Four days later, it’s easy to forget the Patriots’ first move during NFL free agency was actually a trade.
Last Monday, the Pats agreed to deal tight end Jonnu Smith to Atlanta for a seventh-round pick, a transaction that officially processed the moment free agency opened Wednesday afternoon. Smith disappointed over his two years in New England, failing to crack 300 receiving yards in either season after he signed a 4-year, $50 million contract.
Upon signing Miami’s Mike Gesicki on Friday morning, it appeared the Patriots had found Smith’s replacement at tight end. Or did they?
Gesicki, at 6-foot-6 and 247 pounds, is a player some have described as a “big receiver” — Bill Belichick included. The sixth-year vet is a spectacular athlete, armed with 4.5 speed, incredible leaping ability and a massive catch radius. Few tight ends possess better receiving talent than Gesicki, the owner of 18 career touchdowns.
The 27-year-old is also slow to make cuts, turn in his routes and is a flat-out terrible blocker.
Gesicki graded out as the NFL’s seventh-worst run-blocking tight end at Pro Football Focus each of the past two seasons. To protect themselves, the Dolphins asked him to run-block on fewer than 24% of his snaps, per PFF. More often than not, Gesicki didn’t even align in the box.
Every year since his 2018 rookie campaign, Gesicki has played more than half his snaps from the slot and averaged more than 100 per season out wide. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect he will not function as a modern tight end in New England, as Smith did, splitting his snaps fairly evenly between an in-line position and out wide. The Patriots know Gesicki’s strengths and weaknesses, having faced him nine times during his years in Miami.
Here’s Belichick last January on his newest tight end: “He’s a hard guy to cover. Long. He’s a good, crafty route runner. He’s slick, but he can get down the field. Very good hands, makes some acrobatic catches. Has enough quickness to separate.”
Less clear than Gesicki’s role with the Patriots — he’s a part-time, 6-foot-6 slot receiver and red-zone weapon — is his fit within the offense as a whole.
Starting tight end Hunter Henry is an average run-blocker, so playing together in two-tight end packages would put the Pats at a disadvantage versus heavier defensive personnel on critical running downs. The flip side is those heavier base defenses (with only four defensive backs) should offer the Patriots at least one receiving mismatch through Henry, Gesicki, JuJu Smith-Schuster or DeVante Parker. But facing heavier defensive personnel is no guarantee.
Partly because of Gesicki’s struggles blocking, the Patriots comfortably countered Miami’s two-tight end personnel with nickel packages (featuring five defensive backs) and dime packages (six) for years. Gesicki’s on-field presence in Miami was a 76% tell the Dolphins were about to pass. Why worry about the run?
If defenses stay in lighter personnel and can stop the run versus the Patriots’ two-tight end groupings, the offense is less likely to manufacture receiving mismatches, and suddenly the power of the Henry-Gesicki combo has been sapped. And if opponents play man coverage — their preferred defense versus the Patriots since the team’s last Super Bowl run — beating it may still be a problem.
Because as great a straight-line runner and leaper as Gesicki has become, he has produced middling numbers versus man-to-man. Last season, he secured half of his 10 targets versus man coverage for 36 yards and just 25% of his contested-catch opportunities, per PFF. Too small a sample?
In 2021, Gesicki ranked 15th out of 38 tight ends by yards gained per route run versus man coverage, according to PFF. In 2020, he ranked 22nd out of 39.
Perhaps the Patriots don’t care much for those numbers. They just want to field better receiving talent and forget the rest. So where does Gesicki fit? The staff could swap Henry out for Gesicki on passing downs. Or they could treat him as a full-time slot receiver.
The issue there is Gesicki would bump the Pats’ prized free-agent addition to date, former Chiefs and Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster. Like Gesicki, Smith-Schuster operates best against zone coverage and can play outside, but his home is in the slot. Unlike Gesicki, he’s a monster after the catch, a main reason the Patriots signed him over long-time No. 1 option Jakobi Meyers.
So do the Patriots move their best pure receiver to accommodate one of their most limited players? Do they limit Gesicki’s snaps? Or do they force Gesicki, whose receiving talent is the reason he could earn up to $9 million this season, to play more on the perimeter?
At the very least, signing Gesicki has bolstered the Patriots’ pass-catching talent, an absolute must after last year’s offensive disaster. The Pats’ red-zone offense should soar from its No. 32 ranking (dead last) a year ago. Few teams, if any, will be better suited to tilt the odds on 50/50 balls with Gesicki, Parker and Henry.
And perhaps this is the team’s new solution to its man-coverage woes: forget about separation, and collect bigger, taller targets who can dominate contest-catch situations.