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.
Former Titans’ TE Jonnu Smith reached agreement with the Patriots on a 4–year, $50 million deals that includes $31.25 million fully guaranteed, @DrewJRosenhaus told ESPN.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 15, 2021
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:
Prior to the Patriots wildcard loss to Tennessee, Belichick complimented Jonnu Smith and dismissed the notion that he was more of a big receiver than a traditional tight end pic.twitter.com/BNhG3PbAI8
— Mark Daniels (@ByMarkDaniels) March 15, 2021
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.
Jonnu Smith since 2019:
🔸 84 catches
🔸 955 yards
🔸 13 TDs
Patriots TEs since 2019:
🔹 55 catches
🔹 673 yards
🔹 3 TDs pic.twitter.com/j3VDrZWbX4
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) March 15, 2021
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:
TE Jonnu Smith to the #Patriots —
Similar scheme fit in NE. Play-action heavy out of 21, 12, 11 personnel (crossers, seams). High-end run after the catch traits. Ability to flex into the slot. Red zone upside. @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/sps6v6DUhU
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) March 15, 2021
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.
Check us out on our socials:
Twitter: @PTSTNews and @TalkPrimeTime
Facebook Page: Prime Time Sports Talk
Join our Facebook Group: Prime Time Sports Talk
Follow James Dudko on Twitter @JamesDudko
Main Image Credit:
Embed from Getty Images