Stock up, stock down: Patriots' two-tight end offense finally showing some promise

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Perry: Pats' two-tight end offense showing some promise originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO -- When the Patriots handed Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry almost $60 million combined in guarantees last offseason, the expectation was that the team would quickly shift back to the two-tight end offensive looks they brought back in vogue in the early 2010s with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Not the case.

With offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels running the show, the Patriots took the field with two tight ends on less than 20 percent of their snaps in 2021, per Sharp Football Stats. Their "12 personnel" grouping -- with one back and two tight ends -- was deployed just 14 percent of the time. There were 26 teams who used their 12 personnel attack more frequently.

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Fast forward to this summer, though, and it looks like the personnel package known as "Detroit" in New England and in Patriots-adjacent programs around the league, is on track to experience a revival of sorts. Both Henry and Smith showed up as two of the best offensive players on the field Friday afternoon, the third day of Patriots training camp practice.

On the field at times simultaneously, they have the ability to stress defensive personnel packages. Add an extra linebacker to defend the run? Deploy a safety with coverage ability? But even when used separately this summer, it's easy to see how they could function on the field at the same time.

Both have been used on the line and off in traditional tight end alignments. But Smith has played in the slot where he can be used as a blocker, route-runner or ball-carrier. Henry has been aligned in various spots as well, including out wide like a receiver.

It was from that alignment on Friday that Henry went over the top of safety Kyle Dugger and plucked a Mac Jones pass off the top of Dugger's helmet for a back-shoulder touchdown. Jones hit Smith twice for touchdowns with Dugger on him in the span of four plays. One was a jump ball to the back end line, the other was a back-shoulder dart that Dugger never saw coming.

Though Henry's first season in Foxboro was a productive one, Smith never got going. He skipped OTAs, dealt with injury in minicamp and again in training camp. He had a pass bounce off his hands and get returned for a pick-six against the Saints in Week 3 and then caught just 18 passes total in the next 14 games. He wasn't targeted in three of the team's final four games (including playoffs) of the season.

On Friday, though, for the first time since they've been teammates, Henry and Smith looked like the guys the Patriots paid them to be a year ago.

Perry: Jonnu showing signs of being able to live up to his contract

The two-tight end package is an obvious "stock up" honoree for today. Below are the rest, along with some "stock down" candidates as well.

Stock up: Tre Nixon

Nixon hadn't quite followed up on his strong spring through two days of practice. Then came Friday. His this-is-mine-thank-you-very-much catch in the back corner of the end zone with Shaun Wade getting his hands on the football simultaneously was a beauty.

Though he's relatively undersized (6-feet, 180 pounds) in that one moment -- and throughout OTAs -- he showed that he has real contested-catch ability. He's also been used extensively as a punt returner. He's making a real push for the roster on an already-deep receiver unit.

Stock up: Marcus Jones

Nixon's competitor in a punt-catching competition at the end of Friday's practice, Jones deserves mention here because he saw some reps with the top defense on Day 3. Though Wade continued to get some early work in the slot, he wasn't the only one. Jones, a third-rounder out of Houston, was out there in 7-on-7 drills with the first defensive group.

With Jonathan Jones on PUP, Marcus Jones could eventually work his way into the top "star" (that's what the Patriots call their slot corners) this summer.

Stock up: Raekwon McMillan

McMillan didn't make any splash plays on Friday. He may have to wait for the pads to come on before he starts to show out. But he's consistently on the field early in the Patriots defense. There are times when he's alongside presumed starter Ja'Whaun Bentley, but there are other times when he's out there -- in nickel situations -- as the lone true linebacker.

After losing last season to a torn ACL, he looks like he has the edge to be one of the top two at the position with about six weeks to go before the start of the regular season. He's also a regular in the kicking game, appearing on the top punt-coverage unit Friday in addition to his defensive responsibilities.

Mack Wilson also deserves a mention here as he was the lone linebacker at times in dime situations. The Patriots have some second-level speed in Wilson that they didn't have last season.

Stock up: Brenden Schooler

In years past, we've seen certain undrafted rookies get some extra time in with special teams captain Matthew Slater and some of the kicking-game coaches. Sometimes, without much hype through the summer, they eventually landed on the active roster. That was the case with Jonathan Jones. Brandon King got similar treatment and initially landed on the practice squad, but soon he was bumped up to being an active-roster regular.

This summer? Schooler appears to be the undrafted rookie getting some quality time with the special-teams brain trust.

Makes sense as to why. He's a ridiculous athlete. Worth keeping an eye on him throughout camp because even if he doesn't make much noise offensively or defensively, he may have a ticket to Week 1 because of his work in the game's third phase.

Stock down: Kyle Dugger

The flip side of Henry and Smith finding so much success Friday? The man tasked with defending them had himself a day he might want back, though he was the victim of some reasonably difficult-to-defend back-shoulder attempts. Tight in coverage... still not enough to get stops in the end zone.

Perhaps there's more he can do in those scenarios to get his head around to see the football before its arrival, but it'd be worth asking him about those types of plays and whether or not he thinks he should've taken a different approach. Still seems as though we're waiting on Dugger's first splash play of camp.

Stock down: Kendrick Bourne

It's not as though Bourne has had a bad three days of practice. He made a difficult touchdown catch in the front corner of the end zone, making good on what is clearly a pretty good connection with Mac Jones. But he also had a pass glance off his hands and fall incomplete for the second straight practice. Neither were routine catches. But both looked like passes that Bourne himself wished he'd been able to hold onto.

He also dropped a pass in an early drill that earned him an earful from someone on the offensive coaching staff. He remains one of the team's most important offensive players, and he's had his moments. But those positive moments have been interspersed with others he'd probably like back.

Stock down: Bailey Zappe

He's a rookie. And he's been thrown into the fire the last two days with Brian Hoyer not participating. (Hoyer was present Thursday but very limited. On Friday, he was at the facility early in the morning before departing later and missing practice.) Additionally, Zappe had one of the best throws of the practice when he hit Ty Montgomery on a wheel route for a touchdown with Marcus Jones in good position on the play. So it's not as though it's all been bad.

But Zappe was also picked twice -- once by Adrian Phillips and once by Justin Bethel (with pads on his hands designed to discourage grabbing receivers) -- and continues to look as though the fourth-round rookie need some time before being entrusted with the No. 2 gig. (Remember, fourth-round rookie Jarrett Stidham won the No. 2 job back in 2019 after competing with Hoyer through the summer. Hoyer was later released and signed with the Colts.)