The New England Patriots were the biggest spenders on the first day of free agency, as Bill Belichick made the most of his $60 million in available cap space. The biggest move of the day was easily signing tight end Jonnu Smith to a four-year, $50 million contract. Smith is one of the most talented tight ends in the league, but he never had the chance to fully thrive in Tennessee. However, now that he’s in a different system, could Jonnu Smith finally put it all together for fantasy football purposes?
Update: Hunter Henry has also signed with the Patriots, making this entire article null and void
Fantasy Football: Jonnu Smith Outlook With New England Patriots
Tight end might be the hardest position to field in fantasy football, as there are so few starting-caliber options. A big reason for this is due to blocking being a large part of the job description, as tight ends obviously can’t earn you fantasy points while in the trenches. In a perfect world, the Patriots will utilize Smith more as a big receiver than an actual tight end.
It’s impossible to definitively know what Belichick has in store for Smith, but we can make an educated guess based on some previous comments. Back in the 2019 playoffs, Belichick and the Patriots faced off against Jonnu Smith and the Titans. When asked about the tight end, Belichick called him “a really good tight end” that “blocks well, runs well, [and] is a good receiver.” Historically speaking, Belichick isn’t afraid to refer to poor blocking tight ends as big receivers, so it’s noteworthy that he praised Smith’s blocking ability. While he will obviously be used in the passing game, he’ll probably spend a bit more time in the trenches than fantasy football owners would like.
Prior to the Patriots wildcard loss to Tennessee, Belichick complimented Jonnu Smith and dismissed the notion that he was more of a big receiver than a traditional tight end pic.twitter.com/BNhG3PbAI8
— Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) March 15, 2021
Chances are, the Patriots view Smith similarly to how they viewed Martellus Bennett all those years ago. The two are similar players, although the 2021 version of Smith is better than the 2016 version of Bennett. Bennett finished 2016 as the TE10, despite playing four games without Tom Brady, splitting snaps with Rob Gronkowski in the first half of the year, and battling through an ankle injury for the final few weeks of the season. This probably represents Smith’s floor, but analyzing the quarterback fit and target share should set his ceiling.
Jonnu Smith Fantasy Football Target Share
Smith was New England’s biggest offensive signing, but he wasn’t the only one. In addition to the big tight end, the Patriots also added wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne to compete with the incumbent Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry. Julian Edelman is reportedly questionable to even suit up in 2021, so I’m going to assume he won’t be a part of the equation here.
The Patriots featured one of the most run-heavy offenses in football last year, but that was basically by default. New England had the worst supporting cast in the league, and their only hope of winning football games came by making the most of Cam Newton’s mobility. You don’t spend this much money on pass-catchers if you don’t want to throw the ball, so it’s safe to assume that the passing volume will increase in 2021.
Nelson Agholor has the ability to move all over the formation, but he’ll probably be a one-for-one replacement for Damiere Byrd. Byrd ended the 2020 campaign with 77 targets, while Agholor had 82 with the Las Vegas Raiders. Chances are, most of those vacated targets will go to the former Philadelphia Eagle. Bourne, meanwhile, is a very similar player to Jakobi Meyers and could battle the undrafted free agent for the Edelman role. Chances are, the Patriots want Smith to finish second on the team in targets, just ahead of Agholor and just behind whoever ends up winning the Edelman role.
The quarterback obviously plays a huge role in the fantasy equation, and Cam Newton looks like he’ll be the starter – at least in the short term. The former first-overall pick had a rough year last year, but it would’ve been hard for anyone to succeed in Newton’s surroundings. He probably will improve in Year 2, although he probably won’t ever recapture his MVP form.
Cam Newton's 2014/2016/2017/2020 rank in:
2020 has been a pretty typical Bad Cam/no weapons year
— Dave Latham, Lifelong Bucs Fan (@DLPatsThoughts) December 29, 2020
New England definitely upgraded their receivers from last year, but this is still a below-average unit. In many ways, this is similar to what Newton dealt with after the Panthers parted ways with Steve Smith, as he has a very good tight end (Greg Olsen then, Jonnu Smith now), and a bunch of depth receivers on the outside.
During those campaigns, Newton targeted Olsen early and often. From 2014 to 2017, Olsen had a 16-game pace of 75 receptions for 982 yards and five touchdowns and finished as a top-five tight end every year from 2014 to 2016. He probably would’ve done it again in 2017, but injuries limited him to just seven games.
Based on this, I feel it’s safe to pencil in a similar fantasy football stat line for Jonnu Smith in 2021. Chances are, the tight end will finish with roughly 70 receptions for 950 yards and 6-8 touchdowns.
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