Counting down the most important Patriots players heading into the 2022 NFL season.
Methodology: taking a concept from veteran NFL reporter Dave Dameshek, the most important Patriots series is like a giant game of Jenga. If we were to pull this player from New England’s lineup, who would cause the tower to fall completely or become unsteady the most?
Most Important Patriots: No. 6, TE Hunter Henry
When the Patriots needed to score through the air in the red zone, tight end Hunter Henry became a go-to target for quarterback Mac Jones in his first season in Foxboro.
Henry, who signed with the Pats as a free agent in the 2021 offseason, was exactly what the doctor ordered for New England at a position that was one of the NFL’s worst following future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski’s departure.
After Gronk’s first retirement and subsequent trade to the Buccaneers, Patriots tight ends ranked dead-last in receptions and receiving yards from 2019 to 2020. Then, Bill Belichick signed Henry and fellow big-ticket free-agent Jonnu Smith to fill the void last spring.
The veteran tight end finished his first season with the Patriots as the league’s tenth-best tight end in Pro Football Focus’s grading system, with a career-high nine touchdowns. According to Football Outsiders, Henry also ranked in the top-five defense-adjusted yards above replacement.
Henry’s nine trips to pay-dirt put him in good company among the NFL’s elite at the position, tying for the league lead with Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, and Buffalo’s Dawson Knox.
Henry quickly became a problem for defenses in the red zone by finding soft spots in zone coverages and running away from out-leveraged defenders against man schemes. His ability to shield the catch point by walling-off defenders with his body, along with Henry’s sure hands, made him a tough cover for defenses down near the goal line.
The Pats’ tight end also added a mismatch weapon for a New England offense that struggled against man coverage before his arrival last season, with 16 catches versus man-to-man last season.
Henry generated 25.8 expected points added on his 74 targets in his first season with the Patriots, making him one of the league’s most valuable tight ends a year ago (fifth among TEs).
New England desperately needed a reliable red-zone threat and another receiver to challenge man coverage, and Henry brings that to the table.