After a 2020 offseason that saw the Patriots lose talent across their roster due to cap constraints and COVID opt-outs, New England has come out guns blazing on the first few days of free agency. The Patriots entered the 2021 offseason with more money to spend than most teams, and it’s not a surprise to see Bill Belichick immediately sign two of the best tight ends on the market.
Belichick has never been a coach who needed a premiere wide receiver for the offense to run through. With a few exceptions, his focus has always been more about finding less expensive players who have skills to create mismatches at their respective positions. He seeks out tight ends who can align across the formation, running backs with great receiving skills, and receivers who can operate out of the slot.
Why does he do this? Because he knows that any defense can scheme a #1 receiver on the outside out of a game if it chooses, especially if there aren’t good options elsewhere. On the other hand, there are not that many linebackers in the NFL who can cover athletic running backs on the outside. There are not as many defenders with the quickness and strength to handle a dynamic receiving tight end in space. There are not many cornerbacks who alone can shut down slot receivers running option routes in the middle of the field.
Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry will allow Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels to more effectively create mismatches in the passing game, as they did for the entire decade between the Randy-Moss years and the end of the Tom-Brady era.
Both tight ends are athletic and reliable receivers who can align across the formation. Smith is the more dynamic athlete who can sometimes easily be mistaken for a big wide receiver on film. Most of his receptions with the Titans last season came when he was aligned close to the formation. However, he’s a dynamic athlete who can take short passes in the middle of the field, outrun linebackers and safeties, and turn those safe passes into big plays.
In New England, you’ll likely find him running more routes on the perimeter, out of the slot, and even out of the backfield.
Henry is a little more of a middle-of-the field tight end that is very good at finding soft spots in zones. In addition to being a security blanket for the quarterback, the Patriots will be able to take advantage of his physicality and big 6’5” frame in the red zone.
He’s got plenty of athleticism, though, and you’ll likely see him running most of his routes from an in-line, flexed, or slot position in New England.
That red-zone production we reference above is an area where the Patriots really struggled last season (24th in the NFL). They threw just 7 red-zone TD passes all season. Smith and Henry, by contrast, combined for 12 red zone TD receptions in 2020.
The ability to use more 2-tight end sets will allow the Patriots to define the coverage and the matchup advantages pre-snap, making life easier for the quarterback. Along with the additions of wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, as well as the likely return of Julian Edelman, the Patriots will have more flexibility and versatility in their passing game. After a down 2020, a big bounce-back season for New England looks inevitable just a few days into free agency.