NFL Free Agents: Patriots New Tight Ends
If you were hoping that 2021 free agency would provide a little relief at a tumultuous tight end position, your hopes were pretty quickly dashed by none other than the evil genius Bill Belichick himself.
More than any other position in fantasy, tight end relies on scheme and opportunity more so than talent. With a position like wide receiver, the top two guys on the team are on the field pretty much every play and talent usually wins out. It’s not like that with tight end. You might have a team that primarily uses single tight end sets and only deploys one at a time which limits their snaps, like with Jimmy Graham /Cole Kmet or Darren Fells /Jordan Akins last season. Or you could be in Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense that utilizes four wide receivers on ~20% of the plays which relegates their top tight end, Dan Arnold , to a 41% snap share. And even if they are on the field for a ton of snaps, you could have Sean McVay or Adam Gase asking you to block on one of every four pass plays which limited guys like Tyler Higbee and Chris Herndon in fantasy. Or you could be in a run-first offense like Kevin Stefanski’s with two target hog receivers which plagued Kyle Rudolph in Minnesota and now Austin Hooper in Cleveland. It’s a minefield out there.
So, with so many nightmare scenarios for fantasy tight ends, we had hoped that Jonnu and Henry would land in ideal locations and create a couple more high-end tight ends for fantasy purposes. That didn’t quite happen. Given that these two were far and away the top two tight ends in free agency, we’re going to look at them just as we did the top free agent wide receiver impacts and top free agent runningback impacts.
Jonnu Smith - New England - four years, $50,000,000 million
Jonnu Smith thus far has been the classic case of a highly athletic specimen being held back by the way he was deployed in the Titans scheme. Even after Delanie Walker left, Jonnu was still being asked to pass block on 15-20% of his pass plays in certain games. Last season, when AJ Brown was hurt and then later when Corey Davis /Adam Humphries were out with COVID, it was actually Anthony Firkser who got a bit of a boost by playing in the slot. Firk ran 83 routes through the first six weeks to 99 for Jonnu despite Jonnu clearly being ahead on the depth chart. And that was without the wide receivers - once they were back Jonnu took an even lower spot on the target totem pole and, along with the run-first mentality, that limited Jonnu to being a touchdown dependent asset. The predictability of this situation is one of the main reasons why I had him as a fade in my tight end series last year despite him being a popular breakout candidate and despite the fact that he could quite literally rip my face off if we ever met in person.
I don't hate you Jonnu, just your 2020 ADP.
That said, we’ve witnessed on multiple occasions his ability to flash. Even in his limited usage in the pass game, he was able to tie for the 4th most touchdowns last year (8) despite running the 25th most routes (300). He’s also had four 50+ yard plays over the last three years which is rare for a tight end - in their entire careers, Travis Kelce and Darren Waller each only have one play longer than fifty yards. George Kittle runs a 4.52 forty yard dash which is blazing for a tight end and he has five such plays so it’s not surprising that, with a 4.62 forty, Jonnu is capable of breaking away as well. And if you don’t believe me about Jonnu’s ability with the ball in his hands, you can ask Bill Belichick himself who, back in January 2020 when they faced the Titans in the playoffs, said that Jonnu Smith was probably the best tight end in the league after the catch.
Hunter Henry - New England - three years, $37,500,000 million
Hunter Henry is built more like a traditional tight end than Jonnu at 6’5” 250 pounds. In fact, if you take into account his size, speed, agility, etc. PlayerProfiler.com comps him to one of the more prototypical tight ends in Zach Ertz .
His production thus far has not quite been Ertz-esque however as he’s battled with injuries which may be the reason he got one less year on his deal than Jonnu. That said, he has been a solid player when healthy - especially in the red zone. Since he came into the league in 2016, only Kelce, Andrews, Gronk, and Ertz have averaged more touchdowns per game than Henry. He’s also never dropped more than 3 balls in a season or fumbled more than once in a season so he doesn’t have the ball security issues that have plagued guys like Evan Engram or Eric Ebron . He’s also graded out in the top 20 run blockers a couple times in his career per PFF which is no small feat for a primary pass catching tight end as that list is often populated with guys like MyCole Pruitt and Marcedes Lewis who specialize in blocking. Much like Jonnu, deployment was an issue at times for Henry with him blocking on 13.3% of the pass plays in Los Angeles in 2020. In some games like the Jets and Bills games, he ran as many as 57 routes and was heavily involved while in others like the Buccaneers and Patriots games, he ran as few as 22 routes. He was especially difficult to trust on a team with a rookie QB that has Keenan Allen , Mike Williams , and Austin Ekeler to throw to and that kind of inconsistency is a killer in most leagues where you start one tight end. Perhaps a change of scenery is in his best interest.
And of course they would both go to the same team. And of course it would be one of the most notoriously tight-lipped organizations in all of sports. And, despite Jonnu getting an extra year, they both got $12.5 million per season. Just a nightmare for fantasy analyst’s whose job it is to make predictions about what might happen. On top of that, the Patriots use more formation and personnel groupings than just about any other team out there besides perhaps the Ravens. So all we can do from this point is look at their profiles and some historic info surrounding the organization and speculate. The good news is that the Patriots really don’t have that may high end incumbent pass catchers on the team (especially with the rumors that Julian Edelman won’t be ready and might not play at all) so there is a path for both of them to get a good number of targets (assuming the Patriots don’t just run it every play, which is also possible). But forget that for now - let’s look at some historical context to see if we can create a hypothetical world where one or more of them are fantasy relevant... A whole new world.
We do have two historical examples of successful multi-TE sets from this organization. The first was the era with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, which is a dream scenario for fantasy gamers because it’s the only time that I could find where two tight ends on the same team finished top five in fantasy at their position. In fact, they were both top three with Gronk being TE1 and Hernandez finishing TE3. This configuration saw Gronk playing primary in-line tight end (761 snaps) while Hernandez played an “H-back” role that saw him playing only 295 in-line snaps but instead lining up all over the field with 363 at slot, 293 split wide, and 77 in the backfield. They really cranked up the weirdness in the divisional playoff game vs. the Broncos that year where Hernandez played 23 RB and Tom Brady threw six touchdowns - three to Gronk and one to Hernandez). Based on their profiles, if they were going to run this offense, you’d likely see Hunter Henry in the in-line Gronk role with Jonnu Smith in the Hernandez role as Jonnu is smaller but more athletic. This iteration of the offense is the best chance to make them both viable in fantasy because you’d essentially have one guy playing tight end and the other guy playing everything else which keeps them both on the field in active pass catching roles.
The other version of this two tight end offense the Patriots ran was set up quite differently. What that essentially saw was one primary pass catching tight end in Gronk and one blocking-heavy tight end in Martellus Bennett (and then later Dwayne Allen ). In that setup, Bennett blocked on 20.1% of his PASS plays but still finished as TE8 in half PPR. But you might say “yeah but Coop, Gronk got hurt that year and missed eight total games and played less than 30% of the snaps in two other games”. To which I’d point out that, in the six games where Gronk played at least 70% of the snaps (with most of them being around 90%), those were actually Bennett’s BEST games. Over that six game span, Gronk was actually TE1 in half point PPR and Bennett was TE3 (sound familiar?). So it is possible, even with this configuration. For the downside, look no further than Gronk with Dwayne Allen . Allen simply was not on the same level as Gronk or even Bennett in the pass game so he spent a lot more time blocking than running routes, only occasionally sneaking out when defenses forgot about him. That’s the concern with this setup and it’s the same thing that has held back Dallas Goedert in games where Zach Ertz is healthy, even if Goedert is just as good at catching passes at this point, he was graded out as the 2nd best blocking tight end in 2019 so he was the one who was asked to block, capping his ceiling. Someone is going to be the better blocker and that someone would be asked to block more often if they go this route. And the worst part is that both Henry and Smith are great blockers so it’s difficult to speculate which guy would be asked to say in (or if it would even be the same guy each time).
The glaring issue of course is that those seasons came with what the majority of people now consider to be the greatest quarterback of all time. Cam Newton might have been the greatest quarterback of 2015 but his shoulder hasn’t looked quite right and he hasn’t exactly been a master marksman. Watching him throw last year was reminiscent of a post shoulder surgery Chad Pennington who could make the short throws but struggled to find form on anything over 15-20 yards. For me, I think it’s more likely that Cam either supports one startable tight end that finishes in the tight end 7-9 range or that both are backend TE1s for fantasy purposes so it’s hard to put too much stock into either of them. But here’s my advice if you do want them on the squad.
At this point it’s super early in the offseason but people have dynasty decisions to make (both for their current leagues and startups) so here is my take as of early April. I believe Hunter Henry will play a more prototypical in-line tight end role the way that Rob Gronkowski did. If this is the case and given his similarities to Zach Ertz in terms of sure hands but lack of explosive speed, Henry to me is likely the safer option in any sort of typical PPR format. That means that Jonnu is likely to play the “other” tight end that is in-line blocking on run plays and some pass plays but could be deployed like Hernandez at times from the slot or even backfield. Given what we know about Jonnu’s ability to turn limited targets into big gains at times or sneak out for touchdowns in goalline sets, Jonnu becomes appealing in either standard or best ball leagues where big plays and touchdowns are more heavily valued and games with limited targets are more easily forgiven. That’s how I’d look at them and I wouldn’t make either a top 7-8 tight end off the board at this point.
And just to wrap things up with the full impact, the already run heavy Patriots converting to an offense with two heavily paid tight ends is not a good thing for the incumbent pass catchers (as if that wasn’t obvious). Notably, N’Keal Harry’s main value was the fact that you need to have seven guys tethered to the line on every play, per league rules. A 6’4” 225 wide receiver would typically be a candidate for heavy usage as a split end but, with two tight ends, you no longer need to have a WR tethered to the line on most plays. Think the Andrew Luck era Colts with combinations of Colby Fleener, Dwayne Allen , Eric Ebron , Jack Doyle etc. so that the tiny 5’9” TY Hilton didn’t have to face the jam. So that frees the Pats up to have two tethered tight ends, Nelson Agholor at flanker, and Jacoby Meyers or Kendrick Bourne r (or Edelman) at slot if they feel like it. The path to relevance for any of them is an uphill battle but I’d probably put my money on Nelson Agholor considering they just made him the 21st highest paid WR in the league on a per year basis - higher than guys like Will Fuller , Tyler Lockett , and JuJu Smith-Schuster who also just got new deals. The rest of them are late round flyers at best.