The Overlooked: 2021 Patriots Tight Ends
Recently a challenge came across from Gridiron Ratings founder Jeff DiMatteo: investigate the 2011 New England Patriots. Jeff claimed that the 2021 version of New England is mirroring their 2011 team. I groaned at the idea. My initial rankings of the tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were below average and firm fades. That stance was wrong in multiple ways.
Taking up the challenge I watched a two-hour cut of every single target New England tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski had during the 2011 season. From the week one matchup against the Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. The main ideas were of two camps. Take advantage where you can, and never let your opponent know what your offensive plan is. When the Patriots came to the line in formation, it was never clear how the play would develop. It was not uncommon to see various packages during the two-hour watch. New England could come to set with Gronkowski and Hernandez on the line, alignment of one or even both lined-up as traditional receivers alignment also occurred. In those alignments, the general idea was still to target both tight ends to work between the numbers. The targeted option was whoever beat either single linebacker or lacked safety coverage more often than not. In 2011 having the ability to pick up yards after the catch in coverage dead zones was a huge advantage. If the opposing defense was in a zone, there were coverage gaps that Tom Brady abused. New England was already the 7th heaviest play-action team in 2020, but ran only 51 option plays; an uptick this season could help this offense operate. Opposing defenses could align in man, and routes to the sidelines would counter as corners were on receivers. Either quarterback, whether Cam Newton or rookie Mac Jones, we know, will not be Brady. Keeping the playbook to high-efficiency passes would be entirely beneficial to either. Focus on plays designed to beat single coverage or mismatches for the tight ends is paramount. A 2021 mindset of using a high chance of successful passes will help an offense that lacked in many categories in 2020.
In a few ways, the 2020 Patriots failed to match up to the 2011 Patriots. The 2011 stats in points(513,3rd), pass attempts(621,3rd), passing yards(5084,2nd), and passing touchdowns(39,4th). Compared to 2020, points(326,27th), pass attempts(440,31st), passing yards(2890,30th), and passing touchdowns(12,32nd). What’s clear to see is that the former and current iterations are on a different level from one another. The other issue is the absence of any receiver threat that was near what Wes Welker was. Welker had a stat line of 173 targets, 122 receptions, 1569 yards, which was second or better for pass catchers in the 2011 season. Welker also scored nine times. Of the few players Welker trailed, one was Gronkowski. Gronkowski not only led the category but also set the record for most tight-end scores in a single season. A full PPR total of 330.9 points for Gronkowski in 2011 would be the highest finish of any tight end over the last five seasons. Hernandez was no slouch either, as his finish would come in on average as the tight end three in the same timeframe. The highest finish for the new pair was tight end nine for Henry in 2019, and Smith at tight end 16 last season. The 90 receptions Gronkowski came down with in that one season ties the total Smith had of the last three seasons. We are not attempting to duplicate the production, only replicate it.
That passing volume is unattainable. The 621 pass attempts from Brady in 2011 tops his 2020 total with Tampa Bay, and completely smashed the combined 440 from three quarterbacks last season in New England. An uptick of ten more passes per game occurring seems steep to reach that 620 total. The combined 237 targets that Hernandez and Gronkowski saw is also a feat, even to 2020 standards. Last season only five teams had two pass-catchers surpass that target mark of 237. Only one had a tight-end included in those, the Kansas City Chiefs. To those points, I suggest Henry and Smith came to New England to be the leading target options. For Smith, a four-year $50 million contract, three years $37.5 million for Henry. These contracts cement them as tied for third-highest annual tight-end contracts in the league. Currently, drafted receivers Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry have disappointed. Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne signed in the off-season. Both are less than appealing options at receiver. A simple rule has been to follow the money, and the money is pointing at the tight ends.
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In recent news, Coach Bill Belichick tells us Henry will miss a few weeks. Belichick does further state that the injury was minor to ESPN.com. Belichick has all the reasons to be optimistic as this whole scenario is his design. A decade has come and gone with Belichick still at the helm in New England. Belichick knows he is coming off a disgraceful offensive performance in 2020. Now before him lies an opportunity to use what has worked for him in the past. Acquiring Henry and Smith was with the mindset of these two tight-end designs to work as they did in 2011. I am also of the inclination that if one were to miss out on playing time, it would not immediately mean an uptick in value for the other. As to the roles, the new tight ends likely will not fit perfectly with the old versions. Henry has shown more traditional red zone prowess to win contested balls, while Jonnu has the athleticism to pick up yards after the catch. A claim of Henry leading in scoring while Smith leads in receptions and yards is the safe bet at this moment.
The average finish of the tight end 12 over the last five seasons has been 138.5 points in full PPR. That’s a finish of 55 receptions, 611 yards, and four touchdowns. Those marks are not high bars to climb. Henry has beat that mark each of the last two seasons, Smith cleared the touchdown mark in 2020. Bellichick paid Jonnu to be the third-highest tight end, behind only George Kittle and Travis Kelce. He’s paying him to be the primary receiving option for this team and he’ll be treated as such. A re-evaluation of these players is needed, rectifying my original idea on these two players. They are now near the top 12 options in my ranks. Smith fills in at tight end nine currently, with Henry right outside at tight end 13.
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