FOXBOROUGH — Like every NFLer, Jonnu Smith dreamed big as a kid.
He dreamed of making catches and scoring touchdowns during his Pop Warner days in Philadelphia and his high school and college days in Florida.
The dreams were never about signing big-money deals, so the tight end doesn’t sweat other people’s expectations following a down 2021 season after signing a four-year, $50 million pact with the Patriots.
“I love football,” Smith said Friday when asked if he feels pressure to live up to the deal after finishing with just 28 catches last season. “I got here by just loving football. Loving my teammates, loving the guys around me. All that stuff that comes with it.
“We didn’t grow up playing in our backyards thinking about contracts, you know what I mean? We just played because we loved the game.”
He has tried to maintain that mentality throughout his career.
“I think the reason why so many of us in this game have had success is because we just worried about playing the game, just playing it for the love, and everything else will just take of itself,” he said. “That’s just me personally. I can’t worry about anything else.”
Training camp is only three days old, but fans love what they’ve seen from Smith so far, especially after he put on a show on Day 3, making one of the best catches of the week.
With safety Kyle Dugger draped on him, Smith skied to grab a Mac Jones offering and tapped his feet in the end zone for a touchdown. Smith frustrated Dugger again a few plays later.
Sure, it’s early and the grabs came during a noncontact seven-on-seven period, but the play still highlighted Smith’s elite athleticism and ability to high-point the ball, and it could serve as a harbinger as the team stacks days together.
There are early indications that the Patriots may employ more two-tight-end sets this season, with Smith and Hunter Henry possibly opening things up for each other. The additions of speedy receivers DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton may stretch the field and unlock holes underneath, where Smith can catch and run.
Jones was one of several Patriots who mentioned that the new “streamlined” offense will allow them to play faster, and that could play right into Smith’s strengths.
“Whatever’s called, I’ve just got to do what I’ve got to do and execute to help my team win,” said Smith. “I don’t care where they put me. That’s always been my MO. I’m a team guy; whatever the team needs to win, that what I’ll do.”
Harris takes charge
Damien Harris has brought an unmistakable energy during the week, often loudly hooting and hollering at teammates and fans alike.
The fourth-year running back, who was the club’s leading rusher a year ago, has developed leadership skills in what is now a deep running back room.
In addition to Harris, the Patriots have Rhamondre Stevenson, Ty Montgomery, and rookies Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris. Perennial captain James White could soon be in the mix as well, as he continues his recovery from a hip injury.
“I’m fortunate because I’ve been here for a decent about of time now and I’m kind of leaning into a little bit of a different role,” Harris said. “But I just want to come out here and be my best. I don’t like to come out here and count the days or anything like that. I just like to come out here and play football.”
Harris, in the final year of his rookie contract, is coming off a 15-touchdown season. He projects to once again be New England’s lead back, though he’ll have plenty of reinforcements.
The Patriots covet backs who can do it all — run, catch, and block (particularly blitz pickup) — and this group has flashed that so far.
Harris said he hasn’t felt any extra pressure to groom the younger players but does enjoy helping set the tone on a daily basis.
“Every day I step out here, my goal is to be my best,” he said. “And I know that if I’m my best, I can push other people to be their best as well, with that energy and enthusiasm. Just doing my job and trying to help other guys do their jobs and be their best, that’s really my mentality every day.”
Jones outsells Prescott
Jones placed 11th on the NFLPA’s latest list of officially licensed player merchandise sales. Surprisingly, that was one spot ahead of Cowboys QB Dak Prescott. Not surprisingly, Tom Brady checked in at No. 1 … The Patriots signed receiver Josh Hammond after working him out Thursday. He previously spent time with the Jaguars and Eagles.