Pats Turning Back the Clock?
By Jesse Moeller (Twitter: @JMoeller05)
What a week it has been for the Patriots. Spending money as if it was going out of style. As of March 18th a whopping $222 million spent in free agency, over $70 million more than anyone else this offseason. Jonnu Smith was the first domino, as he signed a four-year $50 million contract on Monday. The Patriots then double-dipped one day later signing Hunter Henry to a three-year $37 million contract. The team has spent a combined $87 million on the tight end position alone in free agency. $56 million of that was guaranteed.
The instant comparison for anyone familiar with fantasy football within the last decade is to harken back to the 2011 season. The pinnacle for tight end stands, as Gronkowski and Hernandez finished top three at the tight end position. I wanted to take a look back at that historic tight end season and see how it compares to the Patriots for 2021 and beyond.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez revamped how we feel about tight ends in fantasy. Gronkowski was the main attraction of the two and put up the greatest individual tight end season. To the tune of 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns on 124 targets. This translates to 324.7 fantasy points in full Point Per Reception (PPR) Leagues. Hernandez was no slouch himself, as he finished with 79 receptions for 910 yards and 7 touchdowns on 113 targets. That reached 212 fantasy points and would have put Hernandez as the TE3 last year right behind Kelce, and Waller.
Now there is an elephant in the room when trying to translate the 2011 season to the 2021 room. Tom Brady is no longer the quarterback of the Patriots. The Patriots were a top 10 in passing play rate during the 2011 season in 58% of plays called ending in a pass. Fast forward to the 2021 season with Cam Newton as the quarterback and the Patriots passed it 47% of the time. That percent difference is equal to the team calling 107 fewer passing plays over the year. Broken down that is 6.7 fewer passes a game to go around, the equivalent of going from Roethlisberger who was 3rd in attempts to Bridgewater who was 16th in attempts last year.
These types of numbers cannot be denied when evaluating players moving into new situations. Let us break down both Smith and Henry as players, and how they will be used by the Patriots in 2021 and beyond.
Jonnu has been a tantalizing athlete at the tight end position. A player who had a breakout age of 18.0 (100th) paired with a speed and burst score above 84% screams one of the more talented players at the position. What has been perplexing about Jonnu is his lack of usage in the passing game in Tennessee. Jonnu was stuck behind Delanie Walker his rookie year, learning the ropes of the position. The following three years saw him struggle to make an impact while competing with the likes of Luke Stocker, and Anthony Firkser. (That’s not ideal)
What has been clear is his lack of usage in the passing game throughout his career in Tennessee. Jonnu averaged a 15% snap share in special teams his first three seasons. Last year it dropped to 3% as he became a much more important part of the offense. If a team values a player on offense they will minimize the number of snaps played on special teams. Look at any tight end snaps played. If that player is over 10% of special teams snaps, they are not viewed as an essential part of the offense.
While Hunter Henry is not the supreme athlete that Jonnu Smith is, he is no slouch. Henry has been one of the more productive tight ends in the league since his rookie year. The issue has never been talent, as Henry also broke out during his age 18 freshman year at Arkansas. Injuries are the worry, as Henry has never played a full season. Playing only 68% of his career games due largely to an ACL tear that cost him the entire 2018 season. His production has been constant In his young NFL career Henry has played he has averaged 49 receptions for 580.5 yards and 5.25 touchdowns on 71 targets. Henry had a career year in 2020, he was a top ten tight end in numerous categories this year such as targets, receptions, routes run, snap share, and slot snaps.
What to make of the Tight Ends Moving Forward?
The outlook for both players may seem murky at the moment, so let us help dispel that for fantasy players. Hunter Henry is your prototypical In-line tight end. He is set to emulate the role that Gronkowski dominated in his early years with the Patriots. He had not yet evolved into that “Big Slot” role that he dominated as later in the league. Henry has plenty of experience in the slot role, as he will spend some time off of the line, but the majority will be spent as an in-line tight end. He will be one of Newton’s primary passing options in 2021.
Jonnu Smith is a superior version of Aaron Hernandez in the Patriots’ offense. Hernandez lined up wide over 500 times during the famed 2011 season. He was the “Big Slot” before Gronkowski. Jonnu Smith has the ability to lineup everywhere on the field. As we have seen him used in the backfield, out wide, and in line with the Titans. Expect Josh McDaniels to deploy him everywhere during his tenure in New England. The Patriots will utilize both players a heavy amount this upcoming year.
Between them expect above a 40% target share. Why is this that easy to project? The lack of top-end receiving talent will make it easy for New England to highlight both players. Do the names of Harry, Meyers, Agholor, Borne, and Edelman scare you away? While everyone is worried about the ceiling for Henry and Smith, I would acquire either player with the intention of them being a backend TE1 in fantasy. Both players will have a 40 reception 500-yard floor in the Patriots offense. The change actually helps out each player. If all falls into place this year they could both finish as top 6 options at the tight end position. They are a much safer bet than the likes of Irv Smith, Adam Troutman, or Cole Kmet to make a jump to the tier 1 of dynasty tight ends.
Of the two, Henry does have the higher ceiling in my opinion. I see him being the number one option followed by Smith. Do you remember the Patriots receiving core of 2011? It was a Prime Wes Welker putting up 122 receptions. The trio of Chad Johnson, Deion Branch, and Julian Edelman combined for 1,012 on 70 receptions. Gronk and Hernandez were 2 of the best 3 options on that team. I see something similar for both Henry and Smith. They will be feature role of this offense., The receivers will be the supporting actors in this iteration of Belichick’s offense.
Buy both players in dynasty, and know your tight end position is secure for the next two to three years. Let everyone else overpay for the younger Hockenson or Fant, and while they wait for the breakout know you are getting top 12 tight end production from day one.