FOXBORO - As the start of training camp becomes more visible on the horizon for the NFL’s 32 teams, every organization’s brain trust is hard at work examining their respective rosters for strengths and weaknesses.
With a re-imagined offensive coaching staff, some key veteran additions via free agency and a rookie class which features a controversial first round draft choice, the New England Patriots will certainly serve their share of storylines heading into 2022.
Entering camp, where does the Pats' roster rank?
In the wake of both the draft and free agency, both ESPN and Pro Football Focus (PFF) have evaluated each team's roster using the PFF database, with an eye toward the projected starters.
Much to the chagrin of the fanbase, the Patriots are considered slightly below the league’s middle-of-the pack, finishing 18th in pre-camp rankings.
In addition to assigning PFF grades to each of the Patriots’ projected starters, the rankings also identified the team’s greatest strength, its most glaring weakness and New England’s ‘X-factor.’
While the Pats' defense is home to both the team's biggest strength (safeties) and weakness (cornerbacks), the offense could provide the unpredictable spark giving second-year quarterback Mac Jones another weapon.
X-Factor for 2022: Jonnu Smith, Tight End
Last offseason, the Patriots offered tight end Jonnu Smith a four-year, $50 million contract with over $30 million guaranteed. Smith proceeded to run just 158 routes (52nd most at the tight end position) and post fewer receiving yards than Albert Okwuegbunam, Durham Smythe and Dan Arnold despite appearing in 16 games. That's not the kind of return on investment that the Patriots were looking for, and they'll be looking for more from Smith this season.
Smith’s less-than-stellar 2021 may be explained by his more prevalent usage in run-protection schemes than as a pass-catcher. Although he is a more-than-capable blocker, one would think his talents would be better utilized as an offensive scoring weapon. Yet, the Pats and Jones provided fellow free-agent tight end acquisition Hunter Henry with those opportunities more prevalently in the previous season.
Still, Smith has earned the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates, who see a bright future ahead for him. Though his offensive numbers may have fallen short of expectations, Smith still led all tight ends in yards gained after catch per reception (8.5), according to PFF.
With one year in the Patriots system behind him, should see marked improvement in 2022.
Should Smith demonstrate marked improvement, the Patriots should incorporate more two tight-end sets into their offense. He and Henry spent only a fraction of time on the field in their first season together; just 18.6 percent of New England’s offensive snaps.
A greater understanding of the Pats system should allow both Smith and Henry to complement each other in a manner which escaped them in 2021. It should also increase the amount of targets he sees in scoring situations. He may also be in line for some carries out of the backfield via the jet sweep, or as a fullback/H-Back.
As a result, his offensive performance may indeed be the ‘x-factor’ for the Patriots in the upcoming season.