We’ll be breaking down all the major and minor moves for NFL Free Agency with grades and analysis. You can find the comprehensive list of moves and grades here.
Reported deal: Four years/$50 million, with $31.25 million guaranteed
The New England Patriots desperately needed pass-catching help and the top target was former Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith. Smith instantly adds to an offense that was devoid of playmakers, especially at tight end. New England got all of 33 targets and 18 receptions from the position in 2020. The Patriots had among the most cap space in the league and went aggressively after Smith to fill a need.
At a $12.5 million average, only George Kittle and Travis Kelce will make more. When those two signed their extensions, we wrote about the discount that comes with being a pass-catching tight end, relative to wide receivers, but Smith has yet to show that type of volume in the passing game.
Smith is a dangerous player with the ball in his hands and with 54% and 66% of his receiving yards coming after the catch over the past two seasons. Smith has often lined up as a traditional inline tight end but can move around the formation to exploit weaknesses.
In Tennessee’s play-action-heavy offense, Smith was also able to take advantage of the space in the middle of the field, something the Patriots couldn’t do last season.
Smith was also a weapon in the red zone. He tied for ninth in targets (17), 14th in receptions (14), and tied for fifth in touchdowns (8) inside the 20 last season. He also ran in a two-yard score on a jet sweep against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 10. That will give the Patriots another threat outside of Cam Newton when the offense gets close to the goal line.
Much of Smith’s receiving production came on early downs off play-action. For Smith to live up to this deal, he’ll have to more of a go-to option, especially on third downs. Only 11 of Smith’s 65 targets came on third down last season, which resulted in only five catches and four first downs.
Still, Smith fits well with what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has historically done with tight ends and the big money spent on Smith appears to be a hint toward a more aggressive Patriots approach to fixing the offense for 2021.