With training camp already underway, the New England Patriots have fully set their sights onto the upcoming 2022 season.
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran tight end Hunter Henry.
Name: Hunter Henry
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: 85
Opening day age: 27
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. He missed a combined 24 games during his five seasons with the Chargers, including the entire 2018 regular season after having suffered a torn ACL during offseason workouts. When healthy, though, Henry proved himself a difference maker for both the Chargers and, after joining them in 2021, the Patriots . In total, he has appeared in 74 regular season and playoff games over the course of his career, catching 247 passes for 2,955 yards and 30 touchdowns.
What did his 2021 season look like? Even though they had already locked up Jonnu Smith on the first day of the legal tampering period, the Patriots decided to jump right back into the tight end market on the second to also secure the second big name available. Henry was brought aboard via a three-year, $37.5 million contract — a deal coming with high expectations: together with Smith, Henry was expected to form a potent duo at a position New England has had its issues with ever since losing Rob Gronkowski in 2019.
The Patriots did not return to those glorious days of tight end production in 2021, in part because of how Henry and Smith were used. While they played 54 and 55 snaps in the season opener versus Miami, respectively, the team never really went back to its two-tight end offense down the stretch. When all was said and done, it had used its two high-prized free agency acquisitions alongside one another on just 18.6 percent of offensive snaps; Smith served more as a blocker with Henry the primary receiver out of the two.
The latter ended the season with some solid numbers. Henry built a promising chemistry with rookie starting quarterback Mac Jones, and oftentimes served as his safety blanket: out of his combined 79 regular season and playoff targets, 30 came on either third or fourth down; the pair moved the chain on 15 of those plays. All in all, the first-year Patriot finished the season with 51 receptions for 633 yards as well as nine scores. Henry ranked third on the team in catches and yards, and first in receiving touchdowns.
Henry was a reliable player for Jones and the Patriots in 2021, not just due to his quite solid numbers. He also was available throughout the year — something that had been a bit of a problem for him during his previous five seasons with the Chargers. Henry ended up seeing action in all 17 of New England’s regular season contests as well as its playoff loss against the Buffalo Bills. When all was said and done, he had been on the field for a total of 798 out of a possible 1,169 offensive snaps (68.3%).
The veteran tight end was used primarily as a receiver, running routes on 58 percent of his offensive snaps; for comparison, that number stood at just 32.8 percent for Jonnu Smith. Henry’s blocking was solid but more inconsistent than Smith’s, especially when it came to moving bodies in the running game. As a pass protector, meanwhile, he was credited with three quarterback disruptions allowed. All things considered, though, his first season in New England was an encouraging one and a solid foundation to build on.
What is his projected role? Henry has proven himself a starter-level tight end in New England’s system and alongside Jonnu Smith will be the one-two punch at the position in 2022. While Smith is expected to be moved around the formation to create favorable matchups — he can play anywhere from the perimeter to the backfield — Henry will serve as a more traditional in-line tight end. As was shown last year, though, he can successfully align in the slot and even split out wide as well.
Does he have positional versatility? While not as much of a chess piece as Smith projects to be heading into the 2022 season, Henry still gives the Patriots some positional flexibility. Last year, he spent most of his snaps aligned either in the slot (388) or in-line (331) but he also moved out to the perimeter (70) and even into the backfield as a fullback or H-back (9). Henry also is a well-rounded player at the position who can be more than “just” a productive receiver.
What is his special teams value? Playing on the Chargers’ kickoff return and field goal/extra point protection units, Henry arrived in New England with a combined 104 special teams snaps on his career résumé. In just one season he increased that number by almost 50 percent: playing as a blocker on the kickoff return squad, he was on the field for 50 of a possible 464 snaps in the game’s third phase in 2021 (10.8%). The expectation is that his usage will look quite similar this upcoming season.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second season of the three-year contract he signed with the Patriots last March, Henry carries a sizable cap number. Playing on a fully-guaranteed $9 million base salary and a $5 million signing bonus proration as well as $1 million in roster bonuses considered likely to be earned, his resulting cap hit of $15 million does not just rank second on New England’s roster behind Matthew Judon ($16.5 million) it also is the highest among all tight ends in the NFL in 2022.
How safe is his roster spot? Despite his hefty cap hit and a current injury that is believed to be of a relatively minor nature, Henry is a lock to make the Patriots’ roster this year and again play a notable role within their offense. His target share might change a bit due to the arrivals of DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton as well as Jonnu Smith’s projected growth, but he will still be one of Mac Jones’ favorite targets in the passing game. And not just that: Henry also is a candidate to receive a contract extension beyond 2023.
One-sentence projection: Henry’s numbers will not spike significantly, but he will remain one of Mac Jones’ go-to targets on critical downs and in the red zone.