Hunter Henry has been the Patriots’ best red zone threat since Rob Gronkowski

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Since Rob Gronkowski entered retirement and then engineered a trade away from the New England Patriots, the team could not seem to find a replacement, not just at the tight end position but also in the red zone. The Patriots were sorely lacking a reliable target in the passing game in that short area of the field. New England had done their best to create solutions, but none of them stuck — until tight end Hunter Henry.

The Patriots have had plenty of powerful runners, from Sony Michel to Damien Harris and even quarterback Cam Newton, who could all run in for touchdowns. But as far as pass-catchers, they haven’t seen much in the way of red-zone production.

Henry, who was actually the second player at the position (after Jonnu Smith) the Patriots signed in free agency for a big contract this offseason, has been absolutely brilliant in the red area. He’s been the player rookie quarterback Mac Jones has needed to generate scores in the passing game.

“My job is to get it to the person that’s supposed to get the ball, and Hunter does a great job getting open and he has a really good feel for red-zone offense and running routes and blocking and finding his little spot in the zone or in the end zone,” Jones said after the Patriots’ 45-7 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Henry has seven touchdowns in his 10 games as a Patriot, with two touchdowns in the team’s win. His 31 catches and 343 yards have been solid. But his ability to get open and score in the red area is, by far, his most important contribution with his new team, which scored just 12 passing touchdowns in 2020. As players like receiver Jakobi Meyers know well, it’s mighty difficult to get open in the red area.

“I remember when I first seen Hunter run routes,” said Meyers, who scored the first receiving touchdown of his career after setting a record for most catches without a score. “I think we were in California (during an offseason workout), and we were just playing routes. I kinda knew he was going to be something special. His ability to get open — I need to take some pointers from him. The way he do it so consistently — he’s got really soft hands and crispy routes.”

Henry scored in two totally different ways on Sunday. His first touchdown was an impressive display of power, with the tight end simply blasting into the man in coverage and creating separation out of his break, based on that contact. He had two steps of space between him and the defender when Jones targeted the tight end for a touchdown. The next score was a display of finesse, with the tight end beating his defender with fancy footwork off the line of scrimmage. The Patriots’ formation set up Henry to get an isolated matchup and he capitalized. All Jones had to do was wait until Henry got open.

“There’s a lot of work that’s put in throughout the week,” Henry said when asked about his unique connection with Jones in the red area, “and I think that’s continuing to grow as the season progresses, so there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. All that stuff is kind of paying off.”

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