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Why the LA Chargers should have re-signed Hunter Henry in hindsight

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 15: Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers is congratulated by his teammate Hunter Henry #86 after scoring a rushing touchdown against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 15: Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers is congratulated by his teammate Hunter Henry #86 after scoring a rushing touchdown against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
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Three months ago the New England Patriots signed tight end Hunter Henry to a three-year, $37.4 million contract. To counter that, the LA Chargers signed Jared Cook to a one-year, $4.5 million contract and drafted Tre’ McKitty in the third round.

Some time has passed since these moves and there have been plenty of other moves to coincide. It was water under the bridge for most fans, including myself. However, the more time that passed and the more I thought about it the more I was upset that the Chargers didn’t simply bring back Henry.

Weird timing, I know, but as we enter training camp and seeing what the Chargers did after not re-signing Henry I cannot help but feel like they short-changed the same player they took in the second round just five years ago.

Most fans have moved on and have completely flipped their opinion on Henry. Before he signed with the Patriots over 80% of fans wanted to see him brought back, according to a Guilty As Charged Twitter poll. However, now it is an absurd thing to say that the team should have brought him back, which is exactly what I did on Twitter (it did not solicit a great response).

It is easier to break down my thoughts when I am not limited to 280 characters, so I wanted to utilize this avenue to explain my line of thinking.

Why the LA Chargers should have re-signed Hunter Henry:

The thing that really got me thinking about this was the fact that the LA Chargers have just under $20 million in cap space still remaining. Granted, the team still needs to sign first-round pick Rashawn Slater but Slater’s cap hit, based on his peers, will only be around $3.5 million.

They have more than enough money to take on a Henry contract on top of what they already have as it stands right now. When Henry was not signed I assumed the Chargers would do the right thing and butt right up to that salary cap; take advantage of the blessing that is having your quarterback on a rookie contract.

Nope. Unless the team spends in free agency in the near future, the Chargers will roll over that cap space to next season. That is fine on paper, but the problem there is that any contract they sign next offseason will directly impact and overlap with when they need to pay Justin Herbert. Henry, on a three-year deal, would not have impacted Herbert at all. 

Then I dove into Hunter Henry’s contract. Pop quiz: how big of a cap hit does Henry have this season? If you said anything other than $6.8 million you are wrong. Henry is only counting for $6.8 million on the books, only $2.3 million more than Jared Cook.

The Cook component is another important piece to explain my stance. On the surface level, Cook is not that far behind Henry in terms of production and it makes sense to get 90% of the production for cheaper and then transition to a young tight end.

I have two problems with this. First is Cook himself. Cook is going to be 35 this season. My best friend is a New Orleans Saints fan, so I watched a lot of the Saints last season. Cook was not as good as his numbers suggested. He had some big games that skewed the numbers. He is getting old. Age and being a vertical tight end threat do not mesh well.

There have only been five tight ends in NFL history to post 600 receiving yards at the age of 35 or older. Tony Gonzalez did it three times, Antonio Gates once, Shannon Sharpe once, Pete Retzlaff once and Ben Watson once.

Gonzalez, Gates and Sharpe are all Hall of Famers. Cook is not. Retzlaff accomplished the feat in 1966 before the AFL even merged. I’m crossing that one off. That gives us Ben Watson as the lone example, doing so in one random breakout season with the New Orleans Saints, the team Cook is coming from. It was literally the best year of Watson’s career. An anomaly.

It is not crazy to think that Cook may have also had the best years of his career with the Saints already when he made two Pro Bowls.

I also am not a huge fan of McKitty. I obviously want him to succeed and hope I am wrong but I was not blown away by his tape and think his ceiling in the league is a blocking-specialist TE2 that can be a red-zone threat. I do not think he is going to be the pass-catching TE1 that is so prominent in this league.

I know it is unpopular to not be overly optimistic about every single player the LA Chargers sign or draft but I cannot be disingenuous.

At least with Hunter Henry, you are getting a known commodity that is on his way up. He is much younger than Cook and is only getting better. If he did not get placed on the reserve/covid-19 list for the final two weeks of the season, at his pace, he would have set a career-high in receiving yards.

Let’s circle back to Hunter Henry’s contract. It is safe to assume that the Chargers could have signed a similar contract structure considering that’s literally what he accepted from New England. They would have spent $2.3 million more on Henry. With their current cap situation, they obviously could have afforded this and more. It would not have kept them from getting Corey Linsley or anyone else.

What about future years? Henry has a $15 million cap hit in 2022. That is big, to be fair, but the Chargers can afford it. Mike Williams is making $15 million this season and the two contracts would essentially swap next year. Linval Joseph and Chris Harris alone will free up an additional $23.1 million.

The only somewhat significant player the LA Chargers have to re-sign next offseason is Uchenna Nwosu and his value is not that high. The Chargers are set financially. They could have afforded Henry.

Then, if Henry disappointed there is an out in the third year where the Chargers take a minimal $5 million dead cap hit. I doubt they would have needed it, but if so, they could have cut ties then. The team could have also drafted a tight end higher in the draft next year to learn for a year under Henry, just like Henry did with Gates.

They could not draft a tight end any higher than they did this year with the needs on the team. Next year, with not many free agents leaving, they could have justified it and perhaps gotten a better all-around prospect than McKitty.

And again, even if he played out the entire contract he would not have intersected with Justin Herbert’s extension at all.

Finally, I just want to address the injury-prone narrative. Henry is not as injury-prone as people think. Yes, there is history there, but it really was just one bad injury (ACL in 2018) that clouds everyone’s judgment. He would have played all 16 this year if it were not for covid-19.

He stilled played 12 games or more (75%) in four of his five seasons with the LA Chargers. He had one ACL injury and tibia injury essentially back-to-back that resulted in him missing 20 out of 21 games. Outside of that stretch, he has played over 90% of the games he could have played.

And while fans want their players to play full seasons every year that just is not very common in the NFL. Only 12 tight ends have played 12 or more games in each of the last five seasons. Seven of those 12 are TE1s like Henry. Overall, there have only been 12 true TE1s to play 12 or more games in four of the last five years. Henry is one of those 12.

Overall, it does not matter what I think as the LA Chargers made their decision and went the direction they wanted to go at the tight end position.

Next. Post-OTAs 53-man roster prediction

But after seeing the team pay an old, regressed cornerback $11 million per season, with Justin Herbert on his rookie deal, I would have liked to see the LA Chargers take care of Hunter Henry.

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