Of all of Cam Newton’s playful nicknames from last year, “Dolla Bill” has turned out to be the most prescient and accurate of them all.
Bill Belichick continued his free agent shopping spree Tuesday morning with the Patriots agreeing to terms on a three-year deal with tight end Hunter Henry, a league source confirmed.
The contract, which has a maximum value of $37.5 million with $25 million guaranteed, comes a day after the club locked up the other top tight end on the free agent market, Jonnu Smith, for four years and $50 million.
New England has now agreed to pay $137.5 million in guarantees over the first two days of the legal negotiating period. All of the deals will become official Wednesday when the new league year commences.
Belichick has long admired Henry, whom he first became acquainted with during the player’s time at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, where a Belichick friend, Kevin Kelly, is the coach.
“He had a great career there, went to Arkansas and had a great career at Arkansas,’’ Belichick said in December as the Patriots prepared to play the Chargers. “He went to the Chargers and with [Virgil] Green out, he’s really played the Y role this year and showed good ability to block, catch.
“He runs a variety of routes. He’s come back off the injury and has been a very, very productive player for them, along with all their other good skill players. But he’s done a good job for them in the running game as well as the passing game.’’
Belichick and Hunter had a quick embrace and chat after the Patriots’ 45-0 win in December.
A number of current Patriots saluted the signing with social media posts, including Julian Edelman and Adrian Phillips, who played with Henry in Los Angeles.
“WHAT UP BEAAAASSSSTTTTTT,” Phillips tweeted at Henry.
Henry, 26, played under the franchise tag ($10.6 million) last year in Los Angeles and became a favorite target of Rookie of the Year quarterback Justin Herbert, collecting 60 catches for 613 yards and 4 touchdowns. For his career, the 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pounder has 2,322 yards and 21 TDs in 55 games.
Henry missed the 2018 season with a torn ACL and four games in 2019 when he suffered a tibial plateau fracture in Week 1. He missed the final two games of this past season because of COVID-19 protocols.
The Patriots, who have received minimal production from the tight end spot over the last two seasons, are signaling that the position will once again become one of prominence in their offense.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have long preferred personnel groupings featuring two-tight-end sets and have employed some of the best tandems in recent league history in Daniel Graham-Benjamin Watson and Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez. Injuries prevented a Gronkowski-Martellus Bennett pairing from being a truly terrifying tandem.
Since Gronkowski’s departure following the 2018 season — which culminated in a Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams — New England has struggled to consistently generate production from the tight end spot.
The Patriots double-dipped for tight ends in the third round of last year’s draft, but neither Devin Asiasi nor Dalton Keene was able to find his niche in the offense.
New England’s tight ends totaled just 18 catches for 254 yards and 1 TD in 2020. In addition to Asiasi and Keene, the club has Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse (who opted out of last season with COVID-19 concerns) on the roster.
Though both Henry and Smith are well-rounded tight ends, they complement each other, with Henry more of the traditional in-line blocker and Smith more of a chess piece who can move all throughout New England’s complex schemes.
Because Henry and Smith have shown the ability to contribute in both the run and pass game, the Patriots will be less predictable no matter what package they line up in. And the depth protects them against injury.
Attacking the middle of the field and the flats have long been staples of the Patriots’ offense, and they’ll be able to return to those horizontal philosophies with a pair of experienced pass-catching tight ends plus a trio of receivers with slot experience in Edelman, Kendrick Bourne, and Jakobi Meyers.
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