Were you surprised when the New England Patriots signed Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry last week?
So was Henry.
After seeing the Patriots and Smith agree to terms on a four-year, $50 million contract less than an hour into the NFL’s legal tampering period, Henry figured he could cross New England off his list of potential landing spots. He and Smith were the two best tight ends available in free agency, after all. The Patriots weren’t going to sign both of them, right?
The Patriots, who ranked dead last in the NFL in receptions by tight ends in 2019 and 2020, remained very much interested in Henry — a player head coach Bill Belichick has admired since high school. The following morning, news broke that Henry and New England had reached an agreement on a three-year, $37.5 million deal.
The terms of Smith’s and Henry’s contracts differ, but both carry average annual values of $12.5 million — tied for the third-highest in the league at their position behind All-Pros George Kittle ($15 million) and Travis Kelce ($14.3 million).
Speaking Monday in his introductory video conference, Henry said he was “a little surprised” by the Patriots’ decision to add both him and Smith but “honestly really excited” to team up with the former Tennessee Titan.
“I didn’t think this would happen where we would both end up in the same place,” said Henry, who spent his first five pro seasons with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. “We hadn’t even talked about that. I don’t think anybody even thought about that. Obviously, when I saw (Smith) go to the Patriots right out of the gate, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was really happy for him. I just didn’t know if it was going to happen for me, too.
“And then, obviously, we started talking (to the Patriots) again and got it figured out, and I was fired up to join, too. I just feel like we can complement each other in a cool way. Obviously, the Patriots have a lot of success with tight ends, so I’m excited to be able to hopefully add to that.”
The additions of Henry and Smith transform a Patriots tight end room that has lacked game-changers since Rob Gronkowski (temporarily) retired after the 2018 season. Though the Patriots had success pairing Gronkowski with Martellus Bennett in 2016, they have not boasted a tight end duo this formidable since the days of Gronk and Aaron Hernandez in the early 2010s.
Expect New England to deploy far more two-tight end sets this season after largely ignoring those personnel packages in 2020.
“Obviously, the Patriots’ long history of tight ends, obviously I’ve watched it from afar and admired it,” Henry said. “I feel like they kind of put the tight end on the map again. (There are) just so many tight ends in their history that have been so great. Just the rich history of it, how they use the tight ends, how the offense uses the tight ends, it’s really, really exciting. So I’m pumped to get into the system, learn it and just see how I can adapt my game to it and everything that goes with it. With Jonnu — everything. I’m really fired up about it.”
Henry, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound 26-year-old who says he modeled his game after Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez, caught 60 passes for 613 yards with four touchdowns in his final season with the Chargers. He posted a nearly identical 55-652-5 line in 2019 after missing nearly the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL.
Patriots tight ends as a position group have totaled just 55 receptions and three touchdowns over the two seasons since Gronkowski’s departure. Improving that unit was a clear focus for Belichick and his staff, who also have added pieces at receiver, defensive line, edge rusher, linebacker, offensive tackle and interior offensive line as they attempt to rebound from their 7-9 finish in 2020.
“I’m excited for the guys that we got,” Henry said. “It’s going to be a blast to build that connection, to build that camaraderie, to just get out there and work and put the work in. I think that’s a big thing. I trust all the coaches. I trust what we’re building here with the Patriots. A big (part of) my decision of why I wanted to be a Patriot was just the trust of Coach Belichick and what we’re building there, and I’m just fired up to be a part of it.”