The New England Patriots’ tight end group had its most productive game of the season on Sunday. Going up against the Cleveland Browns, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry combined to catch six passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.
Smith had two receptions for 61 yards in his return from an ankle injury, while Henry added four catches for another 61 as well as that one score. The game was a step in the right direction for both of the high-prized tight ends, but for Henry in particular: the 27-year-old has had his struggles earlier in the season but has bounced back recently.
Not only has he been more involved in the passing game, he also has looked like a different player as a blocker. How come? According to the man himself, his health plays a role in that development.
“I feel good,” Henry told reporters on Monday. “It’s just something people might not know, but I kind of played through a shoulder injury all last year and then had surgery after the season, actually. So, a healthy shoulder feels good.
“I think just trying to work through that this offseason too, worked through that through training camp, kind of get comfortable in it, that’s just kind of something I was coming back from. But I feel like I built a lot of strength, was there to focus a lot on my lower body as well. And I just feel good, feel comfortable right now. Feeling strong — definitely in the trenches feeling good.”
Henry first injured his shoulder during last year’s training camp, and he was held out of preseason play as a consequence. While the free agency acquisition returned for the regular season and ended up not missing any games — all while being one of the most reliable members of New England’s offense — he faded a bit down the stretch.
Whether his shoulder issue or other factors were to blame is not known, but Henry did undergo surgery post-season. What followed was a rehabilitation process, him missing more training camp time (due to an undisclosed ailment), and eventually a disappointing start to the 2022 campaign.
Henry’s blocking in particular left a lot to be desired. However, he has shown some marked improvement as of late.
“It’s been a lot better than last year, a lot better than earlier in the season too,” he said. “I feel like over the last probably four weeks I really focused in on it. I try to spend a little bit more extra time on it too, realizing it’s a pivotal point for us — especially at our position — to be successful. So, I’ve spent a little bit of extra time on some fundamentals and just trying to get right so that on Sundays it just kind of comes natural. Just trying to get more reps at it. Feeling pretty comfortable, but I got to continue that.”
The strides Henry made as a blocker were also mentioned by head coach Bill Belichick earlier on Monday.
“His blocking has really improved this year,” Belichick said. “He’s done a really good job for us in the blocking area and against these teams that are playing the over fronts, so the defensive end at the end of the line. Some tough blocking assignments there. He probably has the toughest matchup on the field on a lot of the running plays. ...
“Glad we have him. He’s been a great addition to our team, to our organization on and off the field. Really just an exceptional player, an exceptional person that does everything we’ve asked him to do for the year and a half that he’s been here.”