The tampering period for free agency is underway and some teams are firing right out of the gate to add to their team. The Patriots, coming into the start of the free agency period being one of the top 5 teams in salary cap space backed up the brinks truck to make moves early and didn’t look back. The Patriots went ahead with the big bank and signed Jonnu Smith, the former Tennessee Titans tight end to a 4-year deal worth $50 million dollars. Smith is also guaranteed $31.25 million dollars in the deal that works out to about $12.5 million a year. The new deal puts Jonnu Smith as the 3rd highest-paid tight end in the league.
The money truck didn’t stop there either. After scooping up Jonnu Smith on his contract, the Patriots went back to the tight end well and grabbed former Los Angeles Charger Hunter Henry. Henry signed on with the Patriots on a 3-year deal for $37.5 million dollars with $25 million guaranteed. I have to admit that the Patriots signing both TE’s was definitely giving me “Gronk/Hernandez 2.0” vibes.
I can’t lie that I was a bit concerned about the Jonnu Smith signing and as fantasy owners, you would have to be too if you’ve been paying attention to the Patriot’s tight end situation over the last few seasons. It’s been a dark spot for fantasy (and reality for that matter) since the departure of Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski spoiled us as fantasy owners for several seasons because of his production and his use in the red-zone with Tom Brady. Since 2015, Gronkowski was pumping out fantasy points and was able to finish no lower than 11th during that span. And yes, I’m not counting 2016 when he got hurt.
With two of the best tight ends landing in New England for Cam Newton, or whatever quarterback is the starter (my money is on Cam though), this could be the return of the two-tight end sets. Having Jonnu and Henry on the field at the same time would give Newton the best tight end tandem to work with. This could also work well with what the Patriots really like to do in terms of offense, using short to intermediate passes to move the ball up-field in concert with running the ball as opposed to just chucking it all over the place. The wide receivers on staff, including the signings of Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne don’t scream “let’s throw it deep all the time” to me. What it does tell me is that the Patriots are adding speed to the outside to help draw defenders away from the middle of the field and allow Smith and Henry to take advantage of mismatches against opposing defenses.
I mentioned earlier that the tight end position has been a bit of concern since Rob Gronkowski retired back in 2019. Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse were not the answers as neither player had more than 13 catches in either 2019 or 2020. Adding legit pass catchers in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, as well as paying them what they’re getting lends to the line that those guys will be the focal points in the Patriots offense. In 2020, the Patriots ran 12 personnel just 22 times totaling just 2% of the total play called as opposed to the 53% for the 11 personnel.
The Patriots wide receivers at the moment don’t seem like much to write home about right now either. Neither Agholor or Bourne have ever been number 1 wide receivers at any point in their careers. Even with the Patriots, its hard to see that change. While the Patriots could still add a number 1 type of receiver in the draft or free agency, right now it looks like the tight end position will be featured as one of the main aspects of the Patriots offense in 2021. It also fits well with Cam Newton at this point of his career too. Cam averaged 7.2 yards per attempt last season throwing to basically nothing. He also didn’t have great options in the red-zone. Now he gets two different tight ends with different strengths to boost the offense. Jonnu Smith is a YAC machine, averaging 5.8 yards after the catch with the Titans last season. He also averaged nearly 11 yards per catch too. Smith also averaged 1.75 yards per separation last season as well, ranking 5th among TE’s in 2020.
Hunter Henry isn’t a slouch either. Henry averaged about 8 yards in the aDOT category and ranked 11th among tight ends with a true catch rate of just over 88% and ranked 11th in contested catches with a 55.6% catch rate. I wouldn’t mind targeting either tight end during the fantasy draft. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go with Jonnu Smith over Hunter Henry and I think it comes down to who’s the better scorer when they get into the red-zone. Jonnu Smith had 9 touchdowns last season, 8 receiving, 1 rushing touchdown, and seems to be the more dangerous weapon inside the red-zone compared to Hunter Henry who scored 6 touchdowns.
Smith ranked 2nd overall inside the 20 among tight ends last season with Hunter Henry ranking 20th. Smith boasted a 61.1% catch rate on 11 of 18 passes and 68 yards. Conversely, Hunter Henry was ranked 20th overall among tight ends in the same category with 6 of 14 passes caught inside the 20, 27 yards, 4 touchdowns, and a 42.9% catch rate. In terms of fantasy value, it tells a different story. After the shakeup signings, Hunter Henry’s average draft position is actually higher than Jonnu Smith Hunter Henry currently sits at the 7.10 mark while Jonnu Smith is much lower, falling into the double-digit realm at the 11.06. If I don’t plan to reach for a tight end early, Smith is right where I would want to grab a tight end.
What do you think? Who would you target between Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry?