Arguably no position on the New England Patriots’ roster was a bigger weakness over the last two years than tight end. Since Rob Gronkowski’s departure following the 2018 season, players at the position have caught just 65 combined passes for 673 yards and three touchdowns for the Patriots — ranking last in the NFL by a substantial margin in each category.
Upgrades were needed, and they were brought aboard on the first two days of the NFL’s legal tampering period. After already signing Jonnu Smith to a four-year, $50 million contract on Monday, the Patriots went out and also added Hunter Henry via a reported three-year pact.
Name: Hunter Henry
Position: Tight end
Opening day age: 26
Size: 6-foot-5, 250 pounds
Contract: 3 years, $37.5 million ($25 million guaranteed)
After a productive three-year career at Arkansas, Henry became the first tight end off the board during the NFL’s 2016 draft: the then-San Diego Chargers selected him with the 36th overall pick in the second round. While initially serving behind veteran Antonio Gates early on in his career, Henry still became an impact player for the organization right away and established himself as a starting-caliber tight end — one that actually posted better receiving numbers than Gates in his first two years.
However, Henry was repeatedly slowed down by injury. After already missing three games over his first two seasons, he had to sit out the entire 2018 regular season following an ACL tear suffered during offseason workouts. He also was unable to play in a combined six games the next two years. When healthy, though, Henry was a difference maker for the Chargers: appearing in 56 games for the organization over a five-year span, he caught 196 passes for 2,322 yards and 21 touchdowns.
What is his projected role in New England? Henry being brought aboard gives the Patriots another starter-level tight end alongside Jonnu Smith. But while Smith is expected to be moved around the formation a bit more — he can play anywhere from the perimeter to the backfield — Henry is a more traditional in-line tight end. That being said, he has plenty of experience aligning in the slot and split out wide as well. New England will use him to create favorable matchups either for himself or for other pass catchers.
Where does he fit on the tight end depth chart? Given the talent that both Henry and Smith possess, it is hard to move one ahead of the other on the depth chart. Accordingly, they can interchangeably be referred to as TE1 A and TE1 B. New England also has former third-round draft picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene behind the two free agency additions, as well as veterans Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse.
Does he have positional versatility? While not as much of a chess piece as Smith, Henry still gives New England some flexibility as noted above. He spent most of his snaps with the Chargers playing from an in-line position, but also saw regular action from the slot and, to a lesser degree, on the outside. As far as tight end play is concerned, he is a very well-rounded player capable of blocking in the running and passing games and contributing as a receiver.
What is his special teams value? Henry has a combined 104 special teams snaps on his career résumé, but his value in the kicking game is comparatively limited. Not only does he lack experience, he also has a long injury history — he has missed 26 of a possible 82 games over the first five years of his career — which could lead to his exposure be limited.
What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? While the raw numbers of Henry’s deal have him average $12.5 million per year, the expectation is that that number will go down a bit when talking about the actual value impacting the Patriots’ salary cap. Still, the 26-year-old will join Smith as the highest-paid skill position player on New England’s offense and cut into the team’s cap space quite a bit in 2021.
What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? With both Henry and Smith now sitting atop the tight end depth chart, and with Asiasi and Keene serving as developmental depth options behind them, the Patriots have virtually no need to address the position again in the draft. They could add a player in the later rounds if the board falls favorably, but other than that other needs will have to be addressed first.
One-sentence verdict: Both Henry and Smith landing in New England is a major surprise, but one that instantly upgrades the team’s struggling offense.
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