Hunter Henry has been an integral part of the Chargers offense from the moment he burst onto the scene in 2016.
A second-round pick that year out of Arkansas, he led the team with eight touchdown catches. That mark also tied for most in the NFL by a tight end and tied for second in the NFL among all rookies. In addition, he hauled in 36 passes for 478 yards.
Henry's role continued to grow last season as he started 13 of the 14 games he played. The 6-5, 250-pounder caught 45 passes for 579 yards and four touchdowns.
Now, the 23-year old enters 2018 the lead dog at the tight end position as the team announced Antonio Gates would not return for the coming season.
It's a role Henry was destined for as football is part of his DNA.
Yet as he embarks on it, Henry knows he wouldn't be in this position if not for number 85. He and Gates bonded instantaneously, and their relationship grew tighter over the past 24 months.
"I spent two years with Gates, and he's like a big brother to me," Henry said. "When I came in, it can be an intimidating thing when you come into that situation – a Hall of Famer, first ballot, and one of the greatest tight ends of all time. So, it can be intimidating, but he took me under his wing and taught me everything he could these past two years. It's been incredible. He's still a great friend of mine. I talk to him (and) was with him a couple of weekends ago. It's been really cool to be able to play with him these past two years."
So what exactly did Gates teach him?
"There are so many minor-detail things – route-running-wise, footwork, setting up guys. The mental side of the game, too. It was just hearing how we would talk about getting ready for games and preparing, thinking, setting things up for later in the game. …There are so many different things, but the route-running and the mental side of the game was big."
While grateful for Gates' mentorship, Henry makes it clear he's ready to take yet another leap forward, including emerging as a leader in the locker room.
"Definitely, I'm ready to step up," he said. "I'm ready to go. I feel like I have to step up and be the leader. I've been in this offense for two years, too. We have Virgil (Green), and he's going on his eighth year, he has years on me for sure. But I take the burden of trying to be the leader.
Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has seen it all in his 31 years in the NFL, which is why his comments on Henry speak volumes.
Simply put, there is no need to worry about his contributions on or off the field.
"I think (leadership is) important, and I think he has that," Whisenhunt said. "He definitely has the respect because of how he's played. And it's not always easy to step into that role of being maybe a little more vocal and talking to guys. But when you carry as much respect as a young player as Hunter does because he was productive, that's a big part of that team concept and being part of that. So yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing him do (more) of that."
Glance through Hunter Henry's top photos from 2017 as he returns to the active roster ahead of the divisional round of the 2019 playoffs.