FOXBORO, Mass. — Get the T-shirts ready. Start warming up the printing press. Jonnu Smith already has a catchy nickname for his newly formed tandem with fellow New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry.
“Boston TE Party, baby,” a smiling Smith said Wednesday after New England’s first training camp practice. “Boston TE Party. Let’s bring it back.”
The Patriots are hoping for fireworks from their two big-ticket offseason additions after fielding arguably the NFL’s weakest tight end group in each of the last two seasons.
In 2020, New England’s trio of Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene combined for just 18 catches (32nd in the NFL), 254 yards (31st) and one touchdown (tied for 32nd). Henry alone surpassed those totals by Week 5. Smith was there by Week 8.
Considered top-10 players at their position and the two best tight ends available in free agency, Smith and Henry both signed contracts with the Patriots that will pay them $12.5 million per season. (Only Travis Kelce and George Kittle have higher average annual contract values among tight ends.)
With them aboard, New England is expected to return to the double-tight end offense it ran to great effect in the early 2010s (with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) and in 2016 (with Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett). The Patriots utilized fewer two-tight end sets than any other NFL team last season, running just 22 plays (and a mere eight passing plays) out of 12 personnel.
“This offense is built for tight ends,” said Henry, who agreed to his three-year, $37.5 million deal one day after the Patriots locked up Smith for four years and $50 million. “Obviously, they have had a lot of success with two tight ends. We’re completely different players from the guys in the past.
“Those guys were great football players, obviously. They have a tremendous legacy here, so we’re not trying to be those guys. We’re trying to be ourselves. Just looking forward to the challenge ahead. But this offense has a tradition with two tight ends. I was excited about the opportunity.”
Day 1 of camp offered fans and media members their first true glimpse of Smith and Henry working together in the Patriots’ offense. Smith did not participate in voluntary organized team activities and then suffered a hamstring injury early in mandatory minicamp, sidelining him for the final few spring practices.
“I’m feeling great,” Smith reported after Wednesday’s session. “I’ve been here. I’ve been out here, you know, for a couple weeks now. I’m just anxious to get out here running around and opening the legs up and playing football again, being competitive and competing. It’s what I love doing. It’s a great feeling.”
Smith is coming off a career year in which he posted a 41-448-8 receiving line for the Tennesse Titans. The 25-year-old is known for his athleticism, versatility and ability to generate yards after the catch. Henry ranks fifth among tight ends in receiving yards per game over the last two seasons, trailing only Kelce, Kittle, Darren Waller and Mark Andrews.
“(Henry is) a beast. That?s why his nickname’s ‘The Beast,’ ” said safety Adrian Phillips, who intercepted a pass intended for his former Los Angeles Chargers teammate on Wednesday. “Every time I see him, I’m always yelling, ‘Beast!’ He’s a guy that just works hard. He talks about the New England Way. That’s him. He’s going to come in, do his job, he’s never going to complain about anything, and he’s going to ball.”
In addition to revamping their tight end room, the Patriots invested significant resources in several other roster weak spots, including wide receiver (Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne), edge rusher (Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy) and defensive line (Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, second-round pick Christian Barmore).
Bill Belichick’s club is looking to rebound from a forgettable 2020 campaign that saw the Patriots miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and post their first sub-.500 record (7-9) since 2000.
“We’ve got a lot of skill and a lot of talent,” Smith said. “And because of that, there’s no reason why we can’t get to where we want to go. The thing about that is there’s a lot of skill and a lot of talent on every team in this league. So it’s about the little things and separating ourselves from those guys.”