With training camp and preseason underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with tight end Hunter Henry.
Name: Hunter Henry
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: 85
Opening day age: 26
Size: 6-foot-5, 250 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? 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 since arriving in the NFL. After missing a combined 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 total of 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 did his 2020 season look like? Despite missing four games due to injury during the 2019 season, Henry finished as one of the Chargers’ most productive players. It was therefore no surprise to see the team try to keep him in the fold heading into unrestricted free agency. It did so by using the franchise tag: Los Angeles placed the tag on the tight end to bar him from entering the open market, effectively paying him $10.61 million on a non-guaranteed contract to stay with the team for one more year.
Henry, who signed the tag one month after the Chargers used it on him, again showed that he was an important member of their offense in 2020. Being on the field for 913 of a possible 1,175 offensive snaps (77.7%), he again served as the team’s number one tight end and one of its most productive pass catchers. Even though a rookie was throwing him the football — first-round pick Justin Herbert — Henry finished the season with 60 receptions on 87 targets for 613 yards as well as 4 touchdowns.
While he was a vital member of the Chargers’ passing attack, who ranked in the team’s top three in all four of those categories, his contributions were not limited to catching the football. Henry, as usual, also played a valuable role in helping block for the team’s running backs. While the Chargers’ ground attack was mostly mediocre throughout the 2020 season, their TE1 was solid as a blocker. In total, 325 of his 913 snaps (35.6%) saw him help out as an additional body in the running game.
Henry had a good season, but he once again dealt with some health-related issues as well. He was limited in practice with ankle and hip ailments, and despite not missing any games due to injury during the 2020 season still ended the campaign on the sidelines: the Chargers sent him to their Coronavirus reserve list in late December after he had missed practice due to an illness. He eventually had to sit out the team’s final two games and was not removed from Reserve/Covid-19 until January 7th.
What is his projected role? Henry gives the Patriots another starter-level tight end alongside fellow free agency acquisition Jonnu Smith. 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.
What is his special teams value? Between playing on the Chargers’ kickoff return and field goal/extra point protection units, Henry has a combined 104 special teams snaps on his career résumé. Nevertheless, his value in the kicking game appears to be comparatively limited. Not only does he lack experience in other special teams areas, he also has a long injury history which in turn could lead to his exposure being limited by the Patriots coaching staff.
Does he have positional versatility? While not as much of a chess piece as Smith projects to be in their offense, Henry still gives the Patriots some positional flexibility. 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, split out wide 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 salary cap situation? Henry joined the Patriots on a three-year, $37.5 million contract earlier this offseason. As far as the 2020 season is concerned, he will hit the team’s books with a salary cap number of $6.82 million — eighth highest on the team overall, and first at the tight end position. Henry’s cap hit is divided into his fully-guaranteed salary ($1 million) and signing bonus proration ($5 million) as well as likely to be earned roster bonuses worth $823,529.
What is his roster outlook? Henry is obviously a lock to make the Patriots’ roster in 2020, but that does not mean there are no questions surrounding him entering the season. The biggest is his health after he missed 26 of a possible 82 games over the course of his career. He suffered a shoulder injury earlier in training camp, but should be ready for the regular season. Will he make it through it unscathed, though? And how will he adapt to playing in New England after five years with the Chargers? One thing seems certain: if healthy and able to get up to speed quickly, Henry will play a big role for his new club.