Why the Patriots needed Hunter Henry even after signing Jonnu Smith

Hunter Henry
Hunter Henry signs with the New England Patriots in NFL free agency. Photo from Action.

Bill Belichick is serious about putting more weapons around his quarterback in 2021. Hunter Henry became the latest target for Cam Newton to aim for after the free-agent tight end agreed to a three-year contract with the Pats on Tuesday.

The Patriots still needed Henry even after giving Jonnu Smith $50 million over four years. Henry gives New England’s offense a slightly bigger body at the position and a more prolific receiver. He caught 115 passes for 1265 yards during the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Having Henry and Smith on deck means the Pats can revive the multiple-tight ends sets that have served them so well down the years. Whether it was Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett or Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, the Patriots are the masters of using tight ends to adjust formations and create mismatches all over the field.

The plan usually follows a simple formula. One “move” tight end and one classic, in-line player who is the better blocker. What’s intriguing about Smith and Henry is they each boast cross-over skills suited to both roles.

Consider Belichick’s comments about Henry from last December:

The reference to Henry’s time playing the ‘Y’ role is significant. For the ‘Y,’ consider Rob Gronkowski the ultimate example. He’ll align on the line of scrimmage, be a factor blocking for the run and work the inside passing lanes.

Henry being able to bring his 6,5″, 250-pound frame to bear in the pits will make him an asset in in New England’s power-based running game. Where things will get interesting is how coordinator Josh McDaniels also takes advantage of Henry’s natural flexibility.

He began life with the Chargers as something more akin to a classic H-Back. He’d line up in the backfield, the slot, go in motion, and even split out wide. The latter is something you can expect Smith to do since the 248-pounder has wide receiver-like size and speed.


Defenses are going to have a tough time figuring out what Smith and Henry will do on each play, regardless of where they line up. They will offer coverage matchups Newton will be eager to exploit. Cam will get the ball out a lot quicker during his second season in New England.

That’s how things worked for Tom Brady when the GOAT ran the Pats’ two-tight end offense. It’s what the team missed after Gronkowski briefly retired in 2018 and 2020 draft picks Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi struggled to make an impact as rookies.

There’s no wonder Belichick has happily invested so much in the position.

Henry’s arrival completes a necessary overhaul of what was practically a barren receiving corps. Smith and Henry will work the short and intermediate areas. Former San Francisco 49ers Swiss Army knife Kendrick Bourne will line up in the slot and break loose on a few jet sweeps.

Fellow new arrival Nelson Agholor rounds out the picture as the legitimate deep threat. He’ll punish defenses that clamp down on the underneath stuff.

Newton’s play-action game was already strong, but he’ll have a lot more options the first time he fakes a handoff in the new season.

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