The New England Patriots are at a crossroads with Jonnu Smith.
The standout tight end signed a massive four-year, $50 million contract in the 2021 offseason with the team, following two productive seasons with the Tennessee Titans. Over the course of his final two years with the Titans, he caught 76 balls for 887 yards and 11 touchdowns.
But things clearly haven’t worked out the same way in New England. Even when healthy, Smith has been completely disappointing, catching only 55 passes for 539 yards and one touchdown.
Per Miguel Benzan of “Pats Cap” on Twitter, Smith has a $17.2 million cap hit for 2023. In 2024, there is a $18.4 million cap hit. Unfortunately for the Patriots, it isn’t easy to just release him.
Cutting Smith before June 2 results in a dead cap hit of $2,581,471 for the team, but cutting him with a June 2 designation would result in a savings of $3,823,529 to the cap. The Patriots can designate up to two players per season to this post June 2 designation, and they could ultimately go this route with Smith.
Trading Smith with a June 1 designation will save the team $3,668,529 to the cap, but trading him post-June 2 would save them $10,073,529.
The Patriots could also extend Smith and look to add void years to the deal, which is a route taken by many teams, if they wish to give themselves cap flexibility sooner.
They already restructured his deal earlier in the season to borrow cap space from future years, which is why they’re in this position in the first place. But they could convert salary into signing bonus or add voidable years if they wish to spread out the cap hit for flexibility.
The Patriots could also just keep Smith, as new coaching changes may be able to get more out of him in the offense. Newly hired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien could utilize him in an offense that typically runs a lot of 12 personnel.
Smith is just 27 years old, and he still has a lot to give. At times, it felt like his best attributes were beginning to show up for New England, particularly his ability to break tackles with the ball in his hands. He had 200 yards after the catch with a team high of 7.4 yards after the catch, per reception, and only two dropped passes on the season.
Smith was targeted just 38 times in 2022, and he only played 40 percent of the snaps, while Hunter Henry played 75 percent. If the Patriots still like Smith as much as they did in 2021 to give him a boatload of money, then they would be wise to keep him for one more season.
However, if the Patriots were to trade him, these are some of the packages and teams that would make sense.
Houston gets: Jonnu Smith
Patriots get: 2023 5th-round pick and 2024 5th-round pick
If the Patriots decide to move Smith, the Texans could be a fit. With the fourth-most cap space this offseason, the Texans, who will most likely be taking a quarterback in the 2023 NFL draft, may look to give their rookie QB a veteran TE like Smith.
With a new coach, it is unlikely that DeMeco Ryans will want to wait for his entire draft class or free agent signings to hit. So adding a player like Smith, who has played in this league, could be a project for a new coach.
There are also some Patriots connections that might facilitate a trade in Houston, particularly with former New England executive Nick Caserio serving as the team’s general manager.
Chicago gets: Jonnu Smith and 2023 6th-round pick (No. 184)
New England gets: 2023 4th-round pick (No. 133) and 2023 5th-round pick (No. 137)
Chicago has money to spend, and Justin Fields needs plenty of weapons. Not that Jonnu Smith would be the No. 1 option, but adding an athletic tight end with YAC ability for Fields, who isn’t known at this stage of his career as an elite passer, could be beneficial for him.
With the most cap to spend and the potential haul they could get for the first overall pick, they might not even feel Smith, if he winds up not working out. But this roll of the dice could pay off big for the Bears.
Denver gets: Jonnu Smith
New England gets: 2024 5th-round pick (from NYJ) and 2025 4th-round pick
With Sean Payton in the building and clearly being all in on Russell Wilson, the Broncos could use their cap space to acquire a tight end for a team that’s obviously in win-now mode.
There aren’t too many tight ends on the open market via trade or free agency. So Payton and the Broncos could find a relatively cheap (in terms of draft capital) and younger tight end with upside for Wilson.
The Broncos need all of the offensive weapons they can get to turn things around after a disappointing 2022 season.