The New England Patriots are not exactly known for splurging in free agency, but that is mostly because they rarely had the cap space to make big moves throughout their dynastic run. When they did have the cap space, though, they weren't shy; the last time Bill Belichick had big money to work with, he signed Stephon Gilmore. With over $60 million to work with this offseason, it should come as no surprise that the Pats came out swinging from the get-go.
Teams were permitted to begin speaking to free agents at noon ET on Monday. Less than one hour later, Adam Schefter announced New England had signed free agent tight end Jonnu Smith to a big four-year deal worth $50 million with $31 million guaranteed.
It's a great signing by the Patriots if only because the tight end position has been a massive weakness for two straight seasons and Belichick let that happen because he failed to address Rob Gronkowski's decline as it happened, instead trying to make do with mid-round draft picks and an elderly Benjamin Watson. Last season, Patriots tight ends combined for 19 catches, 254 yards, and one touchdown. There were 36 tight ends in the NFL last season who totaled at least 254 yards on their own last season. It is truly impossible to overstate how ineffective the position group was in New England last year.
Smith represents a huge upgrade. He didn't put up big numbers, catching 41 passes ini 15 games for 441 yards. But he did catch eight touchdowns, and he was playing for an offense that revolved entirely around Derrick Henry and was competing for catches with stud wideout A.J. Brown. Smith is also one of the more versatile tight ends in the league; he can block as well as he can catch with the added ability to line up all over the formation (including the backfield). Belichick loves players who can do it all, and Smith checks those boxes. Athletic enough to outrun linebackers, big enough to jump over corners/safeties and block at the end of the line, and a great YAC producer.
Most importantly, Cam Newton finally has someone to throw to at his favorite position. The Patriots re-signed Newton late last week to another one-year agreement that's worth up to $14 million but guarantees the former MVP only $3.5 million. Last season went wrong for Newton and the Patriots for numerous reasons, but the biggest was a complete and utter lack of quality receiving targets. New England still has work to do at receiver-- but making tight end priority No. 1 was the right call because Newton loves to throw to the big guy rumbling up the seam.
The Cam Newton-Greg Olsen connection is what defined the Panthers' best years during Newton's MVP seasons. It started in Newton's rookie season, when he threw 151 passes for 82 completions and 995 yards with nine touchdowns to the Jeremy Shockey/Olsen combo in Carolina. Every year after that, Olsen totaled at least 800 yards when he and Newton were both healthy. Newton has always been fond of big-bodied targets. Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin come to mind as such pass-catchers who found success catching balls from the former No. 1 pick, and big athletic tight ends are right in Newton's wheelhouse.
Smith is not Olsen, of course. Olsen was a top-three tight end in his heyday and belongs in the Hall of Very Good, one of the pioneers at tight end when teams began to realize they could be very effective in the pass game. If Smith ends up with the career Olsen did, that would be a resounding success for the former fourth-round pick. He has a long way to go to reach those kinds of heights. But with Newton's affinity for the position, Smith should be put into a position to do just that in his first season in Foxborough.
This is all the more clear because the Patriots still have no receivers. Smith was not the only big signing of the day in New England. The team inked edge rusher Matthew Judon to a similarly-sized deal and brought in cornerback Jalen Mills. They have already handed out more guaranteed money in the first day of free agency than they have in any other free agency period over the last ten years. Smith is the only one thus far that catches footballs for a living.
It is nearly impossible to believe Belichick is pleased with the wide receiver group right now and is happy banking on internal development heading into 2021, but we know for sure there won't be a big, proven name arriving in free agency. The job of Newton's No. 1 target is still very much available, and Smith is the top candidate.
Newton could very well be much better than he was in 2020 this upcoming season. He'll have had a year in the system and won't have to deal with ever-changing pandemic rules now that the NFL has figured out what works and what doesn't within teams. He (hopefully!) won't have to deal with another COVID diagnosis himself. Adding Smith as a receiver will play a big part in helping him rebound.