How Jonnu Smith will Impact the New England Patriots’ Offense

jonnu smith

They took their sweet time, but the New England Patriots have finally replaced Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots agreed to a deal with free-agent tight end Jonnu Smith earlier today.

Landing Smith is quite the coup for New England. He’ll give Cam Newton a dependable, go-to target underneath, something the dual-threat quarterback didn’t have in 2020. Smith moves around formations and can split out in space. He also lines up as a classic, in-line tight end, where he will add his muscle to the Patriots’ throwback running game.

Head coach Bill Belichick knew what he was getting when he raided the Tennessee Titans:

What the Patriots have acquired is a productive pass-catcher for a position that lay dormant last season. The problem started when Gronkowski walked away after the 2018 season before reuniting with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay last year. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels tried to cobble together enough semi-competent tight ends to form one reliable playmaker. His patchwork plan to replace the Gronk didn’t work.

The likes of Ryan Izzo, draft flop Devin Asiasi and veteran retread Ben Watson all failed to impress during the last two seasons. Patriots’ tight ends combined for a paltry 15 catches, 138 yards, and a single touchdown in 2020. Compare those dire numbers to Smith’s output of 41 grabs for 448 yards and eight touchdowns. It’s obvious the Patriots have significantly upgraded an area of weakness.

Newton will likely be the happiest member of the franchise after seeing the news. He recently re-upped with the Patriots, despite failing to lead the team to a winning record, and throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (eight) last season. Not all of the problems were Newton’s fault, though. A lack of credible weapons in the passing game, particularly at tight end, hampered his chances of success.

Newton missed having a reliable, safety valve to check the ball down to during his first year in New England, after forging a prolific rapport with Greg Olsen for the Carolina Panthers. The quarterback paid the price for the Patriots’ mediocre track record drafting wide receivers, as well as the bizarre decision not to replace Gronkowski sooner. Now Cam has a roving weapon McDaniels will likely make the focal point of an offense that has become increasingly ground-based in recent seasons.

The Patriots love a power running game, and Newton is tailor-made for read-option and play-action concepts. Those things demand a tight end who can block as well as make an impact in the passing game. Smith has those credentials after thriving in a similar offense with the Titans. He offered a safe pair of hands to Ryan Tannehill and also knocked open a few holes for Derrick Henry:

Smith’s biggest initial impact for the Patriots will likely come in the red zone. Newton’s rushing ability boosted England’s threat inside the 20, but things will be even better with Smith in the lineup. All eight of the 25-year-old’s touchdowns last season came from within the red area. McDaniels will isolate Smith one-on-one in goal-to-go situations, the way Gronkowski was often used.

The Patriots have had success loading formations with multiple tight ends down the years. Smith’s arrival gives the position group one member defenses must account for on every play. Asiasi should also get more involved after the former UCLA standout made just three starts as a rookie. Asiasi outweighs Smith by nine pounds and could become the more regular in-line option, who allows the new arrival to use his hybrid skills in space more often.

Belichick doesn’t often go big in free agency, but he’s spent wisely to add an up-and-coming talent who will make Newton better in year two.

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