When NFL free agency got underway in 2021, Bill Belichick wasted no time targeting Hunter Henry as a good fit for the New England Patriots. The tight end, who had spent his first five seasons with the Chargers, joined the Patriots courtesy of a three-year $37.5 million contract. At times during Henry’s tenure with New England, some have forgotten just how valuable of a weapon he is. Fortunately, under Bill O’Brien’s offensive direction in 2023, that seems to be changing for the better.
After missing the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL, Henry returned to the Los Angeles Chargers better than ever. Over the next two season the Chargers would rely heavily on their trustworthy tight end. His reliability helped the team transition from Philip Rivers to Justin Herbert as the quarterback in LA. From 2019 to 2020 Henry averaged 6.5 targets per game. This helped him produce 17-game averages of 75 receptions, 827 receiving yards, and 6 touchdowns over that time.
With a big contract in hand from a New England Patriots franchise that clearly valued him, Hunter Henry thriving in Foxboro should have been a foregone conclusion. So, what happened? After a largely successful first year with the Patriots, Henry somehow became a forgotten man in 2022.
Henry appeared in all 17 games his first year in New England. He quickly became a trusted option for rookie QB Mac Jones, especially in the red zone. He scored a career high nine touchdowns in 2021. His targets dropped from his time with the Chargers to 75 in 2021 (4.4/game) but he still managed quality production. Henry finished the season with 50 receptions and 603 receiving yards.
The second season with the Patriots would be more challenging for the team, and Hunter Henry individually. Matt Patricia had been brought in as the new play caller, and it did not go well. Mac Jones struggled to feel comfortable in the offense, as his receiving options struggled to find open field. As a result, Henry’s impact diminished, which was bad news for the New England Patriots.
In 2020 with the Chargers, Henry had gotten 93 targets in 14 games (6.6/game). In 2022 with the Patriots, Henry was down to only 59 targets in 17 games (3.5/game). After converting 30+ first downs in every season of his career, Henry notched just 23 last year. And while the Patriots offense had fits in the end zone, the player who contributed nine touchdowns in 2021 was reduced to just two in 2022.
The drop off was difficult to fathom, as Henry appeared to be the same player he had always been. His catch percentage had increased, and he hadn’t missed a game since signing with the Patriots. It was as though New England had simply forgotten how good their tight end could be. At the very least, they had forgotten how to effectively use him.
To his credit, Henry never complained about a reduced role in the passing game. He played in 76% of the offensive snaps in 2022, but was used more as a blocker, a decoy, or simply ignored when on the field. Fortunately, his hard work, positive attitude and reliability was not ignored by all. Prior to this season, Hunter Henry was named as one of the Patriots captains for the 2023.
His new captaincy wasn’t the only thing for Henry to feel positive about. With Bill O’Brien coming in as offensive coordinator, there was an expectation things on offense would run much smoother than they had a year ago. One game is a small sample size, but the season opener certainly gave Hunter Henry fans reasons to believe 2023 would be different.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Hunter Henry was forgotten no more. Mac Jones targeted Henry six time in the game, and the results were impressive. Henry finished with five receptions (all for first downs) for 56 yards and scored his first touchdown of 2023. His 56 receiving yards led all NFL tight ends in Week 1. He played 79% of the offensive snaps, contributing with his blocking as well. Henry was flagged for a holding call, though the call was questionable to say the least. Although New England ultimately fell short against Philadelphia, it certainly wasn’t due to the performance of their tight end.
The New England Patriots would be wise not to let Hunter Henry become a forgotten man in their system ever again. A Pro Bowl season for Henry is a realistic possibility if the Bill O’Brien continues to make him a focal point of the offensive attack. Hopefully the six targets on Sunday are the baseline moving forward. When quality players are enabled to make plays, the only people it is not good for is the other team.