It’s unclear how the Patriots plan to use Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith

FOXBORO – Jonnu Smith looked exhausted.

He had finished Monday’s practice and still hadn’t eaten before speaking to reporters via Zoom. Yet despite what could have been low blood sugar, he was not rocked by the bait.

Would you like to share how he would be used in the season opener on Sunday against the Dolphins, he was asked?

“Absolutely not,” replied Smith. “Absolutely not. I’ll be wearing # 81. That’s all I’ve got.”

That’s all most Patriots watchers got this summer by watching Smith.

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In the preseason, it was rarely used. Smith has played in two of the three games – without a game against the Eagles after missing this week of practice with injury – playing just 20 total snaps.

Of course, there were games during training camp training that featured her particular skill set: darts to the seam, crosses, wrestling and run games. But he was only targeted twice in the preseason and caught a pass for 16 yards. And only a fifth of his games – four in total – have come with another tight winger on the pitch.

Remember when those multi-tight looks were supposed to transform the Patriots offense earlier this offseason? They still might. They should. It’s just that since acquiring Smith and Hunter Henry as free agents this offseason – both making some of the highest paid players in their positions – they’ve spent very little time on the pitch together in situations. significant.

Henry didn’t play a single snap during the preseason as he had to deal with an injury that kept him in a red non-contact training jersey until recently. This meant that Smith, in the short pre-season time he had seen, had seen virtually no 12-person action.

Not only that, but in those four shots with Smith and another tight end on the pitch, the Patriots really haven’t given away much… of… anything. They showed off what were basically two different looks.

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The first type of play featured a tight end in a wing position just off the line of scrimmage next to another tight end in line and a receiver near the end of the line of scrimmage in a “wicked division. “. He’s been deployed against Washington twice with Smith in the field (three times in total). This once resulted in a running game (canceled by Smith’s take on Chase Young). It was once an action game led by Cam Newton that sent Smith through the formation in the flat while Jakobi Meyers ran deep and Matt LaCosse ran a cross road. It’s the type of game-action look that is being reborn in the NFL thanks to the programs led by the coaches of Mike Shanahan’s followers. Newton tried to hit Smith in the flat but threw incomplete.

The second type of game? With two tight ends lined up at either end of the line of scrimmage and two receivers on the strong side of the roster against Washington, the Patriots executed what looked like a clear concept for Smith to attack a soft zone cover. With a hitch executed by the outer receiver, a fade executed by the inner receiver, and a loop executed by the tight end to the strong side, the tight end of the weak side traveled a crossing road under the two vertical roads in the middle. . As zone defenders sagged towards the deeper grounds, Smith ran freely across the pitch, caught a pass from Newton, smashed a tackle and ran for 16 yards.

That game was also the one the Patriots faced against the Giants in the preseason finale, only with Devin Asiasi running the road below and Smith performing the loop on the strong side. Newton was immediately under duress and threw away the incomplete pass.

A personal package. Four pieces. Two formations. No hunter Henry. It was a far cry from “Summer of Tight Ends” in Foxboro.

In total, out of three preseason games, the Patriots have played 197 offensive games. They left the group with several tight ends just 10 times. The personnel package that was supposed to be transformational for the Patriots’ offense only served up five percent of their preseason offense.

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“It happens to us at some point every year at some point,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “We go through times of the season where you could be light on the receiver, you could be light on the near end, you could be light on the backfield, you could be light on guard, tackle, whatever. . I’m kind of numb, quite honestly. That’s the nature, I think, to be in my 21st year. “

If the Patriots want to see an immediate return on their tight investments, they’ll use Smith and Henry – both of whom should be healthy enough to play against Miami – much more than they did. in August. Still, having both players, two players who have missed a lot of time in the past due to injury, is not a given. And McDaniels knows it.

“It is also a good lesson to remember as a coach that you cannot put everything in one basket, especially as you are preparing to start a season,” he said. . “You have to have some depth in your game planning, in your staff and in what you can do, which always lends itself to having more than you need, or more than you are going to use. you never know which part you are going to use, or you are going to need. “

McDaniels is not wrong. Schematic flexibility is important. But the Patriots are going to need their tight ends in 2021. That’s where they invested after throwing just 33 tight end passes in 2020, with 18 catches for 254 yards and a touchdown. No team has led less than 12 people than the Patriots (2% of games) last year, according to Sharp Football, and this after a season in 2019 where no team has pitched more rarely at its tight ends (52 targets).

Even though they haven’t worked out much together this summer – Henry and Smith barely trained in full pads together because of Henry’s injury – McDaniels is confident his duo will be ready to hit the ground against the Dolphins.

“I think both worked extremely hard,” McDaniels said. “I am very confident in the ability and understanding of both players of our system and how we operate, what we are doing offensively and their roles. It is because they are very diligent in the job that they are doing. They’re preparing very well, so I’m very confident.

“I anticipate that when the week is over, we’ll try to make the decision as a whole. ‘Alright, hey, we love these things and these things that we’re still working on.’ It’s a little bit every year that happens I would say at the start of the year. You have any expectations or hope that maybe we’ll be further along in that pattern or that sort of thing before we start playing. will materialize that way, and you decide to hold it and keep working on it in training. But I have no doubts about those two players in terms of being able to go out there and play. They’ll all be the two ready to go and I know they’re excited and happy to get into a regular season routine now. “

Whatever the Patriots reveal on Sunday, it likely won’t be a complete and utter shock to Brian Flores and his defense. When Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were teammates in New England, they were among the most productive close tandems in league history. Although McDaniels had been elsewhere for two of those years – coach of the Broncos in 2010 and then Rams offensive coordinator in 2011 – he was offensive coordinator in 2012 when the tight young pair combined for 106 catches. There are a lot of gangs out there that could lead to clues as to where McDaniels will take the offense this year.

But Smith and Henry have different talents than their predecessors in this diagram. Neither player is as sudden as Hernandez and physical strength as dominant as Gronkowski, according to league evaluators. But Smith is dynamic after the capture, and Henry should serve as a reliable all-rounder. As a result, some elements of the 12-person packages that McDaniels has will be highlighted over others. It’s just a matter of which ones.

It’s not 2007 with Randy Moss, who didn’t play a single preseason snap before teaming up with Tom Brady and taking the league by storm. But there are still uncertainties as to how the 2021 Patriots offense will deal with Smith and Henry barely played together when the pads arrived.

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For their part, the two believe that they have built a good working relationship that will lead to results.

“It’s good to create a chemistry with him to talk about things, to see things live, to work on things in the running game and the passing game,” said Henry. “I mean he’s a huge threat and a great player so it’s fun to go out there and have another guy that I can count on and just, you know, compete and train. and somehow improve and it makes me better every day. “

“Dude, that was awesome,” Smith said, “just feeding us each other’s energy. Working out, pushing each other, on the training ground, in the weight room. Two alpha males, man, just being able to give each other a push. The most important thing is that he’s my guy, and I’m his guy. We support each other. I support him. I know he supports mine. So it really is. nice to have a guy like his playmaker talent is something we can definitely bring to the table. Some of my playing rubs off on him, some of his playing rubs off on me, and we just help each other out. to improve. “

They will also help the Patriots improve. What exactly it will look like, however, remains a mystery.

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