Making The Case For And Against A Hunter Henry Extension
The Los Angeles Chargers have been saying and doing all the right things so far this offseason. On the surface, they have hired a young, and innovative head coach and staff. A direction that the franchise desperately needed to head towards after being behind the eight ball for years. General Manager Tom Telesco and head coach Brandon Staley have talked openly about the need to upgrade the offensive line as they look to maximize Justin Herbert’s career.
The next step for this new pairing is free agency, and that starts with the decisions they have to make on their own players. Specifically, they’ll have a very important decision on tight end Hunter Henry. They used the franchise tag last season as a sort of “prove it” deal for the very talented, but often injured former Arkansas stand out. Henry rewarded them with arguably his best season as a pro, or at the very least his most consistent. This was the first season of his career in which he avoided the injury bug (I’m not holding him catching covid against him), and he provided Herbert with a very consistent safety valve.
The tag from last season made him the third highest-paid tight end in the league with a cap hit of $10.6 million. Tagging him again would raise his cap hit to $12 million, and remain the third highest in the league – behind George Kittle and Travis Kelce. The Chargers have from February 23rd to March ninth to decide if they want to place him on a franchise tag again this year. They could decide to place him on the tag to ensure that he doesn’t actually hit the open market, because he will have other suitors if given the chance. That approach would allow them to work on an extension and not have to get into a bidding war against other teams. Should they come to terms on an extension, that would then replace the tag.
A long-term extension for Henry should top that of Cleveland’s Austin Hooper, who signed a four-year – $45 million deal to sign with the Browns last March. The question is, should the Chargers agree to that kind of deal, and that’s what I’ll be exploring below.
The Argument Against
Let’s begin with the opposing argument first, shall we? The obvious starting point here is the Chargers’ financial situation. Current estimates project them to have around $30 million in cap space. So while they aren’t exactly desperate for cap space, they do have many other needs to address and could save that money on other players (READ: offensive line help). Telesco and cap magician Ed McGuire have done a fantastic job of keeping the Chargers in a positive financial situation for these exact kinds of situations. They have the space to make it work, the question is if they will fork out $50 million for a tight end.
Deciding who to pay, and when to pay them is arguably the hardest thing about building an NFL roster. Henry is an important piece to Herbert’s puzzle, but is he irreplaceable? Is he more important than going all-in on building an offensive line to protect their franchise quarterback? Those will be important questions for the Chargers to consider. If Telesco believes paying Henry is going to hurt the bottom line, and their ability to A) sign important free agents, and B) afford extensions down the road for players like Derwin James then he simply won’t do it.
The other obvious argument against Henry’s long-term deal is that pesky injury bug. Henry has dealt with several notable injuries, including a lacerated kidney in 2017, a torn ACL in 2018, and a broken tibia in 2019. Who’s to say that the Chargers couldn’t find a cheaper option at tight end, and one with less injury history?
The Chargers would likely explore a few options in order to replace Henry. Tight end is one of the hardest positions for rookies to make an instant impact in the NFL, so taking a short-term flier on a low-cost veteran such as Tyler Kroft or Jacob Hollister could make sense. They would also be wise in this scenario to take a day three flier on a developmental tight end such as Georgia’s Tre McKitty, or Mississippi’s Kenny Yeboah. Both of those players are incredibly athletic and have a lot of upside but they need to sit and learn behind a veteran, which makes them a good fit in this scenario – and frankly in the scenario where Henry is back.
Losing Henry would hurt, but one wildcard in this situation that could potentially sway the Chargers one way or another is Mike Williams. Chargers fans have been very mixed on their opinions of what their favorite team should do with the former first-round pick. It’s clear that while he has provided a ton of great moments and highlight catches, he has not returned anything close to first-round value. However, Henry was targeted 93 times last season. Those vacated targets would obviously have to go somewhere else, and they wouldn’t/shouldn’t all go to the aforementioned low-cost veteran.
Williams was only seven targets behind Henry’s 93, and it stands to reason that the team’s second-best wide receiver would take over a larger role in this scenario. Williams developing into the more well-rounded receiver that we’ve all been hoping for would mitigate the loss of Henry, and this would allow the Chargers to truly test his value to the team, and ultimately explore a possible long-term extension for him.
The Argument For
Now let’s get to the argument FOR extending Henry because this is what I personally would like to see them do. As I said before, this offseason has one theme for the Chargers: maximize Herbert’s rookie contract. This method has been proven to be the quickest and most effective path towards building a contender unless of course, you have Tom Brady taking massive pay cuts every single year. The flexibility offered by the rookie contracts of Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Patrick Mahomes allowed their respective teams to be hyper-aggressive in building up the roster around their young quarterbacks. Taking away a key player who was second on the team in targets and receptions would be counterintuitive to that goal. Even if they had a viable option on the roster to replace him (which they don’t), I would still argue for an extension because of the consistent production Henry brought to the table for Herbert.
Henry’s 93 targets and 60 catches were career highs, and he would have easily eclipsed his career-high of 652 yards had he not tested positive for Covid and missed the last two games of the season. Some could point to Henry’s decrease in yards per reception and argue that he became a less efficient player. There is some truth to that, his yards per reception output decreased a full yard from 2019-2020. But the way the previous coaching staff used him, isn’t really his fault.
Perhaps the most important thing to point out here is that his relationship with Herbert is still a work in progress due to Herbert taking most of his reps with the second-team offense in training camp. Philip Rivers and Henry had years to develop a strong relationship together, and that chemistry together showed on the football field every week. There’s no reason to think that with a full offseason together, Herbert and Henry wouldn’t improve their relationship and chemistry even further.
Another thing that is working in Henry’s favor is the new coaching staff. Had the Chargers hired a coaching staff that would have shifted into a less tight end-centric offense that we are all accustomed to, his future would be a little less certain. But the main pieces of the offensive staff are coming from New Orleans, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, and all of them have experienced offenses that really favor the position. The trio of Joe Lombardi, Shane Day, and Frank Smith have had a ton of success featuring players like Jimmy Graham, Jared Cook (Lombardi and Smith have each worked with him), George Kittle, and Darren Waller.
Oftentimes, the external value of a player’s market can be dependent on the timing in which they become available. In this case, the timing in which Henry is hitting the market is very much in his favor. The draft and free-agent classes at the position both leave a lot to be desired. Florida’s Kyle Pitts is an incredibly gifted playmaker, but limiting him to the tight end label is frankly unfair to him as a player and unfair to the label. He is so much more than just a tight end, so much so to the point that some draft analysts have said he would be the first wide receiver taken in the draft if he wanted to make the full-time shift to playing on the outside.
After Pitts, you really only have two players who could theoretically come in as rookies and take on an immediate role: Miami’s Brevin Jordan and Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth. That’s the end of the list. And that’s the problem, the Chargers cannot afford to spend a second-round pick on a tight end when they need to upgrade the entire offensive line, add a pass rusher, a defensive tackle, and get younger in the secondary.
On the other hand, is the free agent group. After Henry, the only player that has the upside of being a legitimate weapon would be Gerald Everett. But again, that would create more problems because Everett is a miserable blocker. With Henry and a player like Virgil Green on the team, you have two really good blocking tight ends – which is quite beneficial when you have a terrible offensive line. Losing two valuable blocking tight ends should not be something that interests Chargers fans.
The Chargers do not have a choice, they HAVE to extend Henry. The alternative is taking on more developmental projects, which they already have in Donald Parham. If we were talking about a Rivers-led offense, then yes, I think the Charges could stand to lose Henry. However, young quarterbacks NEED stability. They need a reliable safety valve in front of them. The Chargers are already bringing in an entirely different coaching staff, they really can’t afford to let a key piece of his supporting cast leave too. The big three of Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler, and Henry have to remain intact.
Let me know which side you are leaning towards and vote below.