Few teams have gotten less from the tight end position in recent years than the New England Patriots. Rob Gronkowski retired at the end of the 2018 season, and since that point, TE has been a black hole in the offensive scheme for the Patriots.
In 2019, the team was led by veteran Ben Watson and journeyman Matt LaCosse. Watson saw 24 targets in 10 games, catching 17 for 173 yards. LaCosse saw 19 targets, catching 13 for 131 yards and a TD. The 2020 campaign was even bleaker. The Patriots drafted Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keane in the draft, but the pair combined for 12 targets and five receptions for 55 yards and a TD. The Patriots’ most productive TE was Ryan Izzo, with 20 targets yielding 13 receptions for 199 yards. Needless to say, there’s room for improvement at the position.
The Patriots’ front office and coaching staff recognized the issue, going all-in at TE this off-season. The Patriots splashed out big-money deals for the top two tight ends on the free-agent market—Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith—and appear to be poised to use the position to bolster their passing offense. But what does it mean for fantasy players? Let’s dive in.
Smith was the first free agency domino to fall for the Patriots, signing a four-year, $50 million deal. He was a third-round selection in the 2017 draft by the Tennessee Titans, where he played his first four seasons. Smith caught 114 passes for 1,302 yards and 16 TDs in his four seasons. The question was always whether Smith could thrive with more opportunity.
He saw only 30 targets his first two seasons, competing for touches at TE with veteran Delanie Walker. In 2020, Smith saw a bigger chunk of the passing offense for the Titans. He saw 65 targets, turning it into 448 yards and eight TDs, doubling his total touchdowns from his first three seasons. That was good enough to be TE16 for the season.
On the second day of free agency, the Patriots added to the position by signing Henry, formerly of the Los Angles Chargers. Henry landed a three-year, $37.5 million deal from the Patriots after spending his first five seasons with the Chargers. In his five seasons, Henry caught 196 passes for 2,322 yards and 21 TDs.
Like Smith, Henry’s path to targets in his first few seasons was blocked by an established veteran, in this case, Antonio Gates. In his third season, in 2018, it looked like Henry would get his chance when an injury derailed his season before it even started. In 2019, he bounced back with 55 catches for 652 yards and five TDs on 76 targets in just 12 games. That was good enough to be TE9.
Hunter’s 2020 campaign, in which he played on the Franchise Tag, was equally solid. He saw a career-high 93 targets playing with Justin Herbert, catching 60 passes for 613 yards and four TDs. That was good enough to help him finish at TE12, giving him back-to-back TE1 finishes.
On the surface, signing the top two free agents at the TE position seemed to cap the potential for both. But for the Patriots, it could be an attempt to reach into a successful offense from season’s past. Once upon a time, the Patriots drafted two top TE prospects that powered the team’s pass offense. It seemed the Patriots were trying to re-create that with their draft picks in 2020, and now with the signing of Smith and Henry.
From 2010 to 2012, the Patriots used Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as a big part of the offense. As rookies, the pair combined for 87 receptions and 16 TDs. In 2011, Hernandez saw 113 targets, catching 79 passes for 910 yards and seven TDs, while Gronkowski saw 124 targets, catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 TDs. In their last season together in 2012, Hernandez was limited to 10 games and Gronkowski 11 but still combined for 106 receptions and 16 TDs.
Neither Smith nor Henry has put up those kinds of explosive numbers in their first few seasons. Fantasy players who roster them have long hoped their potential would be realized with whatever team signed them long-term. The Patriots have a history of using the TE position to drive their pass offense and seem poised to do that again in 2020. With Julian Edelman retiring, the Patriots receiver core comprises free-agent signings Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, along with last season’s breakout Jakobi Meyer and former first-round pick N’Keal Harry. The team seems like an ideal candidate to draft a receiver in 2021, but as of now, Henry and Smith are the best receiving weapons available to Cam Newton.
The Patriots’ $87.5 million investment in the pair also suggests they will be a focal point of the offense, which could yield big dividends for fantasy players. And the TE position has never been more wide open. The difference in scoring over a 17-week season for the No. 3 TE, Robert Tonyan, and Smith at No. 16 was 36.4 points. Both Henry and Smith have TE1 potential, perhaps even Top 5 potential if the Patriots’ offense takes off around them the way it did in 2011 with Hernandez and Gronkowski. Safely, I’d put their floor at TE 10-15, meaning that even landing in the same offense both are viable targets and potential weekly starters for those who roster them.
Matthew Fox is a life-long Broncos Fan. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.