FOXBORO -- It's hard to fathom just how little Jonnu Smith was used last year, particularly down the stretch. During the money portion of the Patriots season, one of their most highly-paid pass-catchers saw just one target in the last four weeks. Against the Jaguars. In a blowout win.
Headed into Year 2, Smith remains one of the team's most expensive pieces -- he has a cap hit of almost $14 million this season -- and the expectation is that the Patriots will find ways to make him exponentially more productive.
But Smith said on Friday that he isn't thinking about playing to his contract.
“I love football," Smith said. "I got here by just loving football – loving my teammates, loving the guys around me. All that stuff comes with it. We didn’t grow up playing in our backyard thinking about contracts. We played because we love the game.
"I think the reason why so many of us in this game have had success is because we just worry about playing the game and playing with love. Everything else will take care of itself. That’s me personally. You can’t worry about anything else. You just do what you do.”
Money may not be on his mind, but on Friday he looked like someone determined to live up the billing he received last season and couldn't make good on. In a seven-on-seven period early in the practice, he made a leaping grab on a back-shoulder throw from Mac Jones with Kyle Dugger all over him in coverage. It was the kind of down-the-field concentration catch that Smith had issues with a season ago, but an emphatic spike after coming to the ground with two feet in bounds seemed to indicate he was ready for more of the same.
A few plays later, he caught another touchdown with Dugger on him in coverage. Once again, he appeared to have a good understanding of what Jones wanted to do with the football, deftly coming back to the ball when the second-year quarterback floated it to open space along the back end line. In an 11-on-11 period toward the end of the session, Smith reeled in another well-placed football from Jones with Adrian Phillips nearby.
It might've been Smith's best practice with the Patriots (at least his best practice that was open to the media). And it served as a reminder of what a two-tight end offense featuring both Smith and Hunter Henry could look like.
Particularly now, with what's been termed a "streamlined" offense by Bill Belichick, Smith should have his skills catered to in some regard. If it's a Shanahan-style attack -- featuring concepts now seen not only in San Francisco under Kyle Shanahan but in Los Angeles with Sean McVay, in Green Bay with Matt LaFleur and elsewhere -- that would "absolutely" help Smith thrive, one AFC assistant coaching in a Shanahan-adjacent scheme told NBC Sports Boston.
Smith's strengths are his quickness, his speed and his ability to run after the catch. Look at tight ends in those types of schemes, the AFC assistant explained, and they aren't usually the traditional hulking "Y" tight ends. They are smaller and lighter. Their athleticism as blockers helps them stretch defenses horizontally, and as pass-catchers they have an ability to gash defenses for big gains on short completions.
Smith has been used in the slot, as an in-line player and as a ball-carrier out of the backfield at times this summer. Wherever he's used, he said Friday, he just wants to execute. In other words, do what he's being paid to do.
After more than a full year in the system, he's showing early signs that he'll be able to do exactly that.
"With time, a lot of things are built," Smith said. "Time is so important in many aspects of life. When you get time, you have the opportunity and advantages of progressing in whatever area it is. That’s just the mindset I take to it."