Welcome to 10 Patriots Training Camp Questions!
Every day until the start of camp, the Herald will explore one of the biggest questions facing the Pats this summer. Many are related to the offense, which added a new arsenal of tight ends and may feature rookie quarterback Mac Jones at some point this season. Other questions cover the defense, which also had a makeover in the front seven, and the rookie coming around Jones. Once the Patriots take the field, here’s what they should learn before the 2021 season begins.
How much of the crime will revolve around the new tight ends?
No team played less aggressive snaps with two tight ends on the field last season than the Patriots.
It’s a safe bet that will change in 2021.
The Patriots signed free agents Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry last March, worth a combined approximately $90 million. Amidst tight ends only all-pros Travis Kelce and George Kittel are determined to make more on an average annual basis. The Pats are going to wear their new stars.
The objective behind rebuilding through Henry and Smith was to reclaim the middle of the field. Pats coach Bill Belichick has directed his offenses to work internally for 30 years, from his days in Cleveland. It was no coincidence that Tom Brady continued firing Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman for two decades to slot in. Not to mention, Rob Gronkowski.
Henry and Smith would help the Patriots win again from the middle as both receivers and run-blockers.
With the defense often sitting in zone coverage on early downs, the Patriots must increase their rate of play-action, which is already the league’s highest-ranked in 2020. This would open up the middle of the field for Henry, who is a master within 10 yards. The line of scrimmage is who knows how to navigate the zone. He can even out defenders with his 6-foot-5 frame and runs the seam well.
While Henry is closer to a household name, Smith’s impact on the offense should be profound. He can play widely in the slot, in the backfield, and from a traditional in-line position. The 25-year-old destroyed the defenses after a catch in Tennessee, breaking 14 tackles in 41 receptions last year.
Expect the Pats to target Smith in high-mileage positions — third down and red zones — when defenses employ more man coverage. Smith has made touchdowns on almost one of three catches against man-to-man since 2018. He is too strong for a defensive back and too quick for an average linebacker. He even defeated former Patriots safety Patrick Chung to launch a Titans beatdown of Belichick’s defense in 2018.
If the injury strikes either player, the Pats will have options, but their likely course will be to flex in three-receiver sets. The depth behind Henry and Smith is highly questionable, starting with third-round rookies Devin Assiasi and Dalton Keene and travelman Matt LaCosse. Backfield depth is equally questionable, at least among proven pass-catching backs. It’s better to field a Jacoby Meyers or Kendrick Bourne than a question mark.
However, the Pats have dabbled in two-halfback personnel during passing conditions over the past two seasons, only calling up regular passing concepts from the backfield. And it’s possible they will again. Just don’t be surprised if it’s Henry or Smith taking the wheel out from behind Cam Newton, charging downfield with a mismatched defender and an aggressive world of possibilities in tow.