By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s the preseason. We know it. You know it. They know it. Nothing that happens in August will actually matter that much come September. Obviously.
Still, there’s a whole lot that can be gleaned from these exhibitions. And catching a first glimpse at how new additions might fit in with a team is high atop that list.
Which is why it’s worth taking a few moments here to discuss one single play from Thursday night’s Patriots preseason opener vs. Washington at Gillette Stadium. Specifically, we should discuss Jonnu Smith.
One of the Patriots’ major additions in the offseason, Smith was brought in — along with Hunter Henry — to breathe some life into a tight ends room that was borderline nonexistent last year. Outside of a completed Hail Mary that dropped well short of the goal line in Houston, the Patriots’ production at tight end last year was close to nothing. Suffice it to say, the post-Rob Gronkowski era was a bit rough for a couple of years in New England.
And while Cam Newton had his own struggles as a passer, he was no doubt hindered by a lack of reliable receiving option at the tight end position.
On Thursday, we caught a glimpse of how that might change in 2021.
The play came a little under nine minutes into the first quarter, on the Patriots’ second offensive series of the game. On a first-and-10 near midfield, Newton threw to Smith, who was crossing over the middle from right to left. Smith caught the ball near the line of scrimmage, and with linebacker Jon Bostic stepping up to make a play, it looked like it might go for a very short gain.
But then Smith showed that all Newton will have to do for some chunk plays this year is to get the ball into the tight end’s body in stride. Smith can do the rest.
On this one, Smith ran toward the left sideline before cutting up the field and navigating the field like a punt returner.
Smith shed the tackle attempt of Bostic by simply outrunning him, and he used his exceptional burst to beat a trio of white jerseys to the sideline to turn it into a 16-yard pickup.
Here’s the video:
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) August 13, 2021
Smith was advertised as a YAC-master of sorts. In this brief appearance, he lived up to the billing.
It was, obviously, a tremendous play. And here’s why that’s so important.
The difference between good and bad in this league is often razor thin. It’s less than people might acknowledge when things are going bad.
Yet it’s plays like this one that can be significant in making a difference in that evaluation. If a play like this goes for a 1-yard gain — which it would have done, if an average tight end were involved — then it’s second-and-9. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. Last year, it at least felt like more often than not, it would lead to a short run, a third-down incompletion, and a punt.
In this instance, it got a drive deep into Washington territory. A screen pass to James White on the next play got the Patriots even deeper. A holding penalty robbed them of an easy touchdown chance, but the offense nevertheless got points on the board by driving into comfortable field goal range. Quinn Nordin booted a perfect 35-yarder to give New England a 3-0 lead.
That is what this offense needs out of Jonnu Smith and Cam Newton. Home run bombs aren’t necessarily needed — not with this defense. The Patriots simply need to be productive. They need, say, 10 to 15 of last year’s punts to turn into longer drives that end in field goals and touchdowns. It’ll keep the defense rested on the sideline, and it’ll reshape games on the scoreboard.
Bill Belichick spoke about Smith the morning after the game.
“We’ve seen Jonnu for four years, and he does a lot of things well. He blocks well, he runs well, he’s fast, catches the ball well, can run with it after the catch, so he’s got a good set of skills. Can help us on all downs. And I’m glad that we have him on the team,” Belichick said. “He’s a good player and I look forward to working with him. He’s been great to work with, he’s got a good attitude, he works hard, he’s tough, competes every day. We’ll just keep trying to find ways to help all of our skill players be productive and he’s got a good variety of skills that we can work with.”
Again, it’s preseason. It’s one play in the preseason at that. But it was a big one — one that shows how subtle improvements can lead to significant results for the Patriots’ offense.