The Chargers have made heavy use of the tight end in their passing designs over the past decade, with stalwart Antonio Gates breaking the record for touchdowns by a tight end earlier this season. At 37, however, Gates is nearing the end of his career, which made the 2016 second-round selection of Arkansas’ Hunter Henry a logical pick. The rookie tallied 36 catches for 478 yards and eight touchdowns in his first campaign – promising numbers – but Gates remained a strong factor with 53 catches for 548 yards and seven scores. Fans of the Chargers and fantasy football aficionados alike eagerly anticipated Henry taking on a bigger chunk of Gates’ usage and emerging as a top tight end weapon in 2017, but the 250-pounder was quiet early in the season, with two zero-target games in his first five and only 138 yards total. Los Angeles turned to Henry much more in Week 6, and he responded with five catches for 90 yards, including two big grabs on the game-winning drive.
Few offensive minds made better use of the tight end this millennium than Gary Kubiak, who coaxed two Pro Bowl seasons out of Owen Daniels as head coach of the Houston Texans. Kubiak, along with former boss Mike Shanahan and longtime offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, is synonymous with the outside zone running attack. But when teams over pursued the stretch run, he would zap them with a flat pass to the tight end away from the run flow, paired with a quarterback bootleg. This play would frequently lead to an easy completion in space with plenty of room to run after catch. It also served as a constraint play, making future defenders think twice about pursuing the stretch run too aggressively. There are many variations on this theme and different teams will have different terminology for this play, but in my mind I’ve always thought of it as “The Koobs.”
The Chargers twice used The Koobs concept in their victory over the Oakland Raiders to get the ball to Henry in space. The threat of lead running back Melvin Gordon, a good sell by the offensive line, and just enough mobility from 35-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers led to an easy completion to the 22-year-old tight end in space:
On first-and-10, the Chargers line up with trips right, Henry (#86) in tight with Keenan Allen (#13) and Tyrell Williams (#16) close to his right. The two wideouts clear out vertically while Henry initially delays as if to seal off edge man Bruce Irvin (#51) on the backside. The offensive line, Rivers, and Gordon sell a stretch run to the left, forcing the Oakland defense to react. Rivers keeps the ball, however, bootlegging back to the right, while Irvin drops into zone coverage and Henry leaks out to the right flat. Rivers hits him with a quick pass, and the tight end bounces off the tackle attempt of cornerback David Amerson (#29) before picking up a first down.
Bunching from Inline
As you might expect from a former SEC tight end, Henry is no stranger to lining up inside and getting his uniform dirty with some smashmouth football. That willingness to mix things up inline not only factors into the run game; Los Angeles was able to spring Henry free downfield for big gains from an inline position. Head coach Anthony Lynn and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt love using heavy sets and tight receiver splits to create advantageous passing game matchups out of run looks.
Los Angeles lines up in 13 personnel (three tight ends) with Henry just to the outside of Sean McGrath (#84). Lone wide receiver Allen motions left to right just before the snap, creating a bunch with the two tight ends. Allen runs up the seam, drawing the attention of safety Karl Joseph (#42). McGrath and Henry execute a smash concept, with McGrath’s flat route drawing the attention of Amerson and creating a window in the honey hole past the corner. Henry runs a corner route to that window, and Rivers drops in a perfect throw between Amerson and Joseph along the sideline. The 23-yard gain brings the ball into field goal range, and the Chargers won the game a few plays later on the foot of kicker Nick Novak.
At times, the Chargers line up Henry inline and then send him crossing to the other side of the field, creating a different set of headaches for opposing defenses. This paid off with a big play in LA’s victory over the New York Giants in Week 5:
On the Giants’ 25-yard-line, the Chargers come out with a three tight end set, initially with all three to the right before H-back McGrath motions to the left. Henry is the inside man with Gates (#85) to the outside. At the snap, Henry bursts upfield as New York’s defenders drop into a quarters / Cover 4 look. Safety Landon Collins (#21) is closest to Henry, but Henry runs a post away from Collins’s outside leverage and over the top of safety Darian Thompson (#23), who doesn’t anticipate having to react to a threat coming from the other side of the field. Rivers hits Henry with a perfect pass to the corner for the touchdown. The inline position gives Henry a free release at the line of scrimmage and forces Collins to try to pick him up in space, a tough ask.
What We Don’t See
Play action and bunch formations are two ways the Chargers schemed Henry open. When forced to rely on his own devices and get open on his own, he doesn’t fare as well. At this point in his career, Henry lacks refined footwork at the top of his routes, which lets defenders recover and contest passes his way:
Henry lines up in a stack with Gates (#85) on the right side. He runs straight upfield, throttles down, and spins to face Rivers. Middle linebacker Jonathan Casillas (#52) reacts to Henry’s route and anticipates the timing of the play, driving on the pass and getting a hand in to poke the ball away and force a punt. Henry didn’t sell the vertical route well enough, and drifted backwards instead of attacking the ball on the comeback, giving a window for the defender to make a play.
The veteran Gates, at this stage of his career, doesn’t have Henry’s physical gifts, but he has more nuanced skills to help him impact the short game. Gates’s footwork has less wasted motion, he excels at using his body to wall off the defender, and he and Rivers have an almost psychic connection after a decade of playing together. Against the Denver Broncos in Week 1, he gets a catch on a similar play:
Gates lines up in the right slot, close to the tackle box, and angles towards the middle of the field on an option route. He approaches middle linebacker Brandon Marshall (#54) but suddenly stops, turns, and presents a target for Rivers, who fires a pass in. Gates’s body positioning is perfect and Marshall can’t make a play on the ball. The quick completion sets up a 3rd-and-1 near midfield.
There is a lot to like about Henry and plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his future. He’s got the speed, hands, and tracking ability to make plays downfield, giving opposing safeties and defensive coordinators nightmares. And while he may not have the power of Rob Gronkowski or the shiftiness of Jordan Reed, he can make plays with the ball in his hands. But while he has physical tools, he hasn’t quite refined his skill set and this limits him in the short-to-intermediate game. At 22, Henry has plenty of room to grow, and he’s close – just a split-second quicker or a slightly sharper cut and defenders won’t be able to keep up. He’s an appealing option in dynasty leagues, where he stands an excellent chance of becoming one of the league’s’ better tight ends, maybe as early as the end of this season.