Hunter Henry contract limits long-term risk for injury-prone tight end
The Patriots made a stunning double-dip at tight end on Tuesday, following up their day-1, hour-1 signing of Jonnu Smith with a top-of-the-market contract for former Chargers TE Hunter Henry. From 10,000 feet, the deal is for three years, $37.5 million, and $25 million guaranteed – the second-most ever given to a tight end other than … Jonnu Smith.
But once you dive into the details of the Henry deal, it’s clear that the risk is only short-term in nature for the talented but oft-injured tight end. So if you were to pick a 2021 free-agent signing that carries the highest immediate risk, it’s Henry.
Essentially, it’s a two-year deal for $25 million between the Patriots and Henry, and then we’ll see. He will make all of his guarantees in the first two years, in the form of a $15 million signing bonus and salaries of $1 million in 2021 and $9 million in 2022. Here’s the full three-year breakdown, thanks to ESPN’s Mike Reiss:
2021: $1 million salary (guaranteed), $875,000 in per game roster bonuses ($58,823.53 per game), $6.875 million cap hit, up to $16.875 million cash
2022: $9 million salary (guaranteed), $1 million in per game roster bonuses, $15 million cap hit, up to $10 million cash
2023: $9.5 million salary, $1 million in per-game roster bonuses, $15.5 million cap hit, up to $10.5 million cash
Note that Henry played only 14 games in 2020, so only 14 of his per-game roster bonuses are categorized as “likely to be earned” in 2021. Which is another small indication of Henry’s struggles with various injuries over the course of his career so far.
Some of Henry’s injuries could be described as the “freak” variety. But they have piled up.
— 2016: Concussion in Week 7, misses Week 9 with knee injury
— 2017: Kidney laceration in Week 15 ends season
— 2018: Missed entire season with torn ACL suffered in OTAs
— 2019: Missed four games with tibial plateau fracture in left leg
— 2020: Missed final two games on COVID-19 list
So technically, Henry hasn’t suffered a physical injury since September 2019. But the next time he plays a full season will be the first.
It’s worth noting, however, that the Chargers’ medical staff has been the subject of heavy scrutiny and criticism, spanning multiple staffers from before and during Henry’s career. Most recently, team doctor David Gazzaniga accidentally punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung while administering a pain-killing injection. Henry publicly supported the Chargers’ team doctors after the incident, saying: “I still have faith in our medical staff. Obviously this is an unfortunate event. It’s not good. I know none of us think it’s good at all. But we’re going to continue to move forward and I do have faith in them.”
Back to the contract. Thanks to the expertise of Miguel Benzan, we know that the Patriots could easily get out from under the deal after two years. In 2023, they’d be able to cut or trade him, either before or after June 1, and save $10.5 million in both real dollars and cap dollars. They could also trade Henry in 2022 with a post-June 1 designation, and save $10 million against the cap while Henry’s new team pays the rest of his $9 million guaranteed.
Ideally, Henry finally avoids a freak injury and stays on the field for the Patriots – especially in year 1. That’s where all the risk is. If the 2021 Patriots offense is going to run through Smith and Henry, that will only increase the volume of hits the tight end will take over the middle of the field.
But the Patriots will get most of their financial commitment to Henry out of the way in the first year of the contract. After that, they’ll have ways to protect themselves if necessary. It was wise to mitigate the long-term risks for a tight end who has had durability issues.
Keep your fingers crossed that Henry is available throughout 2021.
There are still plenty of notable free agents out there. Scroll down for our list of names to know.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at email@example.com.