Fantasy Impact: Jonnu Smith Signs with Patriots (2021 Fantasy Football)
The first offensive move of 2021 free agency was a big one, as the New England Patriots snagged former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith, signing him to a four-year deal worth $50 million with $31.25 million guaranteed.
To those who’ve paid attention in the past, Bill Belichick was always extremely complimentary when Smith was brought up in conversation. Prior to playing the Titans in the 2019 playoffs, Belichick said this about Smith: “”He’s just a really good tight end. Can do a lot of things. Blocks well. Runs well. Is a good receiver. Played him at tailback, he looked pretty good back there. He’s a very athletic player. Hard to tackle. Catches the ball well. He’s great after the catch, probably the best in the league. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone better than him after the catch.” It was the reason I predicted Smith would sign with the Patriots in my free agent primer right here.
The stats on Smith back up Belichick’s assessment, as he’s averaged 6.3 yards after the catch in 2020 and 8.4 yards after the catch in 2019; both of which were top-10 in the league, according to NFL’s NextGenStats.
WHY HASN’T SMITH BROKEN OUT YET?
The biggest question among fantasy enthusiast is, “Why hasn’t Smith had his breakout season just yet?” It seemed like he was on his way to it over the first four games of the 2020 season where he compiled 18 receptions, 221 yards, and five touchdowns, and was sitting there as the No. 3 fantasy tight end through five weeks despite having his bye come in Week 4.
Why didn’t that continue? Well, A.J. Brown came back to the lineup after missing a few games to injury. The Titans have thrown the ball just 448 and 484 times over the last two years, so when you have a target hog like Brown (7.6 targets per game), it’s unlikely there’ll be enough for another option to get consistent targets. Then you add in Corey Davis, who averaged 6.6 targets per game, and suddenly, Smith is fighting just to get four targets per game. He finished with just 65 targets on the season, but still managed to finish as a top-10 tight end. The only other tight end who finished top-16 with fewer than 76 targets was Robert Tonyan. In fact, there have been just four tight ends over the last 10 years who’ve finished top-10 in fantasy while seeing fewer than 73 targets.
So, why hasn’t Smith broken out yet? Well, to put it simply… nobody would have with the targets he’s received to this point.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE WHEN HE DOES GET TARGETED
I think a fair number of targets to expect for a starting tight end is five, right? Especially when you’re paying a tight end $50 million over four years. There have been 15 games in Smith’s career where he’s seen five-plus targets (he’s never seen more than eight), which is essentially one full season. Here are the results: 92 targets, 63 receptions, 608 yards, and eight touchdowns. When you add in the rushing production he had in those games, it would’ve been enough for him to finish as the No. 3 tight end in 2020, behind only Travis Kelce and Darren Waller.
WILL HE GET THE VOLUME WITH THE PATRIOTS?
We already talked about how little the Titans threw the ball over the last two years, but the Patriots were no better, throwing the ball just 436 times in 2020, which ranked as the second lowest to only the Ravens. That’s a great comparison though, as the Ravens happen to have a top-tier fantasy tight end despite throwing the ball just 405 times in 2020 and 440 times in 2019. Mark Andrews is able to post big fantasy numbers because he has received a 23.6 percent target share when he’s on the field, which is a WR1-type target share. The only other receiver soaking up targets on that team is Marquise Brown.
Can we expect Smith to get to an Andrews-type target share? When you look around the pass-catching room, it’s entirely realistic, as the Patriots don’t have a prototypical No. 1 wide receiver who’ll command five-plus targets every game. If you go back to the time the Patriots had Rob Gronkowski, tight ends saw a 19-26 percent target share while their wide receivers were continually seeing just a 46-50 percent range. That wide number shot up all the way to 57 percent in 2019 and 60 percent in 2020, while the tight ends saw just 8 percent in each of the last two seasons. Keep in mind that they had the same offensive coordinator throughout that time, so they’re trying to adjust target distribution for the talent on the roster.
One thing that can drastically change the projection for Smith would be the departure of James White, as he’s an unrestricted free agent who’s amassed 157 targets in this offense over the last two years. If he were out of the picture, a large chunk of that would go to Smith.
EARLY 2021 PROJECTION
The Patriots aren’t signing Smith to be a role player. They’re signing him to be the featured pass-catcher in this offense who can create yards after the catch. He won’t be third or fourth in the pecking order for targets. He might be first depending on what they do with the rest of free agency. Remember Cam Newton with Greg Olsen? Tight ends, especially ones like Smith who create yards after the catch, don’t require accuracy down the field (something Newton struggles with), but rather targets, and Smith should get plenty of them. The Patriots offense isn’t going to be nearly as efficient as the one he was in with the Titans, but the volume is what matters most, and Smith creates points with pure athleticism. Do I think he’s going to be an every-week, can’t miss TE1? No, I don’t because his quarterback play isn’t consistent enough. However, if you aren’t spending a high pick on Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Darren Waller, you’re not likely to get consistent production out of your tight end. Smith is certainly a breakout candidate in 2021 and should be selected with a top-10 tight end pick in fantasy drafts.
Way-too-early 2021 projection: 85 targets, 55 receptions, 698 yards, 5 touchdowns