New England Patriots' Jonnu Smith feeding off energy with new team

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Last year at this time, tight end Jonnu Smith would have sat down in front of a small camera for a virtual interview after training camp practice. Just a man in a screen.

This year, Smith walked to the in-person interview area after the New England Patriots' first practice Wednesday, lifted his right fist in the air, tugged at his No. 81 jersey, and flashed the widest smile to adoring fans who stuck around to see him and called out his name. Just a man and some screams.

"It's a different kind of energy out here in Foxborough," Smith said.

Smith's energy, and how much he's appreciating his lot in life after signing a four-year, $50 million contract in the offseason and welcoming a baby daughter, Haven, was on full display during the in-person setting when reporters -- and fans -- could look him in the eyes, and vice versa.

"I was just showing love, you know what I mean? It just feels so good to get out here, man," he said. "Last year we missed out on training camp due to COVID protocols and all that, so we never had the fans and being able to interact. But having them out here, giving us juice, I was just showing them love back."

In the perfect Patriots world, the love affair will continue to grow as part of a tight-end revival along with fellow free-agent signing Hunter Henry (three years, $37.5 million).

"We've spent a limited amount of time together, but that is only going to build as we get in the trenches together, go through some grind days and get through some games together," Henry said. "This offense is built for tight ends. They have a tremendous legacy here."

Smith joked he wants it to become a "Boston TE party."

That would be ideal given the financial investment the Patriots have made to bring the multiple-tight end offense back to life. In 2020, the club had two or more tight ends on the field 3% of the time, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, easily the lowest total in the NFL.

So it was no surprise that on the first 11-on-11 drill of training camp Wednesday, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called for multiple tight ends, which had long been a staple in the attack prior to 2020 (think Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez, and before that, Daniel Graham-Benjamin Watson). Coach Bill Belichick refers to the two-tight end grouping as "Detroit" -- a reference to his time as an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions in the mid-1970s with tight ends Charlie Sanders and David Hill -- and said of Smith: "Great to have him and work with him."

Smith, who turns 26 next month, laid some personal groundwork for training camp by spending time with quarterback Cam Newton in the weeks before arriving.

"Building chemistry, getting to know one another, getting to know one another's families. That translates to success on the field," he said. "Just a helluva player and even a better person off the field. I got nothing but great things to say about Cam."

At the same time, since Smith arrived in town in mid-July, rookie quarterback Mac Jones has made an early impression on him. Smith relayed he calls him "Mac-sonville," which plays off Jones' roots in Jacksonville, Florida.

"I'm going to be honest, man. I didn't expect Mac to have the kind of swagger that he got," Smith said with a lighthearted touch. "You know, great energy, just bringing life to the locker room. Always laughing. Smile on his face. Loves football. You couldn't ask for a better quarterback."

When Smith first signed with the Patriots, he choked up in his initial talk with reporters when discussing what the big-money contract meant to him and his family. Now he said it's up to him to exceed the team's expectations.

The contract helped his offseason get off to a special start, and was followed by welcoming Haven, who has quickly melted his heart.

"This is an offseason to remember for me, man. I'm already a father of two boys," he said. "And, so to have my baby girl coming into the world; I'm holding her, I just become a big softy."