As the March 15 start of the new NFL league year approach, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots roster.
Who’s returning? Who could be out the door? What are the biggest questions facing each group?
Next up: the tight ends.
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Henry (17 games): 41 catches on 51 targets for 509 yards and two touchdowns
Smith (14 games): 27 catches on 38 targets for 245 yards
Sokol (three games): no targets
Washington (one game): no targets
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Can Bill O’Brien finally unlock the Henry/Smith duo? Both of the Patriots’ high-priced tight ends were relative non-factors in Matt Patricia’s offense. Henry followed up an impressive nine-touchdown campaign with the least productive season of his career. Smith, meanwhile, again was one of the NFL’s least efficient pass-catchers, topping 50 receiving yards just once and failing to find the end zone. The former Tennessee Titans standout has scored just one touchdown in 30 games for New England, and the terms of his contract restructure all but guarantee he’ll be on the roster in 2023.
Quarterback Mac Jones seemed to believe usage was partly to blame for the Patriots’ lack of tight end production, hinting on multiple occasions that Smith and Henry were not being utilized correctly. That was one of many issues that plagued the Patriots’ offense during Patricia’s disastrous one-year stint as its de facto coordinator.
Fortunately for them, they now have an OC who knows how to get the most out of star tight ends. The final year of O’Brien’s first Patriots stint (2011) was one of the best ever by an NFL tight end room, with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combining for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns during the regular season and another 36-446-5 in the playoffs.
That’s not to say O’Brien can turn the Patriots’ current duo into Gronk/Hernandez 2.0, and it’s worth noting that Smith also struggled under former coordinator Josh McDaniels, who employs a similar offensive philosophy to O’Brien’s. He could simply be a lost cause. But O’Brien knows how to effectively and creatively operate a two-tight end offense and should be able to coax more production out of the pair than Patricia could in 2022.
And he’ll need to, because the Patriots’ output at the position hasn’t justified their investment. Smith ($17.2 million) and Henry ($15.5 million) currently own the team’s second- and third-highest 2023 salary cap hits, respectively, trailing only Pro Bowl edge rusher Matthew Judon.
Cutting Smith would leave New England with a massive dead money charge and minimal cap relief, and though the Patriots could free up a good bit of space by releasing Henry ($10.5 million with $5 million in dead money), he’s been a far better player for them than his underperforming position mate.
2. Will the Patriots draft a tight end? The Patriots wouldn’t have needed to spend big on Henry and Smith if either of their 2020 third-round picks had panned out. But Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene both flopped and were released halfway through their rookie contracts, forcing New England to replenish that depleted position group through free agency.
With Henry now entering the final year of his deal (Smith is signed through 2024), it would make sense for the Patriots to draft a tight end this spring. Being proactive there would help them avoid the situation they were in back in 2019, when, after all but ignoring tight ends in the draft for close to a decade, they were left barren at the position once Rob Gronkowski retired.
Whom might they target? Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer and Utah’s Dalton Kincaid are two of this year’s most impressive prospects, but the Patriots might need to use a first-round pick to land either, and they have more pressing needs elsewhere.
Two projected mid-rounders of note are Sam LaPorta, a broken-tackle machine who played under ex-Patriots tight ends coach Brian Ferentz at Iowa, and Alabama’s Cameron Latu, who averaged 14.1 yards per catch and scored 12 touchdowns over O’Brien’s two seasons as OC of the Crimson Tide.
And if the Patriots are looking for someone in the fullback/H-back mold, Oregon State’s Jack Colletto was part of the team they coached at the 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl. Colletto, who also played linebacker and quarterback in college, won the Paul Hornung Award this past season as the most versatile player in college football.
3. Who is Will Lawing? After being passed over for the offensive coordinator job in each of the past two offseasons, Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley left to take the same job with the Las Angeles Rams. His expected replacement is Lawing, whom New England reportedly hired after bringing back O’Brien.
The 37-year-old former college wide receiver isn’t a household name, but O’Brien clearly thinks highly of him. Since joining O’Brien’s Penn State staff as a grad assistant in 2013, Lawing has worked under the new Patriots’ OC for the past 10 seasons, following him first to the Houston Texans and then to Alabama.
Lawing was Houston’s tight ends coach in O’Brien’s final two seasons there (2019-20). In those seasons, Darren Fells ranked 10th and second among all NFL tight ends with at least 25 targets in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and Texans teammate Jordan Aikens ranked 26th and 14th.
We’ll see what Lawing can do with Henry, Smith and whichever other tight ends New England adds this offseason.