The New England Patriots didn't waste much time getting busy during the NFL's legal tampering period of free agency with the decision to sign former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith. Upgrading the receiving weapons had to be one of the biggest priorities for the Patriots this offseason, whether they go into 2021 with the re-signed Cam Newton as the starter or try to find a long-term option in addition, and this is a big splash to kick off free agency. Smith's contract is the fourth-largest for a tight end in the NFL right now in terms of total money, but the $31.25 million guaranteed is a record for the position, so the Patriots are betting big on Smith turning the flashes he showed in Tennessee into consistent production.
In four seasons since being the 100th overall pick out of Florida International University, Smith has never had more than 448 yards in a season, though he is coming off a career-high eight touchdowns. Smith has never put up massive numbers, but at his best, he's been an effective big-play receiver, averaging 10.0 yards per target in 2019, with at least one 50-plus-yard reception in each of the last two seasons. And it's that big-play potential that makes Smith such an intriguing player, both in Fantasy and in real life.
Over the last three seasons, Smith is one of just two tight ends with an average yards after the catch (per reception) of at least seven yards (min. 100 targets) -- the other being George Kittle. Smith is a weapon with the ball in his hands, and that skill should be very valuable for the Patriots offense, as Newton ranked just 29th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks in intended air yards per pass attempt in 2020. That number could increase if the Patriots add more playmakers who can earn targets down the field, but having someone who can break off big plays on short and intermediate routes will be a big boost for the offense as a whole.
The question for Smith's ultimate Fantasy value will be how big of a role he gets in the Patriots offense. They have the fewest catches by a tight end in the NFL over the last two seasons, but they've also been woefully lacking in talent. This is a significant investment in Smith, and given the dearth of talent here, you have to think they're going to plan for a big role in the passing game. It probably won't be a Darren Waller or Travis Kelce-esque target share, but even a 20% target share would be a huge deal for Smith.
It would also be totally realistic. Right now, Smith's main competition for targets in New England are Julian Edelman -- a soon-to-be 35-year-old who is still recovering from October knee surgery -- and James White, a running back. It wouldn't be a surprise if Smith was the leading receiver on this team, and as things stand, that might be the assumption I move forward with unless the Patriots add a legitimate wide receiver talent.
In my first run through the projections for the Patriots, I gave Smith a team-high 20% target share, leading to a 62-catch, 732-yard, seven-touchdown season. That is enough to move him up to the No. 6 spot in my tight end rankings, and it admittedly could be too low. This move puts Smith in that third tier at tight end -- Kelce, Kittle, and Waller are the first tier, and Mark Andrews currently represents something of a one-man tier after them -- and he'll likely stay there.
The addition of Smith also makes Newton a more interesting Fantasy option, because I was expecting little from the combination of Devin Asiasi and Ryan Izzo, who combined for 27 targets in 2020. I added about four touchdowns to his projection, and with his rushing ability, that pushed him to the No. 13 spot in six-point-per-pass-touchdown leagues and 12th in four-point-per leagues.
The Patriots offense is a long way from being even a top-25 passing game in the league, but there's potential for more growth here if they can give Newton more help. Smith is a good start, so let's see what else they do.