Phil Perry

The Mac Report: Hunter Henry looking like the No. 1 for Patriots

Mac Jones appears to have a clear favorite target early in training camp.

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FOXBORO -- When Mac Jones surveyed the field during the first 7-on-7 snap of Friday's practice, he was aggressive. He was looking for a down-the-field shot. But it wasn't one of his twitchy wideouts that he had in his sights. It was tight end Hunter Henry.

The 6-foot-5, 258-pounder sprinted down the seam, leaped, twisted toward his back shoulder, and held onto the pass as he crashed to the ground with safety Adrian Phillips all over him. Touchdown. It was the best pitch-and-catch of the day, and it should have been no surprise that it was Henry who made it.

Jones and Henry have a built-in chemistry from working together for three years that has made itself clear over the last three days of Patriots training camp. Henry has more catches from Jones in competitive 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills than any other Patriots pass-catcher, having reeled in seven of 10 targets. Those 10 targets represent about one quarter of Jones' competitive tosses (24 percent) to this point in camp.

While Jones and his other top pass-catchers have had a hard time finding their rhythm this week, the synergy between Jones and Henry is plain to see.

"Hunter's awesome," Jones said earlier this week. "I think that's another player who's played a lot of snaps, and he just has a really good feel for the game. He's an instinctual player, and he brings the same 'him' every day. I know that's kind of weird to say, but he's just Hunter. He comes in, positive energy, he doesn't complain about anything, he just works."

Of course, the Patriots would like to see similar productivity from their top-four receivers and recent free-agent tight end acquisition Mike Gesicki. Yet Tyquan Thornton, Kendrick Bourne and Gesicki have combined for zero catches -- on 41 passes from Jones -- in competitive periods through three days.

Jones stated earlier this week that the word for this camp, as far as he was concerned, is "trust." And now with Jakobi Meyers -- Jones' favorite target the last two seasons -- in Las Vegas, Henry looks like the clear-cut most trusted option in the huddle with Jones.

You didn't have to witness Jones and Henry chatting at length between series on the fields behind Gillette Stadium the last few days to understand why. Even in last year's dysfunctional setup offensively, in games started by Jones, Henry produced a 121.2 rating when targeted -- good for seventh-best among tight ends last season.

Before camp began, Henry told reporters just how excited he was to work with Jones for another season.

"Me and Mac are close," Henry said. "We spend a good amount of time together. We’ve been throwing, getting after it, just trying to get ready to go. I think everyone’s excited for a fresh start and a fresh season. Everybody will be fired up and be ready to go."

Ready to go? Through three practices, it's apparent the Jones-Henry tandem showed up to camp very well prepared.

Here's more for The Mac Report from Day 3...

Little Alabama flavor

Jones' long touchdown throw to Henry in 7-on-7s is worthy of a closer look because it felt indicative of some crossover between the Alabama offense Bill O'Brien ran under Nick Saban and the Patriots offense O'Brien ran when he was last in town. On the play, it looked like a route combination to Henry’s side that might’ve resembled "Bear" down in Tuscaloosa, which O'Brien liked out of empty formations against SEC defenses. 

At Alabama, "Bear" meant a hitch from one pass-catcher on the outside. A "chop" route inside, like a seam route that fades wide. There would also be a "stick" route from an even tighter alignment, breaking outside quickly.

If that combination sounds familiar to you, it should. It's not all that dissimilar to "HOSS," which has been a Patriots staple for years: hitches outside, seams inside. Tomato, tomahto. You'll remember that was the concept that helped the Patriots win Super Bowl LIII

Henry’s touchdown was just one quick play in 7-on-7s on a blazing-hot Friday in late July. But it felt like another example as to why O'Brien appears to be a perfect fit for New England right now.

He brings with him not only a mastery of the Alabama offense Jones ran several years ago, but also concepts that have been Patriots go-tos for a long time -- concepts that would certainly be familiar to Jones, Henry and anyone else in Josh McDaniels’ offense in 2021.

With O'Brien and Jones at the controls, it seems like they'll have a shared understanding of a bevy of calls they can lean on during the summer and into the regular season.

Number crunching

In 7-on-7 work, Jones ended up going 3-for-5. He had one pass that fell to the turf as a result of a defensive pass interference penalty on Jonathan Jones (little tug on DeVante Parker's jersey in a jump-ball situation). Another that was targeted to Tyquan Thornton was batted away by Christian Gonzalez.

In 11-on-11 periods, Jones went 5-for-10. The same caveats that have applied to the offensive output through three days apply again here. They worked strictly in the red zone this week, meaning space was condensed and throwing windows were tight. Also, because the pads are still in cobwebs, the defense has been able to anticipate passes being thrown throughout the last three days. 

Tough spot for the offense. 

But that's likely part of the draw of running so many red-zone plays at this point in camp. They have to be better in that area than they were last season. Why not make it hard? See what players can handle. Come back to it again when the intensity and physicality get ratcheted up with padded work, and see how it goes. Part of the process. 

Despite all the tight-window throws -- and despite a number of pass-breakups for the defense -- Jones didn't throw a pick on Friday. After two days with interceptions hauled in by Kyle Dugger, Jones seemed to do a better job of putting the football in places where either his teammate would get it or no one would. 

Not being an error-repeater

As we noted on Thursday, Jones made two throws across his body and into traffic. One was batted away by Gonzalez. The next was picked by Dugger. Well, Jones tried another cross-body throw on Friday. But on this one he seemed to be more under control as he rolled to his right.

He was patient. He waited for Parker to work back in the opposite direction across the back end line. Once Parker found open space, Jones pulled the trigger. Touchdown. And on third down, no less. Good adjustment made by the Year 3 passer on Day 3.

Quote of note

Jones and the Patriots offense might pick up a little more steam if they could get their vapor-trail-producing second-year wideout on the board with a catch. 

While Thornton has been quiet in team periods, he said Friday he wasn't bothered by his early-camp output. That may be due in part to the fact that condensed-area red-zone work isn't all that conducive to big-time production from a player who's top trait is his long speed.

"I’m out there getting good reps in," Thornton said, per Karen Guregian of MassLive. "I’m definitely out there getting better. I mean, there’s not much targets, but we’re not counting stats. That’s not what the count is about. We’re all out here trying to get better as a unit.”

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