How Does Martellus Bennett Fit With the New England Patriots?

The Patriots acquired Martellus Bennett from the Bears, and they now have a huge matchup problem for defenses at tight end.

The New England Patriots had a busy past two days. 

After sitting out most of free agency with only a restricted offer sheet given to Chris Hogan, the Patriots made head-turning trades on back-to-back days. 

The first surprisingly sent defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona in exchange for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick. That trade was followed up Wednesday night with the acquisition of tight end Martellus Bennett from the Chicago Bears in exchange for fourth-round pick. The Patriots will also receive a sixth-round pick from the Bears in the deal.

In one very obvious way for the New England Patriots, tight end is not a high upgrade priority. With Rob Gronkowski on the roster, the position is never going to be a hole the Patriots have to fill. But in another way, a second tight end was needed, and that's why the addition of Bennett does make sense for New England.

Three tight ends for the Patriots saw at least 34 percent of the team’s offensive snaps last year -- Gronkowski (84 percent), Michael Williams (40.2 percent) and Scott Chandler (34.1 percent). Williams was less of a traditional tight end and more of an extra offensive lineman on plays and not heavily involved in the passing game -- he had just six targets on his 449 offensive snaps. Chandler was more the traditional pass-catching number-two tight end, a role that should be increased now with Bennett in the fold. 

With Bennett's blocking ability and an improvement along the offensive line, there will also be less of a need for Williams to be on the field as an extra blocker, which should lead to the potential of more snaps for the new tight end.

Black Unicorn By the Numbers

Many would place Bennett as one of the best all-around tight ends in the league. He's an imposing threat as a receiver, and he's one of the best blockers the NFL has. 

However, his play-to-play consistency in the passing game has not been among the top tier of the position. By our Net Expected Points metric (NEP), Bennett has been around average on a per target basis since become a starting tight end in 2012 with the New York Giants. NEP, for those unaware, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. 

Statistically, Bennett’s best year on a per target basis was his lone season with the Giants, though his best counting stats came in 2014 with the Bears.

Year Receptions Rec NEP Targets Target NEP Rec NEP/Target Catch Rate
2012 55 54.81 90 16.12 0.61 61.11%
2013 65 55.31 94 29.40 0.59 69.15%
2014 90 72.40 128 20.07 0.57 70.31%
2015 53 37.19 80 2.79 0.46 66.25%

Last year, though, was Bennett’s worst year as a starter by a fairly wide margin. The Bears were without Brandon Marshall, who was traded to the New York Jets, and Alshon Jeffery played in only nine games. Bennett himself played in just 11. Without the other playmaking threats on the outside, Bennett’s production drastically dipped. 

The lack of production was not spread throughout the offense, though. Zach Miller, who's now Chicago’s starting tight end, totaled the same number of receiving yards as Bennett (439) on 19 fewer receptions and 34 fewer targets. He was also sixth among tight ends in Reception NEP per target in 2015 while Bennett was 35th.

That, surely, is a reason the Bears felt comfortable moving on from the 29-year-old tight end and his $5.2 million cap hit in 2016. But it also doesn’t mean Bennett will fall by the wayside in New England.

Patriot Way

Bennett could easily replicate and surpass the production of Scott Chandler in the New England offense, but those anticipating dueling 1,000 receiving yard tight end seasons like the Patriots had in the past might be setting expectations a little high. There are plenty of situations, though, for which New England can put its new tight end in a position to succeed.

The Patriots’ gameplan on offense revolves around matchups. There might not be a better coach than Bill Belichick at exploiting mismatches and these matchups, and the addition of Bennett gives them another potential mismatch against opposing defenses. 

New England didn’t need much help in that area -- Gronkowski is arguably hardest player to defend in the NFL -- as the Patriots ranked third in schedule-adjusted NEP per play on offense in 2015. They were the fifth-best passing offense as the eighth most pass-heavy team in the league. Especially after the injury suffered by Dion Lewis, the Patriots let opponents know they were going to throw it and still succeeded.

It’s no question Gronkowski plays a large role in how the Patriots can plan on offense. Defenses can be so concerned with the massive tight end in coverage that it opens up space for other receivers, a second tight end included. Bennett might not put up Pro Bowl-level numbers behind Gronkowski, but there will be some opportunities for Bennett to take advantage of the attention paid to the other tight end on the field.

Take this play from New England’s Week 12 game against the Denver Broncos. Gronkowski and Chandler both line up with a hand in the ground on the right side of the line. After the snap, Gronkowski runs up the seam and takes three Broncos defenders sitting in zone with him. This opens a wide area for Chandler -- after chipping Von Miller off the line -- to cut off his route for an easy catch in the middle of the field.

Where the Patriots can really exploit these mismatches is in the red zone. Only one team (Carolina) scored more touchdowns than the Patriots inside the 20 last season, and only one team scored more on the percentage of plays in the red zone (Detroit). 28 of New England’s 41 touchdowns (68.3 percent) in the red zone came through the air. And while Gronkowski was the biggest beneficiary with seven touchdowns, the Patriots had the ability to spread the ball around in that area. Six Patriots had at least eight targets in the red zone last season, and Brandon LaFell was the only one of the group not to score at least three times.

New England enjoyed splitting Gronkowski wide last season before the snap and manipulating the coverage. If only one defender followed, it was almost a guaranteed touchdown. If multiple defenders went out wide with him, there was a numbers advantage and a likely mismatch somewhere else. What Bennett can bring is a clear red zone mismatch when the defense is worried about stopping Gronk.

Here against the Bills, two defenders follow Gronkowski after the pre-snap movement, which leaves Chandler isolated in one-on-one coverage on the other side of the formation.

This exact pass falls incomplete, but these are the types of opportunities the Patriots will likely be making for Bennett in this area of the field. Chandler caught four red zone touchdowns last year, and as seen by the incomplete pass above, that number could have been more.

Bennett isn’t going to be the top target in New England, and that’s fine. What he will get, though, are matchups where he’ll be positioned to take advantage of a clear mismatch in all parts of the field. It might not lead to high raw totals all around but there’s a high ceiling there, especially for touchdowns. The new pairing probably won’t bring back memories of Patriots two tight end sets of old, but it won’t have to in order to be a success.