With training camp already underway, the New England Patriots have fully set their sights onto the upcoming 2022 season.
The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran tight end Jonnu Smith.
Name: Jonnu Smith
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: 81
Opening day age: 27
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. His performance in those two years set the stage for him entering free agency, and he ended up joining the Patriots on a massive multi-year contract.
Smith went on to appear in all 17 of New England’s games in 2022 but was not as big a part of the team’s offense as it likely hoped he would be. All in all, the veteran tight end has now appeared in a combined 83 regular season and playoff games during his time in Tennessee and New England. He has 153 receptions for 1,683 yards and 18 touchdowns on his NFL résumé, as well as 15 rushing attempts for 122 yards and an additional score
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off his best season since turning pro, Smith carried some momentum into his first ever trip to unrestricted free agency. One of the top tight ends available alongside future teammate Hunter Henry, he joined the Patriots shortly after the start of the NFL’s legal tampering period. Smith and the team agreed on a four-year, $50 million deal that made him one of the highest paid tight ends in the entire league and set high expectations for the 2021 season.
Smith was not able to live up to them. While he was a readily-available player who ended up seeing action in 17 of New England’s 18 games and playing 545 of a possible 1,169 offensive snaps (46.6%), he did not quite carve out the role in Year 1 with the team many inside and outside the organization would have envisioned. Instead of the Patriots returning to the days of the “Boston TE Party” with Smith and Henry in the lineup, they ran two-tight end sets on only 18.6 percent of their offensive snaps during the pair’s first year together.
Things did start promising, with Smith and Henry playing 55 and 54 snaps, respectively, against the Miami Dolphins in the season opener. The two sharing the field on 37 of them, but the team never really went back to the well. It had multiple opportunities to bring back the two-tight end offense and its versatile elements down the stretch but decided not to, for reasons unknown. It appears two factors were at play, though: Smith’s superior blocking as an in-line option and him getting slowly phased into the offense.
As a result, he served more as a complementary piece to Henry rather than a starting-caliber player alongside him. His numbers were a reflection of that: Smith ended the 2021 season having caught just 28 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown. Most of his production came early on in the season: a third of his catches (9) and one fourth of his yardage output (70) took place in the first two weeks of the season, with his lone touchdown being scored in Week 4 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Smith’s 2021 campaign saw him average just 1.2 receptions per game over the final 16 weeks of New England’s season — including one that he missed because of a nagging shoulder issue. The aforementioned getting-eased-in-the-offense played a part in this, as did his contributions as a blocker: Smith went to either run-block or pass-protect on roughly two-thirds of his 545 offensive snaps (366; 67.2%). When all was said and done he therefore ranked only eighth on the team in both touches and yards from scrimmage.
What is his projected role? Despite his relatively quiet 2021 season, Smith projects to play a starter-level role for the Patriots heading into his second year in the system. His usage in training camp thus far suggests that, as does his potential to serve not just as an in-line blocker but a big-bodied receiver as well. While it remains to be seen whether or not he will leapfrog Hunter Henry in the snaps category, the 26-year-old is expected to play a much bigger role this year than last.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though they employed him primarily as an in-line blocker last season, Smith offers an intriguing athletic skillset that might lead to a multi-faceted role in 2022. New England might move him around the formation to create favorable matchups in both the running and passing games — will align not just on the line of scrimmage, but split out wide or in the slot as well — and maybe also have him help replace departed fullback Jakob Johnson.
What is his special teams value? Smith saw some regular opportunities in the kicking game earlier in his career, but the Patriots only used him sparingly in the game’s third phase last season. In total, he was on the field for a mere 10 of 464 snaps (2.2%) — all of which coming on the kickoff return unit. While New England has never shied away from also using its tight ends on punt or place kicking protection, for example, Smith will likely not be employed that way and remain a comparative no-factor on special teams.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second season of the four-year deal he signed last March, Smith is playing on a fully-guaranteed $9 million salary and $3.75 million signing bonus proration as well as $941,176 in likely-to-be-earned roster bonuses. The resulting salary cap number of $13.69 million is the fourth highest on the team at the moment as well as the second highest among all NFL tight ends (behind Hunter Henry’s $15 million).
How safe is his roster spot? Despite his sizable cap hit and relatively disappointing 2021 season, Smith is a lock to be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year. He is under some pressure to finally start living up to the contract New England gave him, but his status as a top-two tight end on the depth chart and starter-caliber players has not changed. He also has looked good in training camp thus far, which is confirmation that he and Hunter Henry will be the top layer of the tight end group yet again.
One-sentence projection: Smith’s numbers will increase across the board, but it would not be a surprise to see a drop-off again as the year goes on.