Fantasy Reaction: Hunter Henry Signs with the New England Patriots

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Less than 24 hours after the New England Patriots made Jonnu Smith the third highest paid tight end in the league, they decided to lock up probably the other top tight end on the open market, Hunter Henry. I think it’s safe to say New England now has the best tight end committee in the NFL, but how will this move affect the offense and how will it affect Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry‘s 2021 outlook and beyond? Let’s dive in.

A new look offense?

As my good friend and fellow writer Ryan Weisse pointed out in his Jonnu Smith piece, the Patriots’ targets to the tight end position have declined year after year over the last four seasons with the team targeting the position a combined 34 times in 2020… no, that is not a typo. Last year, only the Ravens ran the ball at a higher rate than the New England Patriots with Cam Newton throwing for less than 2,700 yards and just eight touchdowns. Was that due to the lack of receiving options on the Patriots 2020 roster? Or is Cam just declining so much that the team tried to play ball control and establish the heck out of the run?

Given the new weapons and Newton’s second year in the system, we can probably bake in some positive regression back into the passing game, but even if we give Cam let’s say something closer to his career statistical average. Let’s say around 3,200 passing yards and 18 passing TDs, it’s going to be extremely difficult to project consistent and reliable usage for his pass catchers, especially at the TE position.

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Per Warren Sharp, no offense ran 12 personnel (2-TE sets) less than the New England Patriots in 2020. They lined up with two tight ends on the field just 2% of the time, dead last in the NFL. Given the signings of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, I think it’s safe to assume that number is going to skyrocket to a top-five rate with Kenrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor lined up on the perimeter.

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez 2.0?

Ever since losing Gronk after the 2018 season, the Patriots have lacked upside and explosiveness from pass-catching tight ends. Clearly, their moves in free agency would tell us that they’re trying to adjust to this void in the offense. Could they be trying to replicate the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez years of 2010-2012? 2010 was the rookie year for both of these players, and we all know that rookie tight ends take time to develop, so let’s look at the data from 2011 to 2012 for Hernandez and Gronkowski when the two played together.

2011

Games Targets Receptions Yards TDs
Rob Gronkowski 16 124 90 1327 17
Aaron Hernandez 14 113 79 910 7

2012

Games Targets Receptions Yards TDs
Rob Gronkowski 11 79 55 790 11
Aaron Hernandez 10 83 51 483 5

Clearly, the Patriots made an effort to get both of these dynamic pass catchers the ball as a focal point of the offense. I would expect the Pats to try to do the same with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in 2021, but there’s one glaring issue – Cam Newton is not 2011-2012 Tom Brady. As a result, the numbers in the tables above (especially 2011) are probably the 10th percentile of the range of outcomes. In other words, despite the relatively obvious comparison in the tendency to want to run 2TE sets with great pass-catching tight ends, the QB play, and the offensive philosophy is a major question mark for both Jonnu and Hunter Henry. Expecting similar production from these two tight ends similar to that of Gronk and Hernandez in Brady’s hay day is likely fools gold.

Dynasty Value: 2021 and Beyond

For the 2021 season, there is obvious concern that both of these tight ends are likely to eat into each other’s production. The QB play from Cam at this stage of his career combined with the run-heavy approach is clearly going to be a limiting factor for both Henry and Smith. As a result, it’s unlikely one of these tight ends returns top-5 fantasy value, but I do expect both to end up as back-end TE1s for fantasy football in 2021. Predicting which week is a Henry week and which week is a Smith week is likely to be a frustrating process.

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That said, I do believe there should be optimism in the long-term outlook for both of these tight ends, including Hunter Henry. Still just 26 years old, Henry has flashed TD upside, including eight receptions as a rookie back in 2016. If the Patriots can get their long-term QB situation under control and find an accurate passer of the football, Henry has the ability to put up double-digit TD receptions in this system, but in order for that to happen, the tight ends are going to need to be the focal point of the passing attack. If New England lands themselves an alpha WR1 at any point in the next two to three years, Henry could be the type of guy that fantasy managers have always wanted to break out…but never did.

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