Josh McDaniels says Jonnu Smith is undergoing a foundational year in Patriots offense

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Jonnu Smith has just two catches over the last three weeks, as he missed Week 10 with a shoulder injury. He logged one reception in Week 9 and another in Week 100. It’s not the type of production you’d expect from a tight end making $12.5 million per year, the third-most among those at his position. But it doesn’t sound like the New England Patriots are panicking about Smith, who joined the team in free agency during the 2021 offseason.

“We got to meet Jonnu (Smith) before the draft, so we had some intimate knowledge of who he was,” McDaniels told reporters on Monday. “No question, he adds an element of unique ability at the position and he’s been a good addition, a great teammate.”

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McDaniels compared free-agent signings to rookies in that they both spend the year learning the Patriots system, terminology and playbook. There’s also the team’s way of doing things on a weekly basis, which includes building a game plan from scratch, a process that can overwhelm newcomers.

With New England, free-agent acquisitions have had varied success acclimating in their first year. This year, receiver Kendrick Bourne seems to have fit nicely in the offense while receiver Nelson Agholor has had his issues. Smith, who has 22 catches, 201 yards and a touchdown. has struggled but tight end Hunter Henry has been very solid, with seven touchdowns this season.

There’s more to tight end work than catching the ball. They work as blockers, but he hasn’t exactly been elite there either. Via the digital scouting service Pro Football focus, Smith received a 57.3 passing protection grade, 15th among Patriots, and a 39.6 run-blocking grade, 29th and worst among Patriots.

The Smith signing has faced scrutiny in recent weeks, with the tight end getting off to a slow start.

“I don’t really pay attention to honestly any outside noise,” tight ends coach Nick Caley said Monday when asked about the media criticism surrounding Smith. “Just being honest with you. He’s always come to work with an incredible work ethic. He’s locked in, he’s unselfish. And he comes to work every single day, ready to go. So I’ve never noticed one thing that you know from his preparation from his attitude, anything like that. I’ve been pleased with everything.”

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