The New England Patriots figured to be much quieter on Day 2 of NFL free agency after going on an absolute spending spree to kickoff 2021’s free agency period. On Monday the team added a boatload of players, including Jonnu Smith, Davon Godchaux, Matthew Judon, Jalen Mills, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Henry Anderson, with some commanding pretty lucrative contracts.
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But the Patriots hardly seemed content with their Day 1 additions, making another big splash early on Day 2 by signing former Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million contract with $25 million guaranteed, per Adam Schefter.
The surprising move comes just a day after the Patriots signed PFF’s second-highest-ranked tight end to the fattest contract for a TE since 2016.
Henry's signing presents massive fantasy football ramifications for the Patriots’ offense in 2021.
RIP JONNU SMITH TE1 SEASON
It was fun while it lasted. First off, shoutout to my guy Nathan Jahnke for writing an excellent piece on Jonnu Smith’s potential to see a large target share in the Patriots’ offense. I'm sorry that piece was so short-lived — Henry’s addition to the offense puts a major damper on Smith’s target share projection in this offense.
Smith’s biggest issue as a fantasy commodity in Tennessee wasn’t lack of talent. Over the past two seasons, he ranks sixth in PFF receiving grade (81.3), third in yards after the catch per reception (6.5) and eighth in yards per route run (1.60) among all TEs.
Only his underwhelming usage kept Smith from being a fantasy monster. He finished 22nd in targets and 31st in routes run while ranking first in run-blocking snaps since 2019.
Meanwhile, over those same two seasons, Henry ranks eighth in targets and fifth in routes run. He also ranks outside the top-15 in run-blocking snaps.
Before he missed the final two games of the 2020 season, Henry ranked third among all tight ends in routes run, which is a key component for projecting future tight end fantasy production.
Henry also showed the ability to rise to the occasion in a rather competitive receiving corps that included players like Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. He has commanded at least 60 targets in three of his four NFL seasons, a feat that Smith has accomplished just once.
Smith also failed to capture the true TE1 role with the Titans. He was often taken out on obvious third-down passing plays, replaced by backup tight end Anthony Firsker.
Henry is very likely to be the more involved pass-catcher among New England's two new tight ends.
CAM NEWTON‘S STOCK CONTINUES TO RISE
When Cam Newton first re-signed with the Patriots, I thought he could become a top-12 fantasy QB if the team added more offensive pieces around him. Lo and behold, New England is doing just that by adding two premier tight end options to Cam’s offensive arsenal.
Newton has a strong track record of targeting the TE position during his days in Carolina throwing to Greg Olsen (top-10 in targets). The new additions are replacing second-year tight ends Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi and should be huge for Newton’s fantasy ceiling.
The Patriots' tight end position has been a complete wasteland since the start of the 2019 season, which has put unwanted pressure on the team’s underwhelming group of wide receivers.
Since the start of 2019, Patriots tight ends have totaled 55 catches, 673 yards and just three touchdown receptions. The New York Jets were next-worst with just 87 catches over that time.
That won’t be the case in 2021 with more two-tight-end sets on the horizon.
Last season, the Titans ran the second-most plays from 12 personnel (34%) with Smith on the roster. The Patriots ranked dead last (2.3%), and Buffalo was next at 8.3%.
The Patriots could easily rank in the top five when it comes to two-tight-end sets in 2021. Before the 2020 season, New England targeted TEs the second-most in the NFL over the previous nine years.
CAN ONE OFFENSE HAVE TWO FANTASY-VIABLE TES?
It’s impossible not to recall the way the Patriots utilized both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez from 2010-2012. Those teams revolutionized the way tight ends are used as focal points in an offense.
During that stretch, the Patriots were able to support two TE1s in fantasy —Gronkowski and Hernandez both finished as top-three TEs in PPR scoring in 2011.
Patriots TE fantasy finishes | 2010-2012
This type of production from two tight ends on the same time is rare. The Philadelphia Eagles were able to support two top-eight fantasy TEs in 2019, but neither finished anywhere near the top 12 the following season.
Eagles TE fantasy finishes | 2018-2020
Both teams that supported two top-tier fantasy TEs did so while passing at least 600 times. The 2020 Patriots attempted less than 450 passes — 200 fewer than in 2019, by far the biggest drop-off in the league.
The Patriots project to run the ball too much for any of their wide receivers to have consistent fantasy value. And one of the tight ends is going to inherit heavy blocking duties. Based on their career resumes, Smith looks like the most likely candidate to shoulder the blocking burden, making Henry the tight end to target in fantasy.