Analysis

How Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith could help Cam Newton stay the Patriots’ starter

Henry and Smith both excel in the middle of the field -- an area in which Newton thrives.

Hunter Henry Patriots
Hunter Henry. Steven Senne/AP
Recent Links

Cam Newton needed a completion to close out a tough 7-on-7 segment during a Patriots minicamp in which he’d struggled to find the touch on his deep ball.

As he scanned the field, he saw Hunter Henry breaking open late on a drag route against a linebacker and hit the tight end with a perfectly placed strike to end the drill.

The completion, albeit in a minicamp setting without pads or a pass rush, highlighted a growing chemistry between Newton and one of his newest weapons. 

The presumptive starter targeted Henry seven times in “competitive” minicamp segments last week, tying with running back James White for the highest number on the team. More than that, some of Newton’s most accurate and confident throws came when Henry was the target, including a 20-yard dart on a corner route in the rain last Monday.

Advertisement:

Of course, the addition of Henry and fellow tight end Jonnu Smith, who was limited in minicamp because of a hamstring injury, will certainly help whoever plays quarterback for the Patriots this season. That obviously includes rookie first-round pick Mac Jones, who is expected to make a strong push for the job in training camp.

Just as Tom Brady made a living later in his career throwing to tight ends nearer to the line of scrimmage, Jones should also stand to benefit from them when his time comes to start.

On top of that, the return of the Patriots’ famed two-tight end system should cause headaches for opposing defenses regardless of who’s behind center.

Advertisement:

But if there’s one thing you can count on with Bill Belichick, it’s that he knows the strengths, weaknesses, and histories of his players inside and out.

So you can be assured that he knows how well Newton has fared when he’s had pass-catching tight ends at his disposal and that the quarterback’s swiftly developing rapport with Henry is exactly what the coach had in mind.

Their skills fit right within Newton’s wheelhouse.

Henry and Smith ranked among the NFL’s best when it came to catching passes in short (0-9 yards) and intermediate areas (11-19 yards) of the field according to Pro Football Focus, with each posting elite grades (90 or higher) at those levels.

Advertisement:

Both tight ends also did most of their damage in the middle of the field.

Forty-four of Henry’s 60 receptions last year came between the numbers, accounting for 475 of his 613 receiving yards. He especially excelled in the “short” middle of the field, with quarterbacks posting a passer rating of 109.6 when targeting him there.

Likewise, Smith caught 26 of his 41 catches (and 300 of his 448 yards) between the numbers and earned even higher passer rating marks when targeted in the short (128.8 rating) and intermediate areas (90.3 rating) there.

Having two tight ends that excel in the middle of the field — and one in Smith that can threaten defenses down the field more so than Henry does — is one thing Newton didn’t have last season that he typically did have during his best stretches as a pro.

Advertisement:

That matters because Newton does some of his best work as a passer in the middle of the field.

Even during his dismal 2020, he completed nearly 75 percent of his throws from 0-19 yards between the numbers — better than his showings toward either sideline in that range. At his best, such as in his MVP season, he’s also thrown the ball well in the deep middle of the field as well. He flashed that potential on his deep touchdown pass to Damiere Byrd against Houston last year.

Though Newton’s best football may be behind him, having Henry and Smith to throw to could prolong his time as a starter this year assuming the Patriots are winning and he’s not hurt or turning the ball over.

Advertisement:

But Henry and Smith could stand to gain from working with Newton as well should he win the starting job in training camp.

Take recently retired tight end Greg Olsen as an example.

Before joining Newton’s Panthers in 2011, Olsen languished somewhat in a stolid Bears offense, with 2009 (60 catches for 612 yards) marking his best season.

He then topped 800 yards in five of his next six seasons with Carolina, including three-straight 1,000-yard seasons and Pro Bowl appearances from 2014-16. Newton especially leaned on Olsen as former Panthers standout receiver Steve Smith’s time in Carolina wound down.

To be fair, neither Henry and Smith quite have Olsen’s raw speed and route-running ability. Plus, there’s only one football to go around, meaning it’s not as likely either of them reaches 1,000 yards individually.

Advertisement:

Still, Newton’s love of finding his tight ends, combined with the Patriots’ lack of a true No. 1 receiver on the outside, could lead to good years for all three players.

Of course, it’s too early to know exactly how both tight ends will be used until the season begins. But it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Henry racks up big yards between the 20s while Smith shines as a red-zone threat — another thing Newton didn’t have in 2020.

And again, even if Newton isn’t long for the quarterback position, the rookie Jones should make good use of Henry and Smith himself as he navigates the challenges of running an offense in his first season.

Advertisement:

But in a year with a lot at stake for the one-time MVP — his NFL future might even be on the line — look for the Patriots’ new tight ends to become a favorite target of Newton’s as long as he’s behind center.

Jump To Comments

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com