FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Jonnu’s jump: Dave McGinnis coached 31 seasons in the NFL, which included a stint as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals (2000 to 2003), and he just concluded his fifth season as a radio analyst for the Tennessee Titans.
So when it comes to X’s and O’s, football personnel and background with tight end Jonnu Smith, he speaks from a place of deep institutional knowledge.
Smith, who signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Patriots last offseason after spending his first four seasons with the Titans, didn’t deliver off-the-charts production in 2021. He played 46.8% of the offensive snaps and totaled 28 receptions for 294 yards and one touchdown, and had nine rushes for 40 yards.
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Unlocking Smith’s potential is among the items on the Patriots’ offensive to-do list in 2022, and McGinnis cautions anyone from writing him off.
“It’s like expectations for a No. 1 draft pick,” he said. “The [free-agent] money has gotten to the point now where you have to take that out of it, and see how schematically your football team is using your people. That’s what you have to do as a coach. That’s what you have to do if you’re analyzing it. I just know this — he’s a very viable tight end in this league skill-wise.”
McGinnis studied Smith coming out of Florida International in 2017 and had a front-row seat for his initial steps in the NFL as a backup to Delanie Walker, who benefited from having solid position coaches Arthur Smith and Todd Downing. McGinnis saw a player “incrementally getting better every year” who is an “explosive and very willing athlete.”
“They loved him here,” he said. “The coaching staff loved him. But as you know, the equalizing factor in the National Football League is draft order and salary cap. They couldn’t afford him.”
The Patriots could, but Smith’s ascension in Tennessee — with catch totals that rose from 18, to 20, to 35 and finally 41 — didn’t transition to New England.
Some close to Smith wonder how much not taking part in the Patriots’ voluntary offseason program last year was a significant factor as to why. While few scouts and coaches question his raw ability, they say he’s the type of player who needs refinement, which traces back to his college days and early years in Tennessee where he also experienced slow starts.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said during the season, “He’s a player that can do things with the ball in his hands; we know that. Very talented guy, works really hard. I’ve got to do better to get him the ball.”
That also highlights the important jump Smith needs to make.
When McDaniels specifically schemed up plays for him, there was some production. But as coach Bill Belichick often says, there aren’t many passing plays other than screens in which the ball is specifically designed to go to one player.
So Smith needs to evolve like fellow tight end Hunter Henry did in 2021, making plays within the structure of the overall passing offense. Henry’s full participation in the voluntary offseason program might have given him an important head start over Smith in that area.
2. Fears the day: From running back Damien Harris’ emotional words on the sideline (captured by NFL Films), to former Patriots assistant Brian Daboll’s postgame embrace outside the locker room on Jan. 15, to Belichick referencing his exemplary mentorship in his season wrap-up videoconference … it should only be a matter of time before longtime Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears announces his retirement after 31 NFL seasons and 25 with the Patriots. The possibility of doing some part-time work for the team could potentially be on the table, but as one longtime colleague of Fears relayed, it’s a blow when salt-of-the-earth people leave the profession.
3. New RBs coach: Fears mentored Vinnie Sunseri as his assistant in 2021, so Sunseri would be the top in-house candidate to fill the role. Sunseri’s positive work was reflected in practice-squad running back Devine Ozigbo forgoing a chance to join the Jaguars’ active roster late last season, and instead stay in New England because he believed he was improving as a player under Sunseri’s guidance. Former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, who most recently coached at LSU, would also be a natural choice to bring back into the fold.
4. Thuney’s tale: The Chiefs’ shocking comeback win against the Bills had me thinking of former Patriots left guard Joe Thuney, now in his first season in Kansas City. Has anyone had a more heart-palpitating first six seasons in the NFL?
Thuney was part of two of the greatest comebacks in NFL history — down 28-3 in Super Bowl LI to win, and last week’s Kansas City victory — and not to mention the Patriots’ OT win against the Chiefs in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. He’s won two Super Bowls, lost two and is one win away from playing in another. I reached out to him last week, and he summed it up this way: “It’s all so surreal.”
Stephen A. Smith voices his disagreement with the NFL’s overtime rules after Jeff Saturday says he wouldn’t change them.
5. Belichick’s OT plan: Whenever there is renewed debate regarding the NFL’s sudden-death overtime rules — as there was last week when the Chiefs beat the Bills without Buffalo possessing the ball in OT — Belichick’s suggestion comes to mind. Why not just put a set amount of time on the clock and play it out?
As Belichick said on WEEI in 2012: “I think the best part of the football game is the end — whether you take your timeouts, how you manage the game, getting the ball back, trying to keep the ball away from the other team, whatever it is. I think that combines all the elements of football.”
6. Brady’s decision: Tom Brady’s explanation for what will determine whether he returns for a 23rd season in 2022 — family considerations — was not surprising. One of the things Brady once said during his Patriots days is that his life got simpler for him as he became older and gained more perspective — he wanted to be the best husband/dad and the best quarterback/teammate, and not much else mattered other than that. Most admirable.
7. Slater’s respect: Longtime Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater’s respect for the game of football has made him a four-time finalist for the NFL’s Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award and a leading candidate to win it for this past season. One reflection of this has come over the last two weeks; I’m told Slater has been at Gillette Stadium daily … to prepare himself for next Sunday’s Pro Bowl.
8. McCourty’s extra 1.5: Longtime Patriots safety Devin McCourty said he plans to take some down time before assessing if he’s mentally up for a 13th NFL season, but he’s given no indication to those close to him that retirement is a likely option. In reality, 2022 would really be closer to his 15th or 16th because he’s started in 24 postseason games — almost a full extra season and a half. Only Brady (47), Jerry Rice (29) and Peyton Manning (27) have started more postseason games in NFL history. McCourty is tied with Brett Favre and Gene Upshaw.
9. Wolf roars for Ekuale: Defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale, who signed a one-year “future” contract with the Patriots last week after registering two sacks in the eight games in which he was elevated from the practice squad, came into the NFL with the Browns in 2019 when Eliot Wolf was Cleveland’s assistant general manager. Wolf’s high-level role in the Patriots’ front office the past two seasons is a primary reason Ekuale landed on New England’s radar.
10. Did You Know: Belichick has coached teams that have won in 50 different stadiums, and is the only coach to reach that mark. The only two stadiums where he hasn’t recorded a win are Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota — both of which are on the 2022 schedule.