his new baby daughter instead of joining his new team for OTAs, and ended up getting behind with learning the offense.

Now, while only a raging bonehead would get mad at a man taking his job as a dad seriously, the effect of missing even a little bit of time learning this offense is real. Just ask Cam Newton. Call it fanboy talk or whatever you want, but it seems pretty reasonable that a whole offseason of work in New England should bode better for Jonnu’s success in 2022. Right?

We certainly have to hope so, because (to the point of the whole boom-or-bust premise, I guess) if he continues to struggle, Smith has a ginormous dead cap hit in both 2022 and 2023. Moving on before the final year of his deal is pretty much impossible.

Moving on, we have the man, the myth, the mustache that the Patriots spent a precious first-round pick on just a couple months ago, simultaneously defying the nerd concept of positional value and the draft-guy consensus that “this guy probably goes last thing on Friday night, maybe”. Fitting the category that the Football Outsiders team outlined as a guy expected to immediately contribute as a Day 1 starter, we have...

Guard: Cole Strange, New England Patriots

Best-Case Scenario: [Same Southie guy from the Jonnu Smith segment] Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time the Patriots drafted an obscure guard named Logan Mankins from an unknown little program called Fresno State. Mankins went on to earn six Pro Bowl berths before we tossed him aside. This is exactly the same scenario as what happened 17 years ago, buddy. Watch and learn.

Worst-Case Scenario: Look, the draft was never Bill Belichick’s strength. And so what if we got swept by the Bills by a combined 84-24 score. Let them have their little moment. You wanna tour of the trophy case? Thought so. Go Bucs.

I swear, those Sam Adams “Your Cousin From Boston” commercials are hurting, not helping.

Cole is actually an extremely good boom or bust candidate for the 2022 Pats, though, for precisely zero of the reasons the above blurb hits on. One, you’d have to assume the plan is for Cole to be The Man at left guard, effective yesterday. Two, he has a freakish athletic profile, even by NFL offensive line standards, but the concerns about him mostly playing against Southern Conference (not a typo) colleges like East Tennessee State and Samford University are, unfortunately, warranted.

Still though, an athlete like this on the interior could be a revelation. Witness this beauty:

On the other hand, there’s the elephant in the room that offensive line GOAT Dante Scarnecchia is only in the building every once in a while these days, so we can’t just assume that if he can pretty much be a 5-star chef when Belichick gives him third- and fourth-round picks to work with on the interior offensive line, a first-round pick will be a bona fide blocking manimal. The offensive line responsibilities for 2022 appear to be split among a few different coaches, as of Thursday, so for those of us who remember the Dave DeGuglielmo era, we know that nothing is guaranteed.

Then there’s us in July imagining this man throwing dudes out of the club as a pulling guard on a trap play. We deserve this.

The good news is, slight sarcasm intended... If the biggest boom-or-bust players on your roster are a tight end with an extremely capable copilot alongside him and an interior offensive lineman, and the rest of your roster is in decent shape, which the Patriots inarguably are, there’s certainly tougher sledding to be had.

I mean, just look at the Dolphins and Tua.

What do you all think? Who are the boom or bust guys on the ‘22 Pats? Who needs to be a BAMF for this team to win its first playoff game in three years??

Enjoy the weekend and be excellent to each other, everyone.