Fantasy Impact: Hunter Henry Signs with Patriots (2021 Fantasy Football)
After spending seemingly the entire day Monday signing free agents, the New England Patriots have struck again Tuesday morning. This time it’s former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry, who signed a three-year contract worth $37.5 million with $25 million guaranteed.
EXTREMELY TALENTED OR OPPORTUNITY BASED PRODUCTION?
After being franchise tagged in 2020, the Chargers decided it was time to move on from the former second-round pick in 2021, allowing him to hit free agency. Henry’s resume includes three straight 500-plus yard seasons (that he actually played), including at least four touchdowns in every season he’s played. Was his success based on the situation and opportunity, or was it Henry himself?
Every target has a value. A target on the 50-yard line has a lower expected fantasy outcome than a target on the 15-yard line. Every year, I go through the targets each player receives and figure out who scored more or less than what they were expected to, based on where their targets took place. In 2020, Henry finished with 25.3 fewer fantasy points than the average tight end would’ve scored (with an average quarterback), which ranked as the third-worst performance by a tight end, behind only Evan Engram and Zach Ertz. Over the last 10 years, there have been just five tight ends who’ve totaled 93-plus targets and not finished as a top-12 fantasy tight end: Engram, Brandon Pettigrew, Mychal Rivera, Jared Cook, and Henry.
WHERE DOES OPPORTUNITY COME FROM?
In case you missed it, the Patriots signed former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith to a four-year deal worth $50 million, including $31.3 million guaranteed. These are eerily similar contracts, though Smith was clearly the priority at the start of free agency, and he also wound up with a longer commitment. That’s just the start of the problems for projecting Henry for a big role in this offense.
You’re going to hear a lot of people reference the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez days where they both saw at least 80-plus targets in 2011 and 2012, but what they won’t tell you is that Tom Brady was the quarterback and that they threw the ball 611 times in 2011 and 641 times in 2012. The Patriots threw the ball just 436 times last year, which ranked as the second fewest to only the Ravens. They were lacking weapons, so you can understand why they’d dial back the pass attempts, but let’s be clear about something: They’re not going to become a pass-first team with Cam Newton under center. Even prior to having surgery on his throwing arm, Newton has never thrown more than 517 passes in a single season and has topped 495 pass attempts just twice.
Even if we boost the Patriots to 480 pass attempts in 2021 (10 percent increase), then gave the tight ends a 28.5 percent target share (would’ve been the second-highest target share in 2020), that amounts to just 136 targets. And remember, that’s being about as optimistic as possible. The Patriots tight ends have seen just an eight percent target share over the last two years. Even going back to the Gronkowski days, the target share to tight ends was around 25-26 percent most years. Knowing that Smith was the priority signing, it’s unlikely that Henry even gets the majority of those 136 targets in our best-case scenario.
CROWDED ROOM OF PASS CATCHERS
Not only did the Patriots sign Smith and Henry, but they also went out and spent $48.5 million acquiring wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in free agency. The starting wide receiver trio is some combination of Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, and Bourne. They didn’t sign these players to take up spots on the bench. Remember, there are only so many targets to go around, though the fact that they haven’t re-signed James White yet suggests he’ll be gone, which does free up 62 targets from last year. I’m also wondering if they’ll cut Edelman to save $3.5 million against the cap.
We have a room full of pass catchers and not a whole lot of targets to go around. We have two starting-caliber tight ends competing for what appears to be 136 targets, tops. We have a quarterback who threw just eight touchdowns last year through 15 games, and one who’s thrown more than 24 touchdowns just once, so it’s not like touchdowns are likely to bail out a lack of targets. This is likely what could’ve been the worst landing spot for Henry from a fantasy perspective, and he’s going to severely cut into the enthusiasm I had with Smith just yesterday. Let someone else draft Henry this year.
Way-Too-Early 2021 Projection: 56 targets, 36 receptions, 400 yards, 4 touchdowns