After eight long months, real, actual, meaningful, regular-season New England Patriots football finally returns this weekend.
As we count down the final days before Sunday’s Week 1 matchup with the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium, let’s dive into a few of your Patriots mailbag submissions.
What are your expectations on Jonnu Smith? Breakout season or just another face in the crowd?
I’m leaning breakout. I think Smith can be a legit weapon for this Patriots team after really struggling last season.
Maybe that’s overly optimistic, but the high-priced tight end has been a full practice participant since the start of spring workouts — which was not the case in 2021 — and was one of Mac Jones’ top targets during training camp. I think the Patriots, who knew Smith wasn’t going anywhere based on the terms of his contract, also made adjustments to their scheme aimed at maximizing his strengths — most notably his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.
Even in his mostly miserable 2021 season, Smith ranked third in the NFL and first among tight ends in yards after catch per reception, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Only Deebo Samuel and Mecole Hardman had more. Expect New England to scheme up more opportunities to give him the ball in space.
I’m not anticipating Travis Kelce-level numbers from Smith, who’s never topped 45 catches or 450 receiving yards in any season, but I don’t believe he’ll be the complete zero he was in his first season in New England. Bill Belichick seems to share that opinion.
“Jonnu’s had a really good offseason,” the Patriots head coach said last weekend. “Starting in the spring, he’s in real good condition, fundamentals, and techniques are good. He’s a hard-working kid. He’s out there every day, smart player. So he’s off to a real good start, and we’ll see how things go in the regular season. But he’s put himself in position to, I think, go out and play well.”
Smith’s recent contract restructure could be viewed as another vote of confidence, as it essentially guarantees him a roster spot in 2023, as well.
I’m also interested to see how the Patriots utilize Smith and Hunter Henry together this season. They used 12 personnel (1RB, 2TE) at the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL a year ago, but I expect to see much more of that now that their offense no longer features a fullback.
Hi Zack, What is the starting O-Line this Sunday in your opinion? Do you see Wynn being able to go?
If Isaiah Wynn can go, it’ll be (from left to right) Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Mike Onwnu and Wynn. If the back injury Wynn has been dealing with sidelines him, then things get interesting.
I probably would start Yodny Cajuste at right tackle in the event of a Wynn absence, but what we saw late in the preseason suggests Justin Herron would be the next man up. Herron has been a solid backup at left tackle throughout his career, but he has not been effective when playing on the right side. He didn’t look great there in training camp, either.
The Patriots talked up their offensive tackle depth ahead of cutdown day — director of player personnel Matt Groh said he felt “very fortunate and very confident” in it — but their decision to sign old friend Marcus Cannon to the practice squad Thursday indicated they have some reservations about their setup there. Wynn and starting left tackle Trent Brown both have lengthy injury histories, so New England needs to have a strong backup plan.
Who will replace Justin Bethel?
Bethel, who surprisingly was released on cutdown day, is one of the NFL’s premier punt gunners, so whoever does replace him will have big shoes to fill. Based on what we saw this week in practice, the top candidates seem to be cornerback Jonathan Jones, practice squad receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey and rookie running back Pierre Strong.
Jones has great speed and extensive gunner experience from earlier in his career, but the Patriots might be reluctant to use him there now that he’s one of their starting outside cornerbacks. Humphrey played well in that role during the preseason but would need to be elevated to the gameday roster. Special teams coordinator Cam Achord also noted how important speed is for a gunner, and Humphrey ran a 4.75-second 40-yard dash, one of the slowest times ever by a wideout at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Strong is an intriguing option. He didn’t work much, if at all, at gunner during training camp, but he certainly has the wheels Achord was talking about (4.37-second 40). The fourth-round draft pick also likely won’t have a role on offense to begin his career, so he’ll need to contribute on special teams if he hopes to earn a spot on the 46-man gameday roster.
I’ve seen people saying Brenden Schooler should replace Bethel since his emergence seemingly pushed the veteran off the roster, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest he’s a front-runner for that role. Gunner isn’t the only position on special teams.
What do you anticipate in the area of practice squad elevations?
I think Humphrey is a possibility. He can play in the kicking game, provide depth at receiver and also be an emergency option at tight end. I also could see them elevating an actual tight end like Matt Sokol, since Henry and Smith are the only ones on their 53-man roster and they’re expected to run a lot more two-tight end sets this season.
Other elevations could depend on injuries. If running back Ty Montgomery, who returned to practice Monday but has been limited with a knee issue this week, misses Sunday’s game, perhaps the Patriots will bring up J.J. Taylor for depth behind Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and the unproven Strong. The same goes for Cannon if Wynn is sidelined.
Please convince me that this season won’t be a disaster and I can look forward to watching quality, winning football this season.
I’ll direct you to a 1,400-word story I wrote Thursday on the best- and worst-case scenarios for the 2022 Patriots. Even with all the questions and criticism they’ve faced this spring and summer, them actually having a better season than they did in 2021 is a realistic possibility.