The Patriots made another splash in free agency by signing tight end Hunter Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million deal, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Henry will join free-agent addition Jonnu Smith in New England’s tight end room, harkening back to the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez duo the Patriots had from 2010-2012.
In fact, it was Gronkowski and Hernandez’s successful years together that convinced New England’s new tandem that the Pats could build an offense around both tight ends.
With Smith as a versatile move tight end that’s excellent after the catch, Henry is more of a traditional “Y” tight end that wins with excellent route-running technique and box-out ability.
Let’s take a peek at Henry’s film over the last two seasons to see what he brings to the Patriots:
Henry’s ability to process coverage during his routes and win with body positioning allows him to create space for himself at the top of his routes.
Here, Henry moves the chains on third down with a stick route or curl. As he heads upfield, he sees the deep safety over the top hedging an out-breaking route and the linebacker inside of him to run the seam. Henry angles his stem outside to get the linebacker underneath to widen towards the sideline, then gets into the defenders’ space (step on the toes) and cuts underneath to make it an easier throw for Justin Herbert.
In this play, Henry beats Vikings safety Harrison Smith downfield for a big-gainer. Once Henry clears the linebacker level, he sees Smith rotating into a post-safety alignment. Instead of simply breaking on the post, Henry angles and takes a jab step to sell a corner route, which gets Smith to react and open his hips towards the corner. With Smith’s hips pointed in the wrong direction, Henry breaks on the post and hauls in the catch.
The new Pats tight end also brings his route-running ability to the red zone, with 21 career touchdowns in his four healthy seasons.
Along with running routes as an in-line tight end and out of the slot, the Chargers would align Henry at “X” receiver on the backside of the formation to get a one-on-one matchup.
In the play above, Henry runs a very savvy slant route to beat the defender. First, Henry uses a basketball-like crossover move at the line (stretch release), getting the defender to put his weight on his outside foot, which opens the inside path upfield. Then, Henry gets physical, running into the defender to overpower the Raiders’ DB and get him off-balance before snapping off the slant for a touchdown.
Here’s another example of Henry making life easier on his quarterback by knowing how to attack the coverage. Henry is matched in man coverage with a deep safety once again sitting on a corner route. Instead of curling behind the defender, Henry breaks off his post route underneath the coverage. There’s nobody in the middle of the field with the two split-safeties to help the inside leveraged defender, and it’s six.
Hunter Henry combines an excellent blend of size, speed and quickness, route-running technique, and in-line blocking ability to produce an immediate starter at “Y” tight end.
Next, we’ll go over a few ways that the Patriots could use Henry alongside Jonnu Smith by examining how the Patriots schemed for Gronk and Hernadez back in the day.
As we mentioned earlier, the Patriots sold Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith on joining forces by reminding them how productive Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were in their offense.
Let’s take a trip in the way back film machine to see how the Pats will use Henry and Smith.
The famous play call with Gronk and Hernandez that has evolved over the years to fit New England’s personnel is HOSS Y Juke, which started as a route combination out of 12 personnel.
Since the Pats haven’t had a tight end with Hernandez’s separation quickness at the top of routes, it became HOSS Z Juke with Julian Edelman on the juke series.
Now, both Henry and Smith have the athleticism and technique to torture defenses on the juke series while the other runs the seam to stretch the defense between the numbers.
Here’s the play in action with Gronk and Hernandez. On the left side of the formation, Gronk’s seam route and the outside receiver’s vertical release allow Hernandez to break off the inside leveraged linebacker for an easy completion.
Another way the Patriots loved to use Gronk and Hernandez was out of “nub” formations where the two tight ends were the furthest receivers out to one side of the formation.
The Patriots get a long touchdown to Hernandez by running both tight ends on vertical routes in this play. The defense is in cover-two, meaning there’s only one safety over the top on that side of the field. The deep safety can only stay over the top of one of the vertical routes and picks Gronk’s seam route, which leaves Hernandez wide-open down the right sideline for six.
Here’s another Patriots staple called high-low crossers that New England ran out of a nub set. This time, Gronk and Hernandez cross the field at different levels of the defense. Gronk’s route pulls the defenders upfield, giving Hernandez space to operate on the shallow crosser, and he gets loose in the open field for some major YAC. Henry in Gronk’s place with Smith on the shallow cross? Hell yes.
Lastly, we could also see the Patriots line up Jonnu Smith in the backfield as they did with Hernandez and have him run routes against linebackers from that alignment. Gronk’s vertical release clears out the flat for Hernandez’s route, and it’s an easy six yards on first down.
The Pats have experience running their offense through two tight ends, and with their potent rushing attack and massive offensive line, the pieces complement each other perfectly.
We are talking all kinds of play-action schemes, seams, crossers at different levels, Smith and Henry all over the formation, and more; Josh McDaniels will have some fun.
BIG QUARTERBACK TRADE INCOMING?
The last piece to New England’s rebuild is addressing a long-term answer at the quarterback position. After filling several holes in free agency, that became much easier for Belichick.
And I don’t think the Patriots are done adding at non-quarterback positions with a running back and maybe another defensive player (Kyle Van Noy?) as potential targets.
With their available cap space tied up in free-agent additions to improve other areas of the roster, it feels like the Patriots will use their draft capital to make a move at quarterback.
Although the team is bringing back Cam Newton, I wouldn’t rule out a trade for a veteran quarterback (Jimmy G?), but my preference would be a trade-up in the draft.
The Pats are following the Chiefs, Bills, or Rams’ blueprints of building out the rest of the roster so that a young quarterback can succeed with a good offensive line and veteran skill players.
New England is building a bully on offense that will run the ball and make life easier on the quarterback with two big targets in the middle of the field, which will be music to a rookies’ ears.