Just one hour into the NFL’s legal tampering period, the New England Patriots already snatched one off the best players available. Jonnu Smith was signed to a four-year, $50 million deal to upgrade a tight end group that had struggled mightily ever since losing Rob Gronkowski after the 2018 season.
Despite Smith being a bona fide TE1, the Patriots were not done investing in the position. The very next day, they also signed the second top-tier tight end available in free agency: Hunter Henry was brought aboard via a three-year pact with a total value of $37.5 million. In less than 24 hours, New England was therefore able to completely rebuild its tight end room around the best two options money could buy this offseason.
While the Patriots going after one of the two was expected, seeing them add both did qualify as a surprise not just for the general public but one of them as well.
Hunter Henry acknowledged during his introductory media conference call on Monday that he initially thought Smith arriving in New England meant that he would land elsewhere. He did not, however, and will now be part of one of the better tight end groups the NFL has to offer on paper.
“Super pumped to be able to come to New England, be a Patriot, and then also to join Jonnu,” the 26-year-old said while sitting in his car after a workout session with some of his new teammates. “It’s going to be awesome. I feel like we complement each other well. I feel like we will compete. I’ve got to meet him last week, so I’ve continued to build that relationship and am excited to kind of just see how it will show off on the field.”
Henry arrived in New England after a five year career with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. A former second-round draft pick, he appeared in 56 combined regular season and playoff games for the organization and caught 196 passes for 2,322 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also established himself as one of the better tight ends in football and a true all-around player at a position often split in receivers and blockers.
How Henry’s role on the Patriots’ rebuilt offense will look like has yet to be determined, but the expectation is that he and Smith will be the one-two punch at tight end.
“I had not previously met Jonnu, hadn’t talked to him before. You know, it just kind of happened, honestly. I didn’t think that this would happen where we both end up in the same place; we hadn’t even talked about that. I mean, I don’t think anybody really even thought about that,” Henry said about the fellow free agency addition.
“When I saw him go to the Patriots right out of the gates, I was like, ‘Wow!’ I was really happy for him, I just didn’t know if it was going to happen for me too. And then, obviously, we started talking again and got it figured out, and I was fired up to join too because I just feel like we can complement each other in a cool way.”
Over the last two years following Gronkowski’s departure, the Patriots fielded the least productive tight end group in football. After combining to catch 37 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns during the 2019 regular season, the group added 18 catches for 254 yards and one score the following year.
For comparison, 11 tight ends had more catches in 2020 alone than the Patriots’ output over the last two years. Four had more receiving yards, and 21 had more touchdowns. Upgrades were needed, and the Patriots hope to have found two of them in free agency.
“Obviously, the Patriots have had a lot of success with tight ends,” said Henry. “I’m excited to kind of, hopefully, add to that.”