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Tight end Jonnu Smith works through 'foundational' first year with Patriots

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If outside linebacker Matthew Judon has been the unquestioned "boom" from the New England Patriots' pricey free-agent spending spree, tight end Jonnu Smith has been closer to the opposite end of the spectrum.

It isn't close to "bust," but Smith's transition to New England after signing a four-year, $50 million contract that included $31.25 million guaranteed hasn't produced immediate bang for the buck.

Smith has totaled 22 receptions for 210 yards and one touchdown, while adding four carries for 20 yards. The numbers pale in comparison to Judon's 10.5-sack outburst after signing a four-year, $56 million contract, and even fellow tight end Hunter Henry's 33 catches for 388 yards and seven touchdowns after he signed a three-year, $37.5 million pact.

But "patience" has been a buzzword around the Patriots (7-4) when it comes to the 6-foot-3, 248-pound Smith, whose status is timely to highlight as New England prepares to host his former club, the 8-3 Tennessee Titans, on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

"He's acclimated well," coach Bill Belichick said Monday. "Unfortunately, he missed some time this spring, but from training camp on, he's taken a lot of reps."

Smith has played 47.8% of the team's offensive snaps, pairing with Henry (69%) to give the Patriots a much greater tight end presence than they had in 2020.

Still, it hasn't come without some notable struggles, with the low point coming in a Week 3 loss to the New Orleans Saints when Smith had multiple dropped passes and was the primary target on a pick-six. Smith took ownership of the performance in the ensuing days, which is one example of why some around the team say he has fit in.

"He's a high-character person who is a hard worker and a great teammate," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.

Added tight ends coach Nick Caley: "He always comes to work with an incredible work ethic. He's locked in. He's unselfish."

Smith isn't pushing for more playing time, saying he's on board with whatever keeps the Patriots -- winners of their past five games -- on a roll.

"I'm not going in there asking for a role. I know they know what position to put us all in to help us get wins. That's the most important thing," he said. "I'm just trying to do my part, whatever that is, and do it 100% like I always did. Nothing different than my career; I'm not changing now."

Titans coach Mike Vrabel expects to get Smith's best on Sunday.

"He's a piece," he said. "We understand his skill set, his vertical speed. I saw them hand it off to him on a jet sweep, and they try to get him some catch-and-run opportunities."

The Patriots hosted Smith on a pre-draft visit in 2017, which McDaniels said provided the team "some intimate knowledge of who he was." Smith grew as a player over his four seasons with the Titans, and now in New England, he's adjusting to the team's offensive approach, similar to other players in their first year with the club.

"The tight end position, obviously here and everywhere, is unique because you're involved in so many different things -- run-blocking, pass receiving, pass protection, alerts, motion. There's a lot of different things you have to do well," McDaniels said. "Jonnu's tried really hard to do all the things we've asked him to do. I always think the first year that we have an opportunity to have a free agent in our system is kind of a foundational year.

"They might have heard NFL vernacular and been around NFL football, but sitting in Bill's squad meetings, listening to what we do on a weekly basis, fitting into how we change the offense from one week to the next to try to attack the defense's weaknesses or protect our weaknesses; I don't know how much of those things happen at other places. ... But no question he adds an element of unique ability and he's been a good addition, a great teammate."