Bill Belichick, Patriots laud Hunter Henry's play as TE returns to face Chargers

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When coach Bill Belichick detailed what tight end Hunter Henry has contributed to the New England Patriots this season, he could have started with the obvious: Catching a touchdown pass in each of the past four games, playing 72% of the offensive snaps, and totaling 24 receptions for 264 yards.

But as is often the case with Belichick, he pointed out something that most probably wouldn't notice.

How about Henry's adjustment as a blocker on the opening kickoff of Sunday's blowout win against the New York Jets? The team was expecting the kick in a different direction, and Henry instinctively flipped his assignment and came a long way across the field to help spring a 31-yard return.

"It's little things like that that Hunter does; they're little things that become big things," Belichick said.

Five plays later, the Patriots (3-4) scored a touchdown and never trailed the rest of the way, producing a decisive result they hope will propel them into Sunday's road game against the Los Angeles Chargers (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

Henry, of course, knows the Chargers (4-2) well after spending the first five years of his career with them from 2016 to 2020. He has been in New England since signing a three-year, $37.5 million free-agent contract in March, but the positive impression he has made on Belichick and his teammates has developed quickly.

"Hunter has been really good in a lot of ways. He's a smart player," Belichick said Monday. "He's helped us in a lot of ways: running game, passing game, kickoff returns. He's a good, smart, tough, dependable player."

Belichick cited another example of Henry's impact, even though it doesn't show up on the stat sheet, when he noted how Henry drew coverage to free up fellow tight end Jonnu Smith for a big gain Sunday.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Henry has struck up a rapport with rookie quarterback Mac Jones, his neighbor and someone who seems to be more and more comfortable looking in his direction in the red zone.

In Sunday's win against the Jets, Henry ran a precise out-and-up route close to the goal line, fought through the contact of safety Ashtyn Davis, and made a juggling, diving catch for a touchdown.

"I think it's just continuing repetition," Henry said. "You can't take it for granted, the practice reps. I was out for some of [training] camp [with a shoulder injury] and even when I was in there, it wasn't with Mac. That trust, that chemistry, has to continue to build.

"Game reps are huge, too. I think he realizes he can trust me, and that I'm going to be in the right spot when he throws it. That's going to continue to build and I'm looking forward to it."

It was the same thing Henry, 26, did last season with Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Now in New England -- and wearing No. 85 part as a tribute to former Chargers teammate Antonio Gates -- he has been one of Jones' biggest boosters, with the two attending owner Robert Kraft's annual preseason cookout for players on Cape Cod.

"He's a great dude, just a real likable guy, a great teammate," Jones said. "He has fun with the game, but also takes it very seriously. It means a lot to him to do it the right way. He's a perfectionist."

In turn, Henry said of the 23-year-old Jones: "You can see the continuous rise of improvement every single week. He's very locked in mentally; that's a big thing. He's been getting beat up, too, getting sacked and taking hits. I'm really proud of him. It's only going to continue to get better."

Henry added that the Patriots' offense has been at its best when the running game complements the pass.

He's been a big part of both -- as a blocker and pass-catcher.

"He just instinctively does the right thing. He does a lot of the subtle things really, really well," Belichick said. "He's a guy that has really stepped up and gives us a lot of production at that position."