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Hunter Henry: Ready to Breakout Again?

It has been said in the past that NFL stands for Not For Long, as well as No Fun League and of course the lesser used National Football League. All three may be true, but the first pretty much sums up the fleeting nature of the game, and the careers of the men who ply their trade in it. But it seems that after missing an entire season, fantasy football players have not forgotten about Hunter Henry as we head into 2019. Henry is currently the TE4 in terms of ADP over at Fanball. He trails only the consensus Big Three, namely Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle.

The rankers at RotoViz are not as sanguine on Henry ahead of the coming year, however. In our redraft rankings, Henry is down at the TE9 spot. There are a host of reasons to explain away the best ball love and our own seeming ambivalent towards Henry. We shall get into some of those reasons here, as we try to forecast what the 2019 season could offer for the winner of the 2015 John Mackey Award.1

Who is Hunter Henry?

It may be helpful to just offer a quick reminder on just what Henry has achieved in the NFL so far after the Chargers spent a second round pick on him back in 2016. Injury has restricted him to just 29 games in his first three seasons. In those contests, he saw 115 targets. Henry converted these looks into 81 receptions for 1057 yards, scoring 12 touchdowns. The yardage is good for the eighth most in a TEs first two seasons since 2010. Only Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and another winner of the Mackey Award in Aaron Hernandez scored more touchdowns in their first two seasons in this span.

Indeed, if we look back at the first two seasons of Henry’s main rivals in best ball compared to his, he stacks up fairly well.

Living with a Legend

Across the 2016-2017 seasons, whilst competing for opportunities alongside future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, Henry was able to flash high-end efficiency whilst not enjoying the huge volume afford to others at the TE spot. Whilst outperforming Gates during this time, the Chargers refused to cast the legend aside. This led to both players averaging 2.8 receptions per game, with Gates chipping in with 28.8 receiving yards per game alongside Henry’s 36.4.

Henry’s overall numbers among TEs, therefore, make for interesting reading.

Targets 115 22nd
Receptions 81 20th
Yards 1057 15th
Touchdowns 12 6th
Yards per Reception 13.1 3rd
PPR Points 259.1 11th

Henry benefitted, as most hopeful fantasy writers will often pray a rookie TE will, by finding a niche as a red-zone weapon early on. He saw the ninth most red-zone targets in the NFL during his first two seasons, with 29.

Only Graham, Kyle Rudolph, and Cameron Brate caught more touchdowns in this area of the field than Henry. Eleven of his 12 career scores have come from 20 yards out or less. Eight have come from inside the ten. Henry’s red-zone touchdown rate of 37.9% was second only to Brate’s 43.3%.2

Opportunity Abounds

Henry, remarkably, was able to return to the field during the 2018 playoffs. He saw 14 snaps in the Chargers loss to the Patriots, though he put up no numbers of note. Back in April, Henry described himself as “pretty much full go“. At the time of writing, Gates is not a part of the Chargers, despite the team hinting back in March that another reunion was still possible. This leaves Henry atop the Chargers TE depth chart, and when you look at the names below him it’s hard to imagine any of them taking the lead job away from him.

Vacated Targets

The Chargers have some targets left over from the 2018 season that Henry could certainly tuck into. According to Rotoworld, the Chargers have lost 110 targets (21.7%) from last seasons roster, as well as 1,130 air yards (28.5%). This second point is quite important. Especially considering that Henry finished No. 2 among all TEs with at least 50 targets in 2017 with 6.5 air yards per target.

So, a previously productive player returning to a team with a sizeable opportunity share waiting for him, what is there not to like? Well, there are some things potentially going against Henry, as you’ll soon see.

Competition Still Exists

There are other players with their eyes firmly on some of the targets vacated by the likes of Tyrell Williams from a year ago still on the Chargers roster. Mike Williams caught 43 of his 66 targets in 2018, finishing with 664 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns. Williams was WR6 in terms of receiving FPOE last season. Williams insane touchdown production should not be counted on as something likely to happen again. Eight players to have scored at least 10 touchdowns on 50 or fewer receptions since 2000. Five scored five times or less the following season.

It also cannot be ignored that the Chargers liked to use their running backs in the passing game last season. Only five teams sent more passes the way of their backs than the Chargers 141 in 2018. No backfield produced more than the Chargers 1050 yards. By contrast, the Chargers were 28th in TE targets and receptions (74 and 48) and 26th and 27th in yards and touchdowns (567 and three).  Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are still around and would be more than happy to gobble up some extra targets.

Oh, You’re Back, Are You?

There is also the fact that the Chargers offensively have never exactly looked like they desperately needed to have Henry in during his entire NFL career. If you look at the splits comparing games in which he has played to games that he has not, they really are quite revealing.

The Chargers attempt fewer passes but amass more yards per attempt without Henry than with, not to mention scoring more points per drive. I’m not suggesting he has hurt the Chargers by his presence. But it is safe to assume that they may not suddenly make him a focal point of their offense now he’s back in the fold.

2019 Outlook

The Numbers May Not Be There

There is little doubt that Hunter Henry has enjoyed, for the most part, a successful start to his NFL career. He also finds himself on the threshold of a contract season. One in which he will hope to secure a long term payday either with the Chargers or some other team. But the numbers suggest that he will not see a huge amount of volume to drive up his production in this audition year.

But that’s okay.

Efficiency over Volume

As we’ve already seen, Henry has never gotten by on volume in his NFL career. He saw 11% of the Chargers targets in 2017. Thanks to his averaging 2.05 fantasy points per target, he finished as the TE7 in fantasy points per game. Granted, due to his injuries that season, this was only good for a TE14 finish. But if he’s healthy, he’s shown us enough to suggest that he can produce consistent fantasy numbers. Even without commanding a Kelce like target share.

Without scoring a touchdown a week, he may struggle to command a place at the very top of the fantasy TE pool, let alone challenge the Big Three. But his 2017 performance (10.6 fantasy points per game) would have been good for a place inside the top eight last season. I believe his total value lies somewhere between his present best ball ADP and our rankings here at RotoViz. He could be this year’s Eric Ebron. Or he could be this year’s Hunter Henry. It will be fun to see which.

Image Credit: Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Hunter Henry.

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  1. This award is given to the outstanding tight end in college football. Past winners include Dallas Clark, Tyler Eifert and the 2018 winner T.J. Hockenson.  (back)
  2. Among the 15 TEs with at least 20 red-zone targets between 2016-2017.  (back)

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