In this series, the Bolts from the Blue staff will be taking a closer look at each position group on the Chargers. The Review: What they did in 2019. The View: Where they stand as of today, as far as contracts and viability for 2020. And The Preview: What the Chargers could do to upgrade or change the group, if anything.
Now, the tight ends.
The Chargers entered the 2019 season with a pretty enticing option at tight end, albeit one who carried one major question mark in the form of not catching a pass since December 16, 2017. The good news is that they exited the season with a tight end who finished fifth in DYAR per FootballOutsiders and was ninth in DVOA.
Hunter Henry tore his ACL in an offseason, non-contact practice drill in May of 2018 and spent the entire regular season on the PUP list, only returning to face the New England Patriots in the divisional round. He played in 14 snaps and caught 0 of 1 targets. So it’s not as though the Chargers had gotten much of a chance to work him back into games that season and much was still left in the air last offseason.
That was even more true in September when a “tibia plateau fracture” in Henry’s knee caused him to miss weeks 2 through 5.
He immediately answered any questions about his ability to still play at a high level, catching 29 of 38 targets for 388 yards and two touchdowns during his first five games back with LA. The Chargers also went 3-2 in those games, by far their most successful stretch of the season. Unfortunately, Henry’s production and LA’s success both waned in the final seven games:
Henry caught 26 of 38 targets for 264 yards and three touchdowns and the Chargers went 1-6. In the same number of targets, Henry’s yards per target dipped from 10.2 (an elite figure) to 6.95 (a mediocre one). This is not to say that Henry failed the Chargers so much as I think the Chargers failed in many ways last season and Henry was perhaps as much a victim of that as anyone.
There was also not much in the way of competition or complementary pieces at tight end around Henry.
Top Tight End slot rates:— RotoUnderworld (@rotounderworld) January 21, 2020
1. Eric Ebron: 45.8%
2. Jimmy Graham: 36.2%
3. Jared Cook: 35.2%
4. Mike Gesicki: 34.6%
5. Mark Andrews: 34.4%
6. Tyler Eifert: 34.0%
7. Hunter Henry: 33.4%
8. Austin Hooper: 32.5%
9. T.J. Hockenson: 32.4%
10. Irv Smith: 31.5% pic.twitter.com/WsKlXopTjQ
Virgil Green caught nine passes for 78 yards, not catching more than one pass in any game all year. Not even when he had 57 snaps vs the Lions and 54 vs the Broncos. Green was the starter with Henry out and barely registered a moment worthy of his name being called out by the broadcast crew. Veteran Lance Kendricks was also there in the early going, getting 38 snaps vs the Dolphins in Week 4, but he finished with three catches for 50 yards on the year.
But no matter which tight end you’re discussing, the Chargers situation with them is met with uncertainty.
Even with Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon set to be free agents, Hunter must be priority one for Tom Telesco and Anthony Lynn. The Rivers situation is what it is already, Gordon is going to be hitting the dreaded “running back” market and likely go shopping for the best deal he can possibly get, but Henry — as you can see — stands alone as their only piece of value at the tight end position and it would be hard to replace him immediately without using another high draft pick or spending considerable free agent dollars.
And if you’re spending the money, why not on the guy you already know and like?
Kendricks is a free agent also, while Green is a cap casualty candidate. Green has a $3.5 million cap hit but the Chargers would save $2.7 million by letting him go.
Should they need to use it, the Chargers would be looking at a franchise figure of $11 million for Henry, per OvertheCap. That’s not insignificant, though the tight ends currently at the top of the pay spectrum weren’t all necessarily great in 2019: Zach Ertz, Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, and Jordan Reed are the top-5 highest paid tight ends for the 2020 season.
If he’s healthy, the 25-year-old Henry can certainly argue his value over all those guys save Kelce and Ertz. And in those cases, Henry can point out that he’s considerably younger than either. There are not even that many comparable examples to Henry based on age and talent at tight end to have signed contracts recently.
Tyler Higbee signed a four-year, $29 million extension with the LA Rams last year. Higbee caught 69 passes for 734 yards and three touchdowns last season and is now 27. Henry’s advantages include his age and that he’s been a rather dominant red zone threat, catching 14 touchdowns in 38 red zone targets over his career. The Oakland Raiders signed Darren Waller to what seems to be virtually the same deal as Higbee; Waller is also 27 and he caught 90 passes for 1,145 yards.
Knowing Henry’s injury history and that he’s not yet been able to put together that full season that he certainly seems capable of, it seems to track that a deal similar to Higbee and Waller makes sense. However, if LA seems intent on keeping him no matter what, his leverage of an $11 million franchise tag could potentially land him even more because playing one year for $11 million and staying healthy could net him a huge tight end payday in 2021.
Hunter Henry - toe tapping like a dancer pic.twitter.com/ZJKCEV7oE4— Boston Cream (@itsbostoncream) January 16, 2020
If the Chargers risk not franchising him all the way to free agency, then he could test the market and never return. Henry’d likely be very popular on a market with so few capable receiving tight ends. With the exception of the Atlanta Falcons’ Austin Hooper, all other free agent options that LA could pursue would seem deflating compared to just retaining Henry.
Eric Ebron, Tyler Eifert, Charles Clay, Levin Toilolo, Luke Willson, MyCole Pruitt, Jacob Hollister round out some other options.
The 2020 NFL Draft has nothing in the way of an elite tight end you’d consider in round one, while the rest of the class seems similarly underwhelming. Not that the Chargers shouldn’t consider Henry insurance even if they re-sign him. If they end up not re-signing Henry, then there’s a good chance LA just won’t have that high end option in 2020 and will instead go back to focusing their targets on Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Austin Ekeler.
Ultimate preview: Just re-sign Hunter Henry.