It’s difficult to quantify the loss of Hunter Henry, the Chargers tight end who tore a right-knee ligament while running a simple out route Tuesday and will undergo surgery that will sideline him for the 2018 season.
Henry, a second-round pick out of Arkansas in 2016, established himself as one of the NFL’s emerging tight ends in his first two seasons, proficient in both receiving and blocking. He has shown a knack for making big plays and a work ethic and personality that made him a favorite among teammates, coaches and club officials.
“I’m not gonna minimize it — he’s a Pro Bowl talent with Pro Bowl intangibles,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said Wednesday. “But as bad as we feel about losing him, and as bad as the fans feel about it, Hunter feels worse.
“He knows he was going to be a big part of this team, and he feels like he let us down. I told him, ‘Look, you did not let this football team down. You went out there and practiced the way you always do, and these things happen.’”
Henry, 23, tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the team’s first organized practice on a route he has run hundreds of times.
“He caught the ball, cut up field and finished the route 40 yards downfield at about 50% speed,” Telesco said. “He jogged back and felt like something grabbed at him. It’s not typical to see ACL injuries like that, but they happen in all different ways. It was a very routine, non-contact play.”
The only positive thing about the injury is its timing. The Chargers have 3½ months before the Sept. 9 season opener against Kansas City to fill the void.
“We’ll look at all of our options out there,” Telesco said.
Telesco seemed noncommittal when asked if one of those options is veteran tight end Antonio Gates, whom the Chargers essentially cut ties with in April.
“I said all options,” Telesco said, “so we’ll look at all of them.”
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Gates, who turns 38 in June, caught 927 passes for 11,508 yards and 114 touchdowns in 15 seasons with the Chargers, setting an NFL record for scoring receptions by a tight end.
He had 30 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns in a reduced role last season, but remained sure-handed in the red zone and in short-yardage situations.
With Henry missing the final two games because of a lacerated kidney, Gates closed with two strong games, catching six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown against the New York Jets and four passes for 46 yards against Oakland.
Among the other potential free-agent targets are Julius Thomas (formerly of the Dolphins), Coby Fleener (Saints), Crockett Gillmore (Ravens), Marcedes Lewis (Jaguars), Zach Miller (Bears) and Clay Harbor (Saints).
The Chargers signed Virgil Green to a three-year, $8.6-million contract in March, but the former Broncos tight end is more of a blocking specialist who has not caught more than 22 passes in any of his seven seasons.
Tight ends Braedon Bowman, Sean Culkin, Cole Hunt and Ben Johnson are on the 90-man roster, but not one has caught a pass in the NFL.
“We have some young players that we think have a chance to develop,” Telesco said. “We’ll see if some of these guys can ascend.”
The Chargers also have a deep and talented core of receivers led by Keenan Allen, Tyrone Williams and Mike Williams, and running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are pass-catching threats, so they could de-emphasize the tight end in an offense led by veteran quarterback Philip Rivers.
“It’s gonna be harder without Hunter, but let me be clear, we will adapt and move on,” Telesco said. “[Coach] Anthony Lynn and [offensive coordinator] Ken Whisenhunt are both very smart, adaptable coaches. It may be a different way than we mapped out originally, but we’ll find a way.”
The 6-foot-5, 253-pound Henry caught 36 passes for 478 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 games in 2016 and 45 passes for 579 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games in 2017.
Though he seemed to disappear from the game plan at times, Henry had several huge games, catching seven passes for 80 yards against Miami on Sept. 17, five passes for 90 yards against Oakland on Oct. 15 and seven passes for 81 yards against Cleveland on Dec. 3. The Chargers went 7-1 when Henry was targeted at least five times and 0-6 when he was not.
Henry seemed destined for a more prominent role when the Chargers announced they would not re-sign Gates in April, but the earliest Henry can assume that role now is 2019. He will spend most of the next year rehabilitating his knee.
“You have to get over that mental hurdle, especially with an injury that knocks you out for the year,” Telesco said. “It takes time for that, but he’s pretty strong mentally, and we’re here to support him.”