With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the focus is now entirely on 2020. The next important point on the offseason agenda will be free agency, which starts on March 18 and projects to be a big one for the New England Patriots: not only does the team have 19 players whose current contracts will expire — including quarterback Tom Brady — it also will need to use its limited resources to build a foundation for the upcoming season.
Up until the start of free agency, we will therefore take a look at some players who might interest the Patriots. Today, the series continues with tight end Hunter Henry.
Position: Tight end
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6’5, 250 lbs
Experience: A second round-pick by the then-San Diego Chargers in 2016, Henry quickly showed his upside as a receiving tight end over his first two years in the NFL. But while his potential was on full display, injuries slowed him down and he was placed on injured reserve in both his second and third seasons in the league: in 2017, Henry suffered a lacerated kidney in December that cost him the rest of the year before tearing his ACL during the following offseason. He eventually was back on the field for the 2018 playoffs but only had a limited impact. In 2019, however, Henry returned to being his usual productive self — even though he missed four games early in the season due to another knee injury.
2019 statistics: 12 games; 74 targets, 55 receptions, 652 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns,
2019 salary cap hit: $2.03 million
Free agency status: Unrestricted
View from Los Angeles
We asked Michael Peterson from Bolts From The Blue to share his thoughts on Williams:
This is one of the players I can’t see the Chargers getting rid of. When healthy, he is a top-five tight end in the NFL. He’s struggled with some lingering injury issues since catching eight touchdowns as a rookie but it’s obvious the type of talent he possesses. Fingers-crossed that 2020 is his year. He’s just needed a streak of luck and no Antonio Gates in order to show the country what he’s truly capable of.
There is no way to sugarcoat it, the Patriots failed to adequately fill the humungous shoes previously worn by future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski: the tight end trio of Matt LaCosse, Benjamin Watson and Ryan Izzo had some positive moments during the 2019 season but they were far and few in between — and not enough to help New England’s struggling aerial attack find its groove during the first season without Gronkowski.
While Henry is obviously not on Gronkowski’s level, he would still be an upgrade over the players the Patriots fielded at tight end last year. The 25-year-old would therefore be an intriguing option for the team to consider in free agency: he is a high-upside player with proven production as both a pass catcher and a blocker, whose biggest issue over the last four years were injury-related. When healthy, however, Henry could very well become one of the NFL’s best players at his position.
As such, he would immediately jump to the top of the Patriots’ tight end depth chart if brought on board and serve as a big-play threat for quarterback Tom Brady (or whoever will line up under center in New England next year) as well as a focal point in the team’s passing and rushing attacks. Henry is arguably the best tight end available in free agency this year, and should therefore be seen as a potential target for the team.
Whether or not the Patriots will make a play for the talented tight end depends first and foremost on the Chargers: as Michael pointed out, Henry is one of the team’s high-priority free agents and as such a candidate for the franchise tag — especially considering that a) quarterback Philip Rivers does not have to be re-signed, and b) the tag number at the position is expected to be only $10.7 million, according to CBS Sports’ Joel Corry. It would therefore not be surprising to see L.A. use the tag on Henry, which would essentially eliminate the Patriots as a destination.
If he does hit the open market, however, the Patriots might very well be in the mix for his services: they need to upgrade at tight end and Henry would be one of the best options available — and a worthy heir to Gronkowski’s throne.