NFL players pass the torch to their successors every season. Sometimes it’s because of retirement or due to a contract situation. Other times it’s simply because one player is more talented than the other. This series intends to take a look at the NFL and identify those situations ahead of time. Some of these situations are obvious, some are not so obvious, and some are currently underway. It’s important as a dynasty player to keep an eye on the future and anticipate when the torch is going to be passed to the next generation of players.
Antonio Gates passing the tight end torch to Hunter Henry is one torch passing that is already underway. Based on May ADP, Hunter Henry is being drafted 50th overall as the 4th tight end in dynasty startups. Meanwhile, Antonio Gates hangs around until approximately pick 210.
It appears Antonio Gates will return in 2017 to tie a bow on his Hall of Fame career. After the 2016 season, Gates’ 14th, he has career totals of 897 receptions, 11,192 yards, and 111 touchdowns. Those 111 touchdowns tied Tony Gonzalez’s record for the most in NFL history by a tight end. With one more touchdown catch, Gates will sit alone atop the leaderboard for tight ends and in sole possession of 6th overall.
We know Gates is returning in search of that one touchdown reception, but it’s impossible to know what happens after he’s secured the record.
The Chargers selected Hunter Henry in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. He was easily the best tight end in that shockingly weak class. In fact, over the past decade, only Patriots’ tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez put together better rookie seasons than Hunter Henry’s 2016 campaign.
Wisely, Henry has been eager to learn from Gates since day one. Gates took notice and hasn’t been shy about his praise for Hunter Henry. Gates has said that Henry is special, already a complete tight end, and has all of the necessary intangibles. Not without the mandatory backhanded compliment, of course. Gates told Henry that he would have been drafted in the first round instead of the second had they met before the draft.
Gates saw action 14 of 16 games in 2016. He caught 53 passes for 548 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Henry had just 36 catches for 478 yards but scored eight touchdowns. His eight touchdowns tied Cameron Brate for the most among NFL tight ends and were second among all rookies behind Michael Thomas’ nine.
We got a small glimpse of what Henry looks like without Gates on the field early in his rookie season. In Weeks 3 and 4, versus the Colts and Saints respectively, Henry totaled 12 targets, nine receptions, 133 yards and one score.
What Could Help the Transition
Gates played 415 passing down snaps and received 93 targets with 23 of those coming in the red zone. Henry had 53 targets on 254 passing down snaps. Seventeen of Henry’s targets were red zone targets.
When you break it down into percentages, only six tight ends across the league topped Henry’s 25% of his team’s red zone targets. Henry was only bested by Jason Witten, Tyler Eifert, Delanie Walker, Jimmy Graham, Charles Clay, and Antonio Gates. Only three tight ends had a higher percentage of their team’s receiving touchdowns than Henry’s 32%. They were Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, and Zach Miller. When you narrow that down to the percentage of red zone receiving touchdowns, only Jordan Reed and Zach Miller top Henry’s 47%. All of this to say that targeting the tight end in the red zone is both a big part of the Chargers’ game plan and something that Philip Rivers excels at.
What Could Hinder the Transition
Nearly one-third of Henry’s 2016 targets (17 of 53) came in the red zone. Nearly one-third of his catches (11 of 36) were in the red zone. All eight of his touchdowns came on those 11 red zone targets. Five of his eight touchdowns came from the slot, usually with Gates on the other side of the formation. Even with more snaps and opportunity, it’s unlikely that Henry can sustain this pace. Touchdowns are not a sticky statistic and typically are hard to predict from year to year. If Henry is unable to increase his target share, do you want to depend on his 8 touchdowns per 53 target pace?
Henry is undoubtedly a mismatch for anyone trying to cover him out of the slot. There’s no reason that the Chargers can’t continue to scheme it that way if they choose to. However, Henry is already such a good blocker that they may be forced to move him in-line once Gates retires. In fact, Henry could assume a more in-line role in 2017 so that Gates can the matchups. It remains to be seen how new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt will deploy Henry.
Along with a possible new scheme, Keenan Allen returns from injury in 2017. The Chargers’ WR1 didn’t even make it to halftime of the team’s Week 1 game in 2016. They also return Tyrell Williams who had a breakout season in 2016 in the absence of Keenan Allen. The team also drafted wide receiver Mike Williams 7th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Williams is an excellent red zone weapon in his own right. There may be more opportunity at the tight end position for Henry, but there aren’t enough footballs to go around.
How quickly Hunter Henry transitioned from college to NFL tight end cannot be ignored. What he accomplished normally takes time, but he has already earned Rivers’ trust. There is a scenario where Henry takes the torch from Gates and continues his ascent up the tight end ranks, but it’s also possible that Henry’s rookie season was a result of everything falling perfectly into place. One thing is for sure: Antonio Gates is passing the torch to Hunter Henry in San Diego.