It’s been a few years since the Patriots have had one effective pass-catching tight end, let alone two. And it’s been almost a whole summer since they’ve deployed their new 1-2 punch.
Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, two of the Patriots’ highest-priced free-agent additions, have yet to be on the field together in game action after Henry suffered a shoulder injury on Aug. 8. Henry missed a week of practice before returning in a red non-contact jersey, and has since shed the red for his real one. When speaking about starting quarterback Mac Jones in a recent Zoom conference, Henry seemed to let it slip that he’s a full go for Week 1.
“Mac’s done a great job. He’s continued to get better every single day,” Henry said. “Becoming a leader, grasping the offense. He’s doing a great job and he’s getting better. And excited to go out there and compete with him this weekend.”
It’s Patriots 101 to just say “I feel good” when asked about health and being ready to play. Henry will learn that in due time. But the tight end’s progress in practice is a strong-enough sign that he’ll make his Patriots debut on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. Henry was not listed on the first official injury report of the season (more on that below).
Smith, meanwhile, has dealt with multiple shorter-term injuries of his own. But he’s been more available than Henry, and thus elevated to the clear No. 1 tight end role to begin the 2021 season. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will likely feel more comfortable deploying Smith in single-tight end sets early on, in roles that may be better suited for Henry, who is more of a traditional in-line tight end.
Smith has credited Henry with helping push him to continually work on getting better, a hallmark of Belichick’s football operation.
“Man, it’s been great, just us feeding off each other’s energy,” Smith said. “Working, pushing each other, on the practice field, in the weight room. Two alpha males, man, just being able to give each other a push. The greatest part of it is that’s my guy, and I’m his guy. We’ve got each other’s back. I’ve got his back. I know he’s got my back. So it’s definitely good to have a guy like that around. His playmaking ability is something that we can definitely bring to the table.
“Part of my game will rub off on him, part of his game will rub off on me and we just help each other get better.”
Fans got a glimpse of what the Patriots may want to do with Henry and Smith in tandem during the preseason, when second-year pro Devin Asiasi took Henry’s place in two-tight end sets. McDaniels will certainly want to throw out of those groupings, but also key to success is to be able to run the ball effectively with Henry and Smith as blockers, both to preserve Jones and to set up play-action. It’s been years since the Patriots could have that kind of versatility and unpredictability with multiple tight ends.
It may take a little while for the team’s top tight end duo to mesh in real games, due to the time missed in camp. But Smith and Henry also represent the single biggest upgrade the Patriots made at any position in the offseason. There’s a chance that, by the end of the 2021 season, they are humming as the engine of the offense.