Stretching the middle of the field is a crucial component of offensive success, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last week at the spring owners meetings.
“Big people running down the middle of the field — I’ll make no secret about it, I think that’s a key to offensive success,” McCarthy said. “Whether that’s a big receiver or big tight end or a big man running down the middle of the field, making those safeties cover you, it’s an important part of playing in today’s NFL.”
It’s a component the Packers didn’t have last year after Jordy Nelson’s preseason knee injury. Grabbing a tight end with more athleticism than Richard Rodgers in this year’s draft could help rectify that problem.
Front and center in an incredibly weak tight end class is Arkansas’ Hunter Henry.
“He’s the best of maybe the worst group that I can recall as far as an overall position group from top to bottom,” said former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who runs the Senior Bowl and provides analysis on Alabama’s radio broadcasts.
The Packers enter this draft with tight end at or near the top of their priority list. Rodgers caught 58 passes this past season — one of the most productive years by a tight end in franchise history — but is neither an explosive threat in the passing game nor an explosive blocker in the running game.
Is Henry more of a big-play threat in the passing game than Rodgers? Yes. Is he a better blocker than Rodgers? Yes.
But it’s not like the Packers would be getting the next Rob Gronkowski if they were to land Henry with the 27th pick a month from today. While Henry’s the best all-around tight end in this draft, neither Savage, longtime NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas nor three scouts surveyed as part of our draft preparation saw a player who was dominant in any phase.
“Henry has the size that makes him an imposing presence when he challenges a deep secondary,” said Thomas, who is part of the committee that selected Hunter the winner of the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. “He is taller than most tight ends and has impressive explosion and burst to get to the top of the route, but there are major red flags appearing on some draft boards over his blocking issues. He is a much better receiver than any of the other first/second-day tight ends in this draft class, the type that opponents need to game plan, as he is equally effective going over the middle or running up the seam. His has a knack for consistently getting open and making the tough catches.”
At the Scouting Combine, Henry said he has tried to model his game after that of veteran Cowboys star Jason Witten. The comparison isn’t a bad one. While Henry lacks the blazing speed to be that Jermichael Finley-style stretch-the-field threat, he is a tremendous asset in the passing game, nonetheless.
Among the FBS-level tight ends in this year’s draft, Henry ranked second with 51 receptions and easily outdistanced his counterparts with 739 receiving yards. He caught an impressive 68.0 percent of targeted passes and had zero drops, according to STATS. While he won’t be able to outrun safeties in the NFL, he can win in the deep game, as evidenced by these numbers from STATS and RealFootball.com: Henry caught 5-of-10 passes thrown at least 21 yards downfield for 193 yards and one touchdown.
“I had the best year of my career this year,” Henry said at the Combine. “I believe I went against the best every single week in the SEC, played against some elite guys this year and the past three years. There are a lot of guys playing on Sunday that I’ve competed against and I’ve won many reps against. I believe I’m ready for the next jump.”
At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds and with a 4.68-second clocking in the 40 at pro day (he skipped the 40 at the Combine), Henry is too big to be handled by safeties but has enough speed to at least challenge most linebackers.
Where Henry needs to improve is as a blocker. One scout called him merely “OK” in that part of the game, performing better at the second level than at the line of scrimmage. Another said Henry’s got some “fight to him” and believed he had the attitude to become better in that phase.
Playing in Arkansas’ pro-style system under coach Bret Bielema helped build the right mind-set, said Henry, who was a spread-offense receiver in high school.
“As a tight end, I think that’s the most important thing, really,” Henry said. “When you can block good, it’s going to be so much easier in the passing game because they never know what’s going to happen. That really benefitted me a lot, especially these last two years because I really wanted to work on it in the offseason. That opened up a lot of areas in the passing game for me to make plays and different things like that. A linebacker might be keying the running back instead of keying me, and I’m able to free release and get an extra step on him. Really, it’s just that run-first mentality and really putting my head in there in the run game. That’s something that he really preached and helped me to take on when I first got there.”
As the best all-around package in a weak class of tight ends, Henry could find his way into the first round of next month’s draft. With his experience at Arkansas, where he lined up at tight end, receiver and H-back, Henry would be an instant fit in Green Bay’s scheme. And at more than two-tenths of a second faster than Rodgers in the 40, he’d provide some of that stretch-the-field dynamic the offense lacked.
“I believe the tight end is a big part of the NFL,” Henry said when asked if he was worth of being a first-round pick. “I believe I bring something that’s different than a lot of guys would bring. This versatility, I’m going to be able to play every down. That’s something I believe. I’m going to be able to stay on the field consistently. I’m not just a first-down guy. I’m not just a third-down guy. I can play all three downs. It’s a big part of the NFL. That’s why I believe I’m worthy.”
IN THIS SERIES
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.