Henry could be rare first-round TE talent

Ryan Wood
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INDIANAPOLIS – Hunter Henry knows the history. Better than you do. Six years ago, he remembers, the best tight end in college football entered the draft after a stellar season at Arkansas. His future was promising.

Then D.J. Williams washed out of the league in four years.

Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry runs the ball after catching a pass during a game against the UT Martin Skyhawks at Razorback Stadium.

Williams was an imperfect pro prospect. Too short, standing just 6-foot-2. Not enough athleticism. The Green Bay Packers drafted him in the fifth round, and it looked like they might’ve uncovered a bargain.

They didn’t. Williams, the 2010 John Mackey Award winner, was released midway through his rookie deal. He failed to resurrect his career in Jacksonville, New England and Tampa Bay.

Naturally, the flashbacks are strong entering the 2016 draft. Once again, college football’s best tight end comes from Arkansas. Once again, he’s a Mackey Award winner. Guilty by association? Hunter Henry disagrees.

“That was a long time ago,” Henry said. “D.J. was a great player. I’m not going to take that away from him. He was a tremendous, tremendous player, but I think I provide something a little bit different.”

Beside the Mackey award, the similarities between Henry and Williams are few. Both tight ends enjoy a good “woo pig sooie” hog call. That’s about it.

The contrast starts with Henry’s height. He measured 6-foot-4 7/8 and 250 pounds at the NFL scouting combine, three inches taller than Williams. Henry is a big receiving target, a threat down the field and in the red zone.

Henry’s college career also prepared him better for the NFL. The biggest difference between the two tight ends is scheme. Williams played his entire four-year career in former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s pass-happy spread offense. His 152 career catches, 1,855 and 10 touchdowns could be attributed as a byproduct to Petrino’s system.

Henry caught 51 passes for 739 yards and three touchdowns last fall, arguably better numbers than Williams had during his Mackey award-winning season. His production came in Arkansas coach Brett Bielema’s pro-style system, which features the running game above all else.

Henry said playing in Bielama’s offense better prepared him for the NFL. He was a dinosaur in modern college football. Quickly, Henry’s breed of tight end is going extinct. He can catch passes like a wide receiver, but also line up next to an offensive tackle and block.

“Coach (Bielema) has produced a lot of tight ends,” Henry said. “I feel like I’ve been in a system that really has helped me and will help me translate to the next level because I know coach B’s background. He has guys in the league still. I’ve trusted his process the whole time. I feel like I’m ready.

“The college game is turning into a spread-offense game, sadly. We were one of the few offenses that were a run-first, pass-second, almost balanced offense. True pro style, I would say. It was a big opportunity for me.”

So Henry’s best pro comparison isn’t Williams, regardless of their accomplishments and school colors. Henry more closely resembles Owen Daniels or Lance Kendricks, tight ends who benefited from Bielema’s system at Wisconsin.

He may have more talent than either. While he didn’t run the 40-yard dash with other tight ends at the NFL scouting combine Saturday, Henry reportedly has the potential to crack 4.6 seconds. That kind of speed could solidify his place in the first round.

“I’m going to bring a dual-threat tight end that’s going to put his head in there in the run game,” Henry said. “I’m going to block. I did that in college consistently. And I’m going to create a mismatch in the passing game.”

The Packers need a tight end who can present mismatches in the passing game. Richard Rodgers is a fine possession target, a big-bodied tight end who can produce in the red zone. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said the Packers starting tight end is an ideal fit for Green Bay’s cold winters.

Richard Rodgers has soft hands to go with his 6-foot-4 height.

But for all of Richard Rodgers’ strengths, giving opposing defensive coordinators fits isn’t one of them. His 8.8 yards per catch last season highlighted his inability to make plays downfield. That lack of big-play production can’t be repeated.

Henry played wide receiver in a spread offense at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark. He was a big target, weighing 230 pounds his senior year. He knew his future was at tight end. Henry was the nation’s top recruit at that position before signing with the Razorbacks.

It’s never ideal for a team to spend their first draft pick on a tight end, but Henry might be a rare exception. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said Henry is the type of tight end who can enter the league and have “a heck of a rookie season” for any team. Eventually, Kiper said, Henry has the potential to develop into a Pro Bowler. In his mock draft before the combine, Kiper had the Packers taking Henry with the 27th overall selection.

“Hunter Henry, I think, is a first-round pick,” Kiper said before the combine. “I watched him when he was coming out of high school, and I saw him throughout his college career become a great, great pass-catching tight end. He can do enough for you blocking. He’s got a great attitude. He’s a smart football player. Good things happen with Henry.

“I thought Green Bay would be an ideal fit. Just a tremendous pass-catching tight end who can do more than just be a flex guy.”

Ask Henry who’s his best comparison, and he reaches for a future Hall of Famer.

“Jason Witten,” Henry said.

Thirteen years into his career, the Dallas Cowboys tight end has been to 10 Pro Bowls. Witten is one of two tight ends to catch more than 1,000 passes in a career, joining Tony Gonzalez.

Henry said he has tried to model his game after Witten, the gold standard for long-term NFL success. Kiper said he thinks any Witten comparison is a stretch, but he doesn’t doubt Henry's potential.

As a prospect, Henry is undoubtedly rare. Top tight end prospects don’t come around too often, at least not anymore. The Packers have missed their share under general manager Ted Thompson. In the same draft that produced Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, Thompson drafted Andrew Quarless. A year later, Julius Thomas was taken one round before Thompson drafted Williams.

So, no, tight end isn’t an ideal first-round position. But has the time come? If he’s available late in the first round, should the Packers pick Henry? He certainly believes so.

“I believe the tight end is a big part of the NFL,” Henry said. “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.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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