The New England Patriots appear to be going with the H-back in 2022. From 2000 to 2021, the Patriots under Bill Belichick have employed ten fullbacks, 11 if you view Iosefa. James Develin held the lead blocker role from 2012 to 2019, when he surrendered it to Jakob Johnson. After the 2021 season, the New England Patriots informed then fullback Jakob Johnson they were eliminating the position.
Doing so eliminates a historic position held by players over the last 20 years like Patrick Pass, Marc Edwards, Larry Centers, Heath Evans, James Develin, and if you want to go a little further back, Sam Gash. This is not the first time the Patriots have gotten away from the fullback under Bill Belichick, but it could be the last if players play to their expectations.
In 2018 fullback Develin helped produce a top-five rushing attack due to his blocking. Then, unfortunately, he got hurt, and the running game slipped. Flash forward a few years, and in 2021 fullback Johnson had a 65.4 run-blocking grade followed from PFF, which helped the Pats register a top ten rushing attack without a quarterback scrambling. The Patriots must continue to dominate on the ground.
Can The New England Patriots’ H-back Position Deliver?
Jonnu Smith and possibly Dalton Keene are expected to be the H-backs for the Patriots going into the 2022 season. Both can run and catch, but can they block at a high level? Keene has been injured, and Smith was disappointing in 2021. Not only did Smith fail as a pass-catcher but also as a blocker.
Keene remains limited at practice while recovering from the meniscus surgery he had last August. His next major benchmark date will come late next month at training camp, when he’ll presumably be ready to ramp up his activity. The tight enters the 2022 campaign as a depth piece behind Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/players/2805113/dalton-keene/
Jerry Trotta wrote, “Smith totaled 28 catches for 294 yards and one touchdown while earning a lowly 43.4 run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus.” https://musketfire.com/2022/04/05/did-robert-kraft-call-out-nelson-agholor-jonnu-smith/
That is a drop of 22 points for the lead run blocker, going from Johnson to Smith, which will not cut it. The key to Mac Jones’s development and the Patriots’ offense in 2022 will be the running game because it will open up the Patriots’ offense. However, it all depends on Smith or whoever plays the H-back.
Smith And Keene Look Worse Than A Pair Of Former Patriots.
Smith’s previous four seasons before joining the Patriots had run grades of 57, 56.8, 52.4, and 61.4 in 2020. To give a little more perspective, Ryan Izzo had a 56.2 run blocking grade in 2020 for the Pats. And former Patriots and current Denver Broncos H-back Andrew Beck posted a 62.1 run blocking grade in 2021. Both had better blocking than the pricey Smith.
It’s Not Just The Ground Game
Besides the run, Jonnu’s ability to run block will help or hinder the Patriots’ passing game. Mac Jones was a better passer in 2021 off the play action, which is necessary for the Patriots’ offensive success in 2022.
Bernd Buchmasser wrote, “New England ran some form of play-action on 163 of Mac Jones’ dropbacks in 2021. The young QB attempted 147 throws from those plays, hitting his target on 104 for a completion rate of 70.7 percent. Jones gained 1,298 of his passing yards that way while scoring six touchdowns and throwing four interceptions.” https://www.patspulpit.com/2022/6/16/23170718/patriots-play-action-game-improve-2022-mac-jones
If Jonnu (or Keene) cannot run block from the H-back, running successful play-actions will be tough because, as we all know, the team must run well, or defenses will not bite. The Patriots may not give Smith (or Keene) offensive snaps if he cannot improve as a run blocker and instead opt for other personnel.
The Patriots have Asiasi and Matt Sokol, who can play in the backfield but neither really belongs in the H-back position. And that position looks like a crucial part of the 2022 offense so they can validate the Smith contract.
With how often Mac was hit off of play-action in 2021, the Patriots aren’t going to want to have the second blocker on the line as a second inline tight end very often. And there are also questions about how good the Patriots’ wideouts can block without Harry.
The Patriots Gambled
The Patriots’ offense is centered around the run and while having H-backs gives the Patriots a lot more options than having a fullback, the Patriots may regret letting Johnson go if they cannot get production out of Smith (or Keene) and may be forced to sign a fullback at a later point. Something to keep an eye on throughout August and September with fingers crossed.
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