Even though players can’t officially sign and join new organizations until Wednesday, March 17th when the new league year officially begins, the legal tampering period kicked off Monday at noon. During that legal tampering period, players can agree to terms with new teams. 

Breaking the fantasy ice, free agent tight end Jonnu Smith has reached an agreement with the Patriots.

Jonnu Smith Career Stats

YearAgeGmaDOTTgt/GmRec/GmReYd/GmYd/RecReTDPPR/GmPPR PG Rk

A third-round pick in 2017, Smith has improved yearly over the start of his career, but still has not officially broken out as a fantasy cornerstone at the position. 

2020 appeared to finally be that season for Smith to make the next jump. Smith caught 18 passes for 221 yards and five touchdowns over the opening four games of the season. Then, Smith caught just 23 passes for 227 yards and three scores over his final 11 games with more than three catches in just two of those weeks. 

The biggest bugaboos for Smith taking that next step to fantasy stardom have been that he has been saddled in a low-volume, run-oriented offense. In 2020, Smith ran a pass route on just 40.3% of his snaps played, which ranked 53rd among all tight ends that played over 100 snaps last season. From a total routes per game perspective, Smith ran just 20.0 pass routes per game, which ranked 32nd among tight ends. This has been the primary thorn in getting Smith to the next level for fantasy scoring.

Jonnu Smith Career Snaps, Routes, and Target Per Route

YearSnapsRoutesRoute%Tgt %

Signing with New England creates a similar issue for Smith in our game. At least short-term with the team bringing back Cam Newton last week on an incentive-laden deal. The team may not fully commit to Newton as their 2021 starter, but if so, New England (29.8 per game) was one of just two teams to actually run fewer passing plays a year ago than the Titans, who ran 31.8 passing plays per game. 

Newton’s career-high in pass attempts for a season is 517, while he has eclipsed 500 pass attempts just twice in his career. This while only playing for a winning team in three seasons. Over his first seven seasons in the league, Newton’s Carolina teams averaged 64.0 offensive plays per game, with a 54.2% passing rate that averaged out to 555.9 passing plays per season. His first year in New England, the Patriots ran just 61.2 plays per game (29th) with a 48.7% passing rate (31st). 

While the Titans passing game has not been voluminous, it has been hyper-efficient, which was far from what the Patriots passing game was a year under Newton. The Patriots had just 12 passing touchdowns a year ago, which was tied for the fewest in the league, and averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 26th. Long term, the Patriots can improve their station as a passing offense and add volume, but for the immediate 2021 outlook for Smith, he will need to be an efficient player firsthand based on how we can anticipate this offense to run while Newton remains under center.

The Patriots were not just done by signing Smith, however, and doubled-down at the tight end position via free agency…

Hunter Henry Career Stats

YearAgeGmaDOTTgt/GmRec/GmReYd/GmYd/RecReTDPPR/GmPPR PG Rk

Henry finished the past three seasons as the TE10, TE8, and TE11 in points per game. The 26-year-old received a career-high 6.6 targets per game in 2020, but did not go along for the ride with Justin Herbert’s explosion, averaging a career-low 6.6 yards per target while he caught a career-low 64.5% of those targets. His aDOT was reeled in last season, but Henry is also someone that can get down the field. Despite Smith blocking more per snap played than Henry, Henry has graded out as the better run blocker between the two new tight ends in each of the past two seasons per Pro Football Focus. Both players can play the Y role in the offense and bring versatility to the position despite Smith being the greater athlete of the two from a measurable stance. 

No team ran fewer 12 personnel last season than the Patriots at 2% of their plays. That is absolutely going to change in 2021. While also trading for offensive tackle Trent Brown this offseason and bringing Newton back, the Patriots should fully be expected to play some bully ball this season. 

In 2019, no team threw fewer passes (52) to their tight ends than New England, resulting in a combined effort of 36 receptions for 418 yards and two touchdowns. This past season, the Patriots’ tight ends received just 33 total targets, catching just 18 passes for 254 yards and a single touchdown. This after selecting tights Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round a year ago. 

The interesting component here is that Newton himself actually struggled more on the shallow to intermediate levels than downfield, despite the narrative otherwise. Newton was fifth among all passers in completion rate on throws over 15 yards downfield among all passers with 50-plus attempts at 52.7% (league rate was 43.8%). 15 yards and in, he was 31st in the league at 68.5% (league rate was 70.3%).

The Patriots do have a current logjam of intermediate-only targets in Smith, Henry, Julian Edelman if he stays with the team, Jakobi Meyers, and N’Keal Harry to go along with free agent signings in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Agholor was a vertical threat a year ago and it potentially rejuvenated his career, but the Patriots appear poised to be an intermediate passing team.

Of course, the lowest-hanging branch is that New England is attempting to recreate the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez dynamic. The difference here is that previously mentioned passing volume compared to that 2011 team that ran 644 passing plays, which was third in the league.

The Patriots are attempting to offer more versatility offensively than last season, but their offensive approach does hurt both Smith and Henry from becoming set-and-forget TE1 fantasy options paired with their quarterback situation, leaving both of these tight ends as options that will carry weekly volatility with their talent upside.