There's just something about seeing a fresh face in a new jersey. For fans, like the start of a new romance, the possibilities are endless with each offseason addition. Hope abounds.
For New England Patriots fans in particular, their heads must be spinning at the sight of the players added this offseason. Their heart strings must be pulled in all sorts of different directions as to which newcomer will be their favorite. Who deserves the bulk of their attention when they visit training camp? Whose jersey should they purchase? Who has an NFT worthy of their investment?
Despite the smorgasbord of options, there is an obvious answer. And in this case the obvious answer is the right one. The new player Patriots fans will immediately fall in love with this season is tight end Jonnu Smith.
Let Bill Belichick, from late in the 2020 season, explain.
“He’s just a really good tight end," Belichick said at the time. "Can do a lot of things. Blocks well. Runs well. Is a good receiver. (Tennessee) played him at tailback, he looked pretty good back there. He’s a very athletic player. Hard to tackle. Catches the ball well.
"Great after the catch, probably the best in the league. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone better than him after the catch.”
Belichick wasn't just paying Smith lip service. In 2019, Smith was second among tight ends with a yards-after-the-catch figure of 8.1, behind only Noah Fant of the Broncos. Last season, Smith ranked seventh in that category.
And according to Next Gen Stats, Smith ranked 16th among all tight ends and receivers in football in its "yards after the catch over expected" metric, which gathers NGS on-the-field data to determine an expected number of yards after the catch based on where a receiver catches the ball and where defenders are positioned around him at the time of the catch.
Watching a dynamic athlete like Smith make plays after the catch will have Patriots fans, thirsty for tight end talent, going gaga. Watching him align in different areas of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' formations will have them jabbing friends in the ribs with their elbows and saying, "Look at this!"
Smith will also bring a skill set to the table that Patriots fans have become desperate to see. He separates a bit.
According to NGS, which tracks pass-catcher separation numbers, Smith ranked 37th among receivers and tight ends with 3.3 yards of separation per target. Not bad for someone his size (6-foot-3, 248 pounds). He would've ranked second on the Patriots (behind Jakobi Meyers) in that metric last season.
Part of the reason for why Smith will draw a lot of attention to himself early on is that he simply needs more in the way of opportunity to fully show what he's capable of. And he'll get that chance under Belichick and McDaniels.
Smith is going to be 26 years old this coming season, and according to Pro Football Focus, he's generated a passer rating of over 100.0 in three of his four years in the league. He's also only dropped three passes -- a good way to stay in fans' good graces -- on 118 targets the last two seasons.
Yet Smith ranked 18th among tight ends in targets last year in Tennessee's run-heavy (and A.J. Brown-heavy) offense last season. He was also asked to pass block more than some of the top tight ends in the game (Fant, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Robert Tonyan, Evan Engram, Mike Gesicki), limiting his opportunities.
After receiving a four-year deal worth $12.5 million per year, Smith should see plenty of passes come his way. His after-the-catch ability and sure hands suggest that a statistical breakout will soon follow.
Sure, there are other options when thinking about Patriots newcomers who could be fan favorites.
Tight end Hunter Henry figures to be high up the list, though he may not be quite as explosive with the ball in his hands as his new tight end teammate.
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has the potential to top this list, though if he ends up either A) on the bench to start the season or B) experiences normal rookie hiccups, he could end up being a bit more polarizing than Smith.
Nelson Agholor would be beloved if he produced the way he did last season in Las Vegas as one of the league's best deep threats. But his time in Philadelphia featured a more complicated relationship with the fanbase there.
Kendrick Bourne, who brought a beaming smile and ample energy to Patriots spring practices, could end up a favorite in New England. But when compared to Smith, it's harder to predict how things will go for him as a player who started just five games the last two seasons in San Francisco.
Smith, who suffered an injury early in his first Patriots minicamp practice and was forced to sit out the remainder of the three-day session, has to stay healthy; no better way to fall out of favor with fans than to be stuck in the training room. And the expectations will be high for him because of his new contract.
But this is going to be a tight-end centric offense that will focus on getting the football in the hands of its playmakers and letting them roll. As such, Smith is going to end up with oodles of targets and exponentially more fans. Quickly.