When New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick goes through his weekly process of talking up his team’s upcoming opponent to the media, he rarely references a player’s high school days.
But Belichick has had his eyes on Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry for a very long time.
“Henry continues to be a complete and very good football player for them,” Belichick said. “Henry’s really been a great player, watched him pretty much his whole career. He started at Pulaski Academy down in Little Rock, Ark., played for coach (Kevin) Kelley down there, had a great career there, went to Arkansas. Had a great career at Arkansas, went to the Chargers and with (Virgil) Green out, he’s really played the Y role this year. And he’s shown good ability to block, catch, runs a variety of routes. He’s come back off of the injury and been a very productive player for them.”
Henry was a free agent this offseason but the Chargers elected to use their franchise tag to retain him. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent again next offseason unless Los Angeles decides to franchise him again.
Belichick has a relationship with Kelley, who is known for his creativity. Kelley avoids punting and prefers to kick onside. Former Patriots wide receiver Will Hastings and offensive lineman Jason King both played under Kelley at Pulaski Academy.
“Coach Kelley’s probably the top high school coach in the country. He’s certainly been one of the top coaches in Arkansas high school football history. Followed him, he’s a little unconventional but he’s had great success and he’s had a lot of players come through there. We’ve had a couple other ones here. Henry’s probably one of the best ones. I have great respect for Coach Kelley and the program he runs and some of the creative things that he does. Watching him and following Hunter there. …
“Just saw him in Coach Kelley’s system, and they’ve had tremendous production there.”
Henry, who’s 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, has 48 catches for 502 yards with three touchdowns this season. He has 184 catches for 2,211 yards with 20 touchdowns in four NFL seasons.
Henry missed the entire 2018 regular season with a torn ACL but returned for the Chargers’ divisional-round loss to the Patriots in the postseason. He also missed two games with a lacerated kidney in 2017 and four games with a broken leg last season. He has two catches for 11 yards in two career games against New England.
Henry was selected by the Chargers 35th overall out of Arkansas in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. The Patriots’ 2016 first-round pick was forfeited as a result of Deflategate. It’s entirely possible that, without that scandal, Henry would have wound up in New England.
The Patriots are set to have plenty of cap space to sign Henry if he hits the open market this upcoming winter.