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Perry: How will the Pats deploy their two new tight ends?

/ by Phil Perry
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FOXBORO -- Jonnu Smith looked exhausted.

He'd finished up Monday's practice and still hadn't eaten before talking to reporters via Zoom. Still, despite what might've been low blood-sugar levels, he wasn't lulled into taking the bait.

Care to share how he'd be used in Sunday's season-opener against the Dolphins, he was asked?

"Absolutely not," Smith replied. "Absolutely not. I'll be wearing No. 81. That's all I got."

That's all most Patriots observers got this summer while watching Smith.

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In the preseason, he was seldom used. Smith played in two of three games -- sitting out the Eagles matchup after missing that week of practice with an injury -- playing just 20 total snaps.

Of course there were plays during training camp practices that featured his particular set of skills: darts up the seam, crossers, catch-and-run plays. But he was targeted just twice in preseason and caught one pass for 16 yards. And only one-fifth of his plays -- four total -- came with another tight end on the field.

Remember when those multi-tight end looks were expected to transform the Patriots offense earlier this offseason? They still might. They should. It's just that since acquiring Smith and Hunter Henry as free agents this offseason -- making both among the highest-paid players at their position -- they've spent very little time on the field together in meaningful situations.

 

Henry didn't play a single snap in the preseason as he dealt with an injury that kept him in a red non-contact practice jersey until recently. That meant that Smith, in the little preseason time he saw, barely saw any 12-personnel action.

Not only that, but of those four snaps with Smith and another tight end on the field, the Patriots really didn't unveil much ... of ... anything. They showed what were essentially two different looks.

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The first play type featured one tight end in a wing position just off the line of scrimmage next to another in-line tight end and a receiver close to the end of the line of scrimmage in a "nasty" split. It was deployed against Washington twice with Smith on the field (three times total). Once it resulted in a run play (negated by a Smith hold on Chase Young). Once it was a play-action play directed by Cam Newton that sent Smith across the formation into the flat while Jakobi Meyers ran deep and Matt LaCosse ran a crossing route. It was the type of play-action look that has been reborn in the NFL thanks to schemes led by coaching disciples of Mike Shanahan. Newton tried to hit Smith in the flat but threw incomplete.

The second play type? With two tight ends in-line on either end of the line of scrimmage and two receivers to the strong side of the formation against Washington, the Patriots ran what looked like a clear-out concept for Smith to attack a soft zone coverage. With a hitch run by the outside receiver, a fade run by the inside receiver and a curl run by the tight end to the strong side, the tight end on the weak side ran a crossing route underneath the two vertical routes over the middle. With zone defenders sagging to the deeper patterns, Smith ran free across the field, caught a Newton pass, broke a tackle, and scampered for 16 yards.

That play was one the Patriots ran against the Giants in the preseason finale as well, only with Devin Asiasi running the underneath route and Smith running the curl to the strong side. Newton was under duress immediately and threw the pass away incomplete.

One personnel package. Four plays. Two formations. No Hunter Henry. It was far from "The Summer of Two Tight Ends" in Foxboro.

In total, over three preseason games, the Patriots ran 197 plays offensively. They left the huddle with multiple tight ends just 10 times. The personnel package that was supposed to be transformational for the Patriots offense served as just five percent of their preseason attack.

 
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"It happens to us at some point every single year at some point," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "We go through stretches of the season where you might be light at receiver, you might be light at tight end, you might be light in the back field, you might be light at guard, tackle, whatever it is. I am kind of numb to it, quite honestly. It’s the nature of I think being in my 21st year."

If the Patriots want to see an immediate return on their tight end investments, though, they're going to be using Smith and Henry -- both of whom are expected to be healthy enough to play against Miami -- a lot more than they did in August. Still, having both players, two players who've missed significant time in the past due to injury, isn't a given. And McDaniels knows it.

"It’s also a good lesson to remind yourself as a coach that you can’t put everything in one basket, especially as you’re getting ready to start a season," he said. "You have to have some depth to your game-planning, to your personnel, and to what you may do, which always lends itself to having more than you need, or more than you’re going to use. But, you never know what part of it you’re going to use, or you’re going to need."

McDaniels isn't wrong. Schematic flexibility matters. But the Patriots are going to need their tight ends in 2021. It's where they've invested after throwing just 33 passes to tight ends in 2020, with 18 caught for 254 yards and a touchdown. No team ran less 12 personnel than the Patriots (2 percent of plays) last year, per Sharp Football, and that came after a season in 2019 when no team threw more infrequently to their tight ends (52 targets).

Even though they haven't worked much together this summer -- Henry and Smith hardly practiced together in full pads because of Henry's injury -- McDaniels is confident his duo will be ready to hit the ground running against the Dolphins.

"I think both of them have worked extremely hard," McDaniels said. "I feel very confident in both players’ aptitude and understanding of our system and our operation and what we do offensively and what their roles are in it. That’s because they are very diligent about the work they put in. They prepare very well. So, I am very confident in that.

"I anticipate that when the week is done we’ll try and make the decision as a whole. ‘All right, hey, we love these things and these things we’re still working on.’ It’s kind of every year that happens I would say at the beginning of the year. You have some expectations or some hope that maybe we’ll be further ahead in this scheme or this type of thing before we start playing games. Maybe it didn’t materialize that way, and you decide to hold it and continue to work on it in practice. But I have no doubts about those two players in terms of their ability to go out there and perform. They both will be ready to go and I know they are excited and happy to be getting into a regular-season routine now."

 

Whatever the Patriots unveil on Sunday likely won't come as a complete and utter shock to Brian Flores and his defense. When Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were teammates in New England, they ranked among the most productive tight end tandems in league history. Though McDaniels was elsewhere for two of those years -- coaching the Broncos in 2010 and then serving as Rams offensive coordinator in 2011 -- he was offensive coordinator in 2012 when the young tight end pair combined for 106 catches. There's plenty of tape out there that could lead to clues about the direction in which McDaniels will take this year's offense.

But Smith and Henry have different talents than their predecessors in this scheme. According to league evaluators, neither player is as sudden as Hernandez and neither is as dominant a physical force as Gronkowski. But Smith is dynamic after the catch, and Henry should serve as a reliable multi-purpose player. As a result, certain elements of the 12-personnel packages McDaniels has at his disposal will be emphasized over others. It's just a question of which ones.

This isn't 2007 with Randy Moss, who didn't play a single preseason snap before teaming up with Tom Brady and taking the league by storm. But there are still some uncertainties as to how the 2021 Patriots offense will look after Smith and Henry hardly played together when the pads came on.

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For their part, the two believe they've built up a good working relationship that will lead to results.

"It's good to build chemistry with him to talk things out, see things in live action, work through things in the run game and the pass game," Henry said. "I mean, he's a tremendous threat and a great player so it's fun to go out there and have another guy that I can look to and just, you know, compete with and practice and kind of make each other better and he makes me better every single day."

"Man, it's been great," Smith said, "just us feeding off each other's energy. Working, pushing each other, on the practice field, in the weight room. Two alpha males, man, just being able to give each other a push. The greatest part of it is that's my guy, and I'm his guy. We've got each other's back. I've got his back. I know he's got my back. So it's definitely good to have a guy like that around. His playmaking ability is something that we can definitely bring to the table. Part of my game will rub off on him, part of his game will rub off on me, and we just help each other get better."

 

They'll help the Patriots get better, too. How exactly that will look, though, remains a mystery.

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