Curran: Patriots need way more bang for their buck at tight end originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Patriots used more cap space at tight end than any team in the league this season. The total of $23,907,622 was highest in the league by nearly $4.5M.
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In 2023, they are projected to spend $35,218,529 of space on the position. That’s also highest in the league by over $14M.
Curran: Assessing the state of the wide receiver position
Looking on the bright side, Bill O’Brien was architect of the Patriots offense in 2010 and 2011 when tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 266 catches, 3,346 yards and 40 touchdowns in their first two NFL seasons.
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Put plainly, it’s the greatest two-season output by a tight end combo in league history and may never be matched. O’Brien’s back. And while Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith aren’t Gronknandez and the Patriots don’t have Wes Welker or Tom Brady handy, maybe the 2023 Patriots can get a little better bang for the massive stack of bucks they’re spending at tight end.
Let's examine the position more closely.
Hunter Henry saw his production in 2022 decline to just 41 catches on 59 targets. He had 509 yards and two touchdown catches. That was down from his 50-catch, 603-yard, nine-touchdown performance in 2021 and his lowest output since his rookie year when he had 36 catches for 478 yards and eight touchdowns. He did close the season with two of his more productive games -- 11 catches for 94 yards in the pivotal games against Miami and Buffalo.
Jonnu Smith was more dependable this year than his first with the Patriots when he had 28 catches in 16 games. But he still didn’t see enough usage -- 27 catches on 38 targets for 245 yards and no touchdowns -- and missed three games with injury.
With neither player going anywhere, seizing on the positives of their still-untapped potential qualifies as a bright spot and there is potential there.
The disappointment is merely that the two tight ends combined probably constituted what the Patriots hoped to get from Henry alone if all things had gone as hoped: 68 catches for 744 yards and two scores. The Patriots also had no other tight end production. Matt Sokol, a 6-foot-6, 260-pounder from Michigan State, played 24 snaps.
Smith is entering the third year of his four-year, $50M deal which came with $31.25M in guaranteed money. He has a $10M salary this year and $6.405M in prorated bonus money hitting the cap. His cap number is $17.2M and the team has so much money kicked down the road it would carry $19M in dead money if they released him prior to June 1.
If they could work out a trade and someone was willing to take on his $10M base (and next year’s $11M base), the cap charges would be reduced to just $6.4M the next two seasons. But it’s unlikely Smith is going anywhere.
Henry is entering the final year of his deal. His salary is $9.5M and his cap hit is $15.5M. He’s 29. It will be interesting to see if the Patriots try to extend Henry, drop his 2023 hit and sew him up for a couple more seasons.
Offseason priority (scale 1-5)
It’s a sneaky 4.
There’s a lack of depth at the spot. In an ideal world, the two third-rounders spent at the position in 2020 would be coming into their own this year. But neither of them – Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene are with the team anymore. The Patriots did little to prepare for post-Gronk life and the position’s gone nearly dormant since 2019 except for the decent output from Henry in 2021. Two third-round picks, $68.5M in guaranteed money and $56M in cap space the past two seasons and the production from four players is anemic.
The Patriots should look into extending Henry, seek veteran depth that can contribute and start drafting the spot in earnest instead of in a one-year flurry because as it currently stands, next year has only Jonnu under contract.