New England Patriots

L-R: Patriots tight ends Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith. (Paul Rutherford- USA TODAY Sports)

It’s been a few years since the Patriots have had one effective pass-catching tight end, let alone two. And it’s been almost a whole summer since they’ve deployed their new 1-2 punch.

Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, two of the Patriots’ highest-priced free-agent additions, have yet to be on the field together in game action after Henry suffered a shoulder injury on Aug. 8. Henry missed a week of practice before returning in a red non-contact jersey, and has since shed the red for his real one. When speaking about starting quarterback Mac Jones in a recent Zoom conference, Henry seemed to let it slip that he’s a full go for Week 1.

“Mac’s done a great job. He’s continued to get better every single day,” Henry said. “Becoming a leader, grasping the offense. He’s doing a great job and he’s getting better. And excited to go out there and compete with him this weekend.”

It’s Patriots 101 to just say “I feel good” when asked about health and being ready to play. Henry will learn that in due time. But the tight end’s progress in practice is a strong-enough sign that he’ll make his Patriots debut on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. Henry was not listed on the first official injury report of the season (more on that below).

Smith, meanwhile, has dealt with multiple shorter-term injuries of his own. But he’s been more available than Henry, and thus elevated to the clear No. 1 tight end role to begin the 2021 season. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will likely feel more comfortable deploying Smith in single-tight end sets early on, in roles that may be better suited for Henry, who is more of a traditional in-line tight end.

Smith has credited Henry with helping push him to continually work on getting better, a hallmark of Belichick’s football operation.

Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith (81) runs the ball after a catch against the Washington Football Team during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith (81) runs the ball after a catch against the Washington Football Team during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

“Man, it’s been great, just us feeding off each other’s energy,” Smith said. “Working, pushing each other, on the practice field, in the weight room. Two alpha males, man, just being able to give each other a push. The greatest part of it is that’s my guy, and I’m his guy. We’ve got each other’s back. I’ve got his back. I know he’s got my back. So it’s definitely good to have a guy like that around. His playmaking ability is something that we can definitely bring to the table.

“Part of my game will rub off on him, part of his game will rub off on me and we just help each other get better.”

Fans got a glimpse of what the Patriots may want to do with Henry and Smith in tandem during the preseason, when second-year pro Devin Asiasi took Henry’s place in two-tight end sets. McDaniels will certainly want to throw out of those groupings, but also key to success is to be able to run the ball effectively with Henry and Smith as blockers, both to preserve Jones and to set up play-action. It’s been years since the Patriots could have that kind of versatility and unpredictability with multiple tight ends.

It may take a little while for the team’s top tight end duo to mesh in real games, due to the time missed in camp. But Smith and Henry also represent the single biggest upgrade the Patriots made at any position in the offseason. There’s a chance that, by the end of the 2021 season, they are humming as the engine of the offense.

  • Something To Get Off His Chest

    Cam Newton hit us with a big-market tease on Wednesday. The former Patriots quarterback said “I have a lot of things that I need to get off my chest” in a new video on his Instagram page, before adding, “This is not a retirement speech, and I still got a lot of football left in me.”

    It’s unlikely Newton is about to spill any state secrets on the Patriots – particularly his sudden departure, which came on cutdown day after the veteran QB spent all summer taking first team reps in training camp and starting all three preseason games. The more likely scenario is that Newton has things to say that transcend New England.

    Remember, this is a quarterback who entered 2020 motivated to prove 31 other teams wrong. Newton sounds motivated to get the message out that he’s available for anyone who needs a QB, and that’s something that could develop during the season.

  • 'Stop the run to have some fun'

    Nose tackle Davon Godchaux introduced us to a snappy new catchphrase during his press conference Wednesday morning: “Stop the run to have some fun.”

    It’s often said that the three hallmarks of toughness on a football team are running the ball, stopping the run, and covering kicks. The Patriots expect to excel at items 1 and 3, but the second area could use improvement after the Patriots allowed the seventh-most rushing yards in football in 2020, and the 13th-most yards per carry (4.5). Godchaux, slated to be the team’s primary nose tackle in their base defense, is key to that improvement, and he wears the run-stopping badge with pride.

    Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (92) on the sidelines against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (92) on the sidelines against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    “Everybody wants to pass rush, everybody wants to get sacks, but before you do that you’ve got to stop the run,” Godchaux said. “So, that should be the mentality of everybody, to stop the run. I know it’s a mentality of ours, stopping the run.

    “That’s the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to playing football, when you talk about a tough team, that comes up, stopping the run. You can’t be a tough team if you don’t stop the run.”

  • Rewarding the true leaders

    The Patriots named only five team captains on Wednesday, and they all had something in common: tenure. Several years of service in important leadership roles.

    One of the more important under-the-radar topics of the 2021 Patriots’ offseason was how Belichick would keep his message alive after the departure of Tom Brady and a 7-9 record. Brady exemplified the Pats’ qualities of hard work, dependability, taking it one day at a time, and continually improving at an extremely high level, which allowed the rest to fall in line.

    Especially considering the team’s influx of new faces via free agency and a deep rookie class in key roles, it was crucial for Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, James White, and David Andrews to show them why buying into Belichick’s program is essential to winning. So it makes sense for the team’s longtime leaders to stand alone as the official captain group.

  • First injury report out

    Despite keeping Stephon Gilmore on the shelf for at least six weeks and placing wide receiver N’Keal Harry on short-term injured reserve, the Patriots look to be close to full health otherwise. Only three players appeared on the first official injury report of the 2021 season:

    WR Nelson Agholor (ankle)
    OT Yodny Cajuste (hamstring)
    S Jalen Mills (ankle)

    We’ll have a clearer picture of where Agholor, Cajuste, and Mills stand health-wise on Thursday and Friday.