Jonnu Smith showed promise as a pass-catcher in the early days of his New England Patriots tenure.
In the season opener, he caught all five of his targets from quarterback Mac Jones. In Week 2, five targets, four catches. It wasn’t a full-on breakout — those nine receptions totaled just 70 yards — but a solid start for the owner of a fresh four-year, $50 million contract.
But since that opening fortnight, Smith has been largely absent from the Patriots’ passing attack. Here are the tight end’s reception totals from his last 12 games:
Smith did not see a single target in Sunday’s 33-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Over the last two games — both Patriots losses — he has nearly as many penalties (two; one false start, one hold) as receiving yards (3).
Exactly one-third of Smith’s catches this season came in those opening two weeks. Nearly half of his targets (21 of 44) came before Week 5. This surely was not the type of production New England was expecting when it signed Smith to his big-money deal on Day 1 of free agency.
Josh McDaniels wants to change this. The Patriots offensive coordinator on Tuesday said he needs to find ways to get Smith — who, despite his uninspiring overall production, ranks fourth in the NFL and second among tight ends in yards after catch per reception — involved.
“Sometimes when the game gets out of hand, you don’t really get to call everything you’d like to call in the game the way you’d like to call it,” McDaniels said, referring to the Patriots’ early deficits against the Bills and Indianapolis Colts. “And there’s certain things, certain aspects of your game, that become less productive when you’re behind and when you’re behind by multiple scores. That can become challenging because the defense doesn’t necessarily allow you to do those things when they’re in a different mindset of pass rush or what have you.
“No, there’s no question about that: He’s a player that can do some things with the ball in his hands. We know that. Very talented guy, works really hard. I’ve got to do better to get him the ball.”
By almost any metric, Smith’s first Patriots season has been a disappointment. He ranks 30th among tight ends in receiving yards (274), tied for 30th in catches (27) and tied for 43rd in touchdown catches (one). Among the 32 tight ends with at least 40 targets, his 61.4% catch rate ranks 29th.
His advanced stats aren’t any prettier. Smith is Pro Football Focus’s 52nd-highest-graded tight end. In Football Outsiders’ DYAR, which measures overall player value, he ranks dead last among tight ends with at least 25 targets. In DVOA, which measures per-play value, he’s third-to-last.
Since early October, the Patriots have used Smith as their primary run-blocking tight end and position mate Hunter Henry as their main pass-catcher. But Smith also has the fourth-worst PFF run-blocking grade of all qualified tight ends. His impact as an occasional ball-carrier has been modest (seven carries, 30 yards, one first down), and only two Patriots players have committed more penalties than Smith’s six.
Henry, meanwhile, has emerged as Jones’ top red-zone target, pulling down nine touchdown passes in 15 games. He’s third in DVOA, sixth in DYAR and 11th in PFF grade. He hasn’t been perfect — Henry and Jones connected just once on six tries this past Sunday — but he’s given the Patriots exactly what they needed from the tight end position.
They’re still waiting for Smith to reach that level — for his work behind the scenes to yield results on game day.
“I see the same guy every single day,” Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley said Tuesday. “He comes to work, he’s a professional, and he works his butt off. And he always has a good attitude. And he’s very unselfish and committed to working to improve like we all are. I’ve seen that from day one. And it’s been consistent.
“I have nothing but confidence in Jonnu. Him and Hunter play off each other very well. They understand the positions and the different variations of things we’re doing. So I’ve got nothing but confidence in those guys.”
If Smith’s emergence as a legit offensive weapon is coming, it’ll need to come soon. The Patriots have just two regular season games remaining and have yet to clinch a playoff spot.