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Mission Possible: Hunter Henry Next Great Patriots' TE?

The Pats have arguably utilized the tight end position as well as any other team in NFL history

FOXBORO — New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry is no stranger to taking on new challenges.

At every level of his career on the gridiron, the 27-year old has found success while exceeding his expectations. With the chance to build on a promising first season with them in 2021, the Pats are hoping for history to repeat itself.

In other words, New England is counting on Henry to once again surpass his projections by becoming the next great Patriots tight end.

The tight-end position has long held a prominent place in the heart of the Patriots organization. From Russ Francis, to Ben Coates to Rob Gronkowski, the Pats have arguably utilized the position as well as any other in NFL history.

While one season’s worth of evaluation is insufficient time to place Henry in that pantheon, his history on the gridiron provides optimism for the future. Like those who have come before him, Henry’s resolve to succeed has driven him to great heights.

As a high-schooler, Henry attended Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. Under legendary coach Kevin Kelly, Henry spent the entirety of his four-year tenure playing offensive tackle, wide receiver, and defensive end for the football team. He earned his way into the starting lineup as a sophomore, and maintained his status as a junior and a senior. Henry’s standout performances were integral in helping the Bruins to win the 2011 state championship. He was named to the Parade All-American team for the 2012-13 school year and was one of the top recruits in the nation.

However, one position not credited to his resume — and conspicuous by its absence — was tight end.

In fact, Henry did not officially play tight end until his arrival at the University of Arkansas. Despite eventually proving himself more than capable of handling the position, Pulaski Academy's spread offense scheme did not feature the tight end. However, Henry’s experience as both a receiver and two-way lineman allowed him to cultivate the pass-catching, route-running and blocking skills required to become a stalwart at the position.

Accordingly, Henry accepted his new challenge.

At Arkansas, Henry flourished as the Razorbacks’ top tight end. In 2015, he won the John Mackey Award as the best tight end in the nation. He was also a Consensus All-American in the 2015–2016 season. Henry helped Arkansas win back-to-back bowl games in consecutive years for the first time in program history, beating former Southwest Conference rival the Texas Longhorns in the 2014 Texas Bowl, and winning the 2016 Liberty Bowl over the Kansas State Wildcats.

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Henry was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the second round (35th overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft. As the first tight end chosen that year, he faced the daunting task of joining a positional depth chart which included Bolts’ legend Antonio Gates. Yet, the Arkansas native was determined to make his mark on the team, as well as the franchise.

During his time with the Chargers [both in San Diego, and Los Angeles], Henry compiled 196 career receptions, for 2,322 yards and 21 touchdowns. While widely praised for his versatility, he was most productive when playing the traditional “Y” role; accentuating his impressive route running skills, as well as his ability to box out. He also proved himself a strong blocker and reliable pass catcher. Upon Gates’ retirement in 2020, Henry spent his final season with the team as their top option at tight end.

Henry’s next test landed him across the country in New England, signing a three-year, $37.5 million contract with the Patriots. His signing came as somewhat of a surprise, considering that the team had agreed to terms with former Tennessee Titans’ tight end Jonnu Smith just one day earlier. Still, pairing Henry alongside a prototypical ‘move’ tight end like Smith was expected to allow the Patriots to run 12-man personnel, featuring two equally potent tight end options. Combined with a sizable offensive line and a capable running game, New England was expected to excel in several play action schemes in 2021; significantly more so than one year ago.

Unfortunately, that was seldom the case. The duo only shared the field for 18.6 percent of New England’s offensive snaps.

Despite the unexpected lack of production from their ‘tandem of tight endage,’ Henry still had one of his most statistically productive seasons. He finished the 2021 season having compiled 603 yards on 50 catches with nine touchdowns.

From a statistical standpoint, it may seem that Henry has already accepted his challenge as a member of the Patriots. However, there is still much work to be done on the field to fully resurrect the tight end position in Foxboro. From the limited sample size of action from minicamp and OTAs, Smith is already showing marked improvement in understanding New England’s complex offense. Should that continue into training camp, both he and Henry will complement each other in a manner which escaped them in 2021.

Still, Henry is likely to remain the top option at the position. While he arguably established himself as a key component on offense during his first season with New England, some may argue that his star is still on the rise. His connection with quarterback Mac Jones led to some of the Patriots most impressive offensive plays in 2021. With Jones expected to take a leap forward in his second season at the helm, Henry is almost certain to be among New England’s offensive stars in 2022 and beyond.

This question is whether Henry can carry on the tradition of prolific Patriots tight ends.

Will “Jones to Henry” enter the conversation with “Grogan to Francis” or “Bledsoe to Coates” — or dare we say, “Brady to Gronkowski?” 

The mission belongs to Hunter Henry … should he choose to accept it.