Bill Belichick was a fan of Jonnu Smith long before he brought the tight end to New England last week.
Before the Patriots and Smith’s former team, the Tennessee Titans, met in the 2019 NFL playoffs, Belichick raved about Smith’s ability to contribute in multiple ways and generate yardage after the catch.
?He?s just a really good tight end,? the Patriots head coach said in January 2020. ?He can do a lot of things: blocks well, runs well, is a good receiver. I mean, hell, they played him at tailback. He looked pretty good back there. So, he?s a very athletic player, hard to tackle, catches the ball well. He?s great after the catch — probably the best in the league. I mean, I can?t imagine anybody better than him after the catch. No, he looks like a tight end to me. And a good one.”
Those comments got back to Smith, who was nearing the end of his third pro season at the time. Speaking Tuesday in his introductory Patriots video conference, the 25-year-old said he rarely puts stock in outside opinions — but that praise from an individual of Belichick’s stature did carry weight.
“I did (hear that), and as a player, I take everything with a grain of salt,” Smith said. “I don?t look too deep into things, good or bad, because at the end of the day, I?ve got to go out on the field and I?ve got to perform at a certain level, and that?s all that matters. Coming from him, of course, you maybe can?t take that with a grain of salt. It was definitely a pleasure coming from him.
“I don?t try to play this game to impress anybody. I play this game because I love it. Every play is played with love. Some plays may result in a compliment or something or may not, but it was definitely a good feeling to hear that coming from him.”
Belichick’s evaluation was accurate, too. Among tight ends with 40-plus targets, Smith ranked second in yards after catch per reception in 2019 and fifth in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus. Drop the minimum to 25 targets, and he also ranked second in 2018, trailing only Pro Bowler George Kittle.
Smith, who’s listed at 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, prides himself on being difficult to take down.
“That dates all the way back to elementary, man, Pop Warner,” he said. “Back in the day, we called it ‘stop the mo; — you couldn’t tackle the guy, but you had to stop his motion. Just growing up in the churchyard playing those games, me and my friends, I guess it kind of just translated. You never let the first guy bring you down. …
“The goal is to score a touchdown in this league. That’s how you win ballgames. So if I’ve got to stop one or two guys from taking me down to get to the end zone, then that’s what I’m going to strive to do.”
Smith is coming off a career campaign for the Titans (41 passes for 448 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 games). He was the first of several free agent pass-catchers the Patriots have added this offseason, joining fellow tight end Hunter Henry and wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.