Hunter Henry Beginning To Break Out For Patriots; Can Jonnu Smith Follow?

Henry was the Patriots' top receiver in Sunday's win


Oct 13, 2021

Mac Jones completed five passes over the New England Patriots’ final two drives Sunday — drives that produced a game-tying touchdown and a game-winning field goal in a victory over the Houston Texans.

Three of them went to No. 85.

After a quiet start to the season, tight end Hunter Henry is beginning to emerge as one of Jones’ go-to targets in key situations. Over the last three games, only No. 1 receiver Jakobi Meyers has more catches and targets than Henry, who’s caught 15 of 19 balls thrown his way during that span.

Henry was especially impactful during New England’s come-from-behind win in Houston. Just one of his team-high six receptions did not result in either a first down or a touchdown. Two of his catches — including his 13-yard touchdown grab — came on third-and-6, extending a pair of vital fourth-quarter possessions.

The high-priced free agent addition also caught a touchdown the previous week in a narrow loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Through five games, he’s the only Patriots player with multiple touchdown receptions.

“You’re always trying to build that chemistry, and that comes with repetitions and playing together,” tight ends coach Nick Caley said Wednesday of the burgeoning Jones-Henry connection, which was delayed by a shoulder injury that wiped out Henry’s preseason. “He’s done a good job of getting extra work in, and all of our guys really have.

“I think you’re starting to see those things show up. You see it on Sunday, but really those things show up during the week and that really is what gives players, coaches and staff confidence to do things on game day.”

This is the type of production (six catches, 75 yards, one touchdown) the Patriots were expecting when they signed Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million contract in March. The question now is whether running mate Jonnu Smith, who also signed for $12.5 million AAV, can start delivering at a similar clip.

Since his ghastly performance against the New Orleans Saints in Week 3 (six targets, one catch, 4 yards, multiple drops), Smith has been a relative afterthought in New England’s passing game. He caught his first touchdown pass of the season against Tampa and hauled in a 23-yard gain off play-action against Houston, but he’s totaled just six catches for 45 yards over the last three games while lacking the elite run-after-catch ability he showed during his four seasons with Tennessee.

“I’m confident in Jonnu,” Caley said. “We’re confident in Jonnu. He works hard. All those guys do. He’s getting extra balls on his own. He’s always been like that. We continue to drill that. That’s a point of emphasis for all skill groups here — contested catches, catch drills, catch skills — all those things are important. It’s just a matter of continuing to work on those — getting repetitions at it and, when the opportunity comes on Sundays, taking advantage of it and executing it.”

Lately, most of those opportunities have gone to Henry. Each tight end played 40 offensive snaps against the Texans, but Smith was used as a blocker on 33 of his, according to Pro Football Focus. He ran just six routes to Henry’s 22.

Henry also saw larger pass-game workloads against the Bucs (31 routes to Smith’s 17) and Saints (39 routes to Smith’s 15). As Matt Dolloff of 98.5 The Sports Hub noted, he’s been the Patriots’ preferred tight end in three-receiver sets, which they’ve used more frequently than expected this season.

“Whether it’s the run game or any other facet, you saw he had a (5-yard carry) this week, it’s (about) making yards with the ball in his hands,” Caley said of Smith. “He can do that. We have a lot of confidence in him. He works really hard. He’s tough. He’s tough to tackle. Puts a lot of work in. It’s just about playing the next play and continuing to work on execution.”

Smith’s next chance will come Sunday against Dallas. The Cowboys have allowed the eighth-most receiving yards to tight ends this season.

Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images
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