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Quick-hit thoughts on the Patriots trading Jonnu Smith to the Falcons

After two disappointing seasons in New England, Smith is headed to Atlanta.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images

The New England Patriots did not wait for the NFL legal tampering period to start before making a bang. The team is reportedly trading tight end Jonnu Smith to the Atlanta Falcons in return for a seventh-round draft selection.

Thus ends what was a disappointing two-year tenure for Smith in New England. What does the move mean from the team’s point of view, though? Let’s find out.

The Patriots acknowledge that things did not work out as planned. When the Patriots brought Smith in, they signed him to a four-year, $50 million contract that included $31.25 million in guarantees. The deal was substantial, but it was not hard to see why New England felt comfortable making the move: Smith was the top tight end available in the 2021 free agency period, and his potential as a versatile chess piece was immense.

However, things obviously did not work out. Smith slowly adapted to his new environment in 2021, and did not fare much better the following season. There was some hope that the addition of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien would salvage his tenure with the club, but that will not happen.

And thus, Smith leaves New England having played just 31 games. He caught 55 passes for 539 yards and one touchdown.

Trading him to Atlanta in return for a seventh-round pick therefore speaks for itself. It is an admission that things did not work out, and that moving on from his massive salary cap hit — at least partially — is the best course of action for 2023 and beyond.

New England gains some salary cap space, but it is minimal compared to the dead money charge. Speaking of the salary cap, Smith was on the team’s books with a cap number of $17.2 million in 2022 — second highest on the team behind only Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon’s $18.1 million. Trading him does not clear that entire sum, however.

The remaining $12.8 million of Smith’s signing bonus proration will remain in New England as dead cap. Meanwhile, the Patriots gain a net of around $3.67 million in cap space: trading him saves $4.4 million from his contract, with another player with a $750,000 salary taking his spot on the list of top-51 contracts.

Per Miguel Benzan, New England now has $34.57 million to work with heading into free agency.

Tight end becomes an immediate need for the team. With Jonnu Smith off to Atlanta, the Patriots have only three tight ends left on their payroll for the 2023 season: Hunter Henry, as well as former practice squad options Matt Sokol and Scotty Washington.

Henry has had some positive moments since joining the Patriots in 2021, but it is obvious that the team now needs to address the position either through free agency or the draft.

The free agency crop is relatively thin this year, with top options including Dalton Schultz, Mike Gesicki, Austin Hooper or Hayden Hurst. If the Patriots want to look for the second tier of players, one name to watch might be Irv Smith Jr., who is a former second-round draft pick whose biggest problem in Minnesota was staying healthy.

Of course, if the Patriots want to upgrade the position in a more fiscally reasonable manner they could look to the draft. And doing so would make a ton of sense given that this year’s tight end class is one of the deepest in recent memory.

Notre Dame’s Michael Meyer is the consensus top option, with other potential top-100 picks including Luke Musgrave (Oregon State), Darnell Washington (Georgia), Dalton Kincaid (Utah), Tucker Kraft (South Dakota State), Sam LaPorta (Iowa) and Zack Kuntz (Old Dominion).

New England now owns 11 draft picks this year. As noted above, New England gained a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft as part of the deal — a clear sign that it was a salary cap dump-off more than anything. Still, a pick is a pick, and the Patriots now tie the league lead with 11 of them.

Those picks are distributed as follows:

  • Round 1, No. 14 overall
  • Round 2, No. 46 overall
  • Round 3, No. 76 overall — via Carolina
  • Round 4, No. 107 overall — via Los Angeles
  • Round 4, No. 117 overall
  • Round 4, No. 135 overall — compensatory
  • Round 6, No. 184 overall — via Carolina
  • Round 6, No. 187 overall — via Las Vegas
  • Round 6, No. 192 overall
  • Round 6, No. 210 overall — compensatory
  • Round 7, No. 245 overall — via Atlanta

Smith joins the list of worst Patriots free agency signings of the Bill Belichick era. Hindsight is always 20/20, but New England probably could have used its resources invested in Smith differently. Alas, he played on one of the biggest tight end contracts in the league while consistently not living up to his price tag.

Needless to say, Smith’s deal is one of the worst ever handed out de facto general manager Bill Belichick. He now joins the likes of wide receiver Antonio Brown (2 years, $30.5 million), defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene (3 years, $9.8 million) and linebacker Adalius Thomas (5 years/$35 million) as players who failed to live up to their price tags for one reason or another.

Whereas Brown was released after one game due to sexual assault allegations against him, Fanene never suited up for the team and was released after apparently failing to disclose a physical condition. Thomas might be the closest comparison to Smith, in that he did see somewhat regular action but never quite reached the levels expected of him.

The two even scored the same number of touchdowns in their Patriots careers.