Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry key to Patriots' two-tight end renaissance

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Like a chef asked to cook a signature dish without one of the primary ingredients.

A builder erecting a house without lumber.

A hair stylist sans scissors or clippers.

An auto mechanic without a lift.

An angler with no bait.

How best to describe the situation New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels found himself in during the 2020 season?

Any of the above works and there's plenty more that would fit, too.

Ever since Bill Belichick arrived as New England Patriots coach in 2000, with rare exceptions, the multiple tight end package has been a staple of the team's offensive attack. The ability to put two or more tight ends on the field and create mismatch problems for the defense with run-pass conflict has paid off with consistent big results.

But it was almost nonexistent in 2020.

By season's end, the Patriots had run 3% of their offensive plays with two or more tight ends on the field, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. That is easily the lowest in the NFL, followed by the Buffalo Bills (12%), Bengals (17%) and Pittsburgh Steelers (17%).

The limited usage was a result of sometimes having one tight end available. But even in weeks when that wasn't the case, the overall talent at the position wasn't at a level that put the offense in the best position for success.

That will change in 2021. In a big way.

Hunter Henry assured that would be the case when he shocked the NFL (and himself) by agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million contract with the Patriots on the second day of NFL free agency in March. The shock was a result of the Patriots having already agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal with tight end Jonnu Smith the day before.

Henry, who spent the first five years of his career with the Los Angeles Chargers, had never met Smith, who blossomed by the end of his four years with the Tennessee Titans.

"I didn't think this would happen, where we'd both end up in the same place," Henry said, shortly after signing. "I don't think anybody really even thought about that."

Well, anybody but Belichick, whose affinity for the two-tight end package goes back to his time as an assistant with the Detroit Lions in the mid-1970s when the team had success pairing tight ends Charlie Sanders and David Hill. It's why, to this day, the Patriots still refer to their two-tight end grouping as "Detroit."

The results speak volumes.

Since 2010, the Patriots have scored 271 touchdowns with two tight ends on the field, by far the most in the NFL, with the Vikings (217) and Eagles (208) next. Former New England tight end Rob Gronkowski's remarkable rise had a lot to do with that.

But even before that, in Belichick's first decade as coach in New England, he used first-round draft picks on tight ends Daniel Graham (2002) and Benjamin Watson (2004). He also had notable success importing free agents (e.g., Christian Fauria, Jermaine Wiggins) and trade acquisitions (e.g., Martellus Bennett) over his tenure.

Now it's the Smith-Henry duo, with quality depth behind them, including 2020 third-round picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, and 2020 opt-out Matt LaCosse.

When considering how different things might look this season, consider Smith and Henry were targeted a combined 23 times in the end zone over the past two seasons. Over that same span, Patriots tight ends were targeted in the end zone three times.

Henry, in particular, has averaged the third most receiving touchdowns in the red zone per game (0.33) among tight ends since 2016, trailing only Travis Kelce (0.36) of the Kansas City Chiefs and Zach Ertz (0.34) of the Philadelphia Eagles.

"He's a great tight end, and I'm excited to be able to be out there battling with him, competing with him, and making each other better," Smith said after signing.

"I've seen the success the Patriots had in the past with two-tight end sets and I'm confident in their ability to be able to allow us to make plays and put this team in the position to win. That's what we're here for."

Smith figures to help another area of deficiency -- yards after the catch. Patriots tight ends combined for 73 last season, fewest since the 2016 Jets.

Since entering the league in 2017, Smith has averaged 6.96 yards after the catch. The only tight end with a higher average (minimum 100 receptions) is George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers.

Henry sees the two complementing each other and added he is "excited to see it show off on the field."

He's not the only one.

McDaniels can once again turn to a big part of the Patriots' identity.