Identifying a stud player as early as the NFL Draft is one of the most rewarding experiences for a fantasy owner. Everyone hears about the top picks such as running back Ezekiel Elliott but searching for players taken outside the first round, having the guts to draft them and then seeing them succeed immediately is awfully gratifying.
That’s exactly how everyone who drafted San Diego Chargers tight end Hunter Henry feels right about now. And anyone who didn’t draft him and still needs help at tight end should add him to the roster immediately.
Any owner who had extensive knowledge of the 2016 draft class knows Henry came into the league last May as the premiere rookie tight end. He caught 51 passes for 739 yards and three touchdowns his junior season at Arkansas on his way to winning the John Mackey award, given to the top tight end in college football. Henry was also a first-team All-American and the clear-cut top choice at tight end in the 2016 NFL Draft.
He had a late first, early second-round grade, so although he didn’t go in the first round, Henry didn’t really drop down the board too badly. The Chargers selected him 35th overall, which was the fourth pick in the second round.
At least for owners in re-draft leagues, San Diego wasn’t exactly the best fit for him. Antonio Gates is a future Hall of Fame tight end and still had a lot of success even at age 35 last year. In 2015, Gates received 85 targets, caught 56 passes for 630 yards, which ranked him third on the team in all three categories. He also had five touchdown receptions, second-most behind Danny Woodhead on the Chargers.
So although Henry was an obvious choice to add in the middle rounds of a dynasty draft, it was unclear how quickly he would be able to make an impact during his rookie season. Turns out, he didn’t have to wait long at all.
Gates suffered a hamstring injury sometime before Week 3 and didn’t play the next two games. With the opportunity, Henry shined with nine catches, 133 yards and a touchdown in those two games. He did have a costly fumble on the final drive against Indianapolis in Week 3, but it didn’t appear to hurt his relationship with quarterback Philip Rivers, who targeted him seven times the following week.
This past Sunday, Gates returned to the field, but Henry remained a factor. He had three receptions on four targets, a career-high 74 yards and another score. On one of the passes he caught over the middle, Henry was so wide open, he scampered down the field for a 59-yard gain.
Now, that type of blown coverage isn’t going to happen every week, but there are reasons to be optimistic about him in all fantasy formats. For one, with Gates back in the lineup, Henry still played 82.4 percent of San Diego’s offensive snaps last Sunday. Gates still isn’t 100 percent, so he was mostly relegated to a red-zone role, but the two tight ends were on the field together quite a bit and both received at least four targets and scored a touchdown.
Gates played only 35.3 percent of the offensive snaps. Once he’s healthy, one has to assume, he will probably play closer to the amount of snaps he played in Weeks 1 and 2, but even still, there should be plenty of meat left on the bone for Henry to make an impact. While completely healthy, Gates played 65.8 percent of the Chargers’ snaps on opening day and then 52.9 percent of the snaps in Week 2.
Especially if they continue to use two-tight end sets, Henry could continue to see the field on about two-thirds of San Diego’s offensive plays. In fact, in Week 2, Henry out-snapped Gates, 39-36, and this was a game the Hall of Famer was supposedly healthy.
There’s also no guarantee Gates will for sure be healthy the rest of the season. He’s dealt with a lot of injury concerns throughout his career, and recovering only gets harder at 36 years old. And even if he is, Henry is an excellent run blocker, so the younger tight end could find himself on the field more than most rookies due to that factor.
How healthy Gates is the rest of 2016 will greatly affect Henry’s value, but the 21-year-old has showcased enough to warrant grabbing him in any standard league with 10 teams or more.
Remember, the Chargers lost tight end Ladarius Green to free agency. He had 37 catches, 429 yards and four touchdowns on 63 targets, so even if Gates is completely healthy, there’s room for Henry to have a rather large role in the Chargers offense.
Moving forward, consider Henry a top-15 tight end with top-10 upside if Gates misses more games. Henry is owned in just 55.3 percent of ESPN leagues.