- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2019

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith was roundly mocked a few weeks ago for saying Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry would be one of the keys to their Week 15 game. Henry missed the regular season with a torn ACL.

But someone should let Smith know that it might be appropriate to watch out for Henry again.

The Chargers announced earlier this week they would give Henry first-team snaps in practice, and if he’s healthy enough to play in Sunday’s playoff game at the Baltimore Ravens, he would be the most notable difference from the two teams’ Dec. 22 meeting in California.

“I spent a lot of time watching tape on him yesterday just in case he’s gonna be back,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “It takes time. It takes thought. The fact that he might be back (or) he might not be back forces us to spend some time on it. That’s probably something they’re happy about anyway.”

But even though a source told ESPN Monday that Henry is expected to play this week, his return is far from a sure thing. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said in a conference call that the team is “not quite sure where he’s at right now” in his conditioning.

“He hasn’t been on the football field since April. The expectations wouldn’t be real high, to be honest with you,” Lynn said. “But we’ll evaluate him at the end of the week and we’ll see where he’s at.”

Henry’s ACL injury occurred during organized team activities in May and he was ruled out for the year. But he was placed on the physically unable to perform list, not injured reserve, leaving open the possibility that he could return late in the season.

That’s where the Chargers are now. They started allowing Henry to practice on Dec. 17, triggering a 21-day window for his participation that ends Monday. By then, the team must move him either to the active roster or injured reserve.

Henry caught 36 passes for 478 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie in 2016, then 45 for 579 yards and four scores last season.

The Chargers went 12-4 this season and Philip Rivers has been a dark horse in the league MVP conversation, but the Ravens held him to his worst outing of the year in their 22-10 win in Week 16. It was Rivers’ only game without a touchdown, and he posted season lows in yards per attempt (4.89) and passer rating (51.7). So having Henry back could give Rivers more options for the rematch.

“I don’t think (Henry) will dramatically change what we run scheme-wise but it will change the personnel, matchup part of it a little bit,” Harbaugh said. “He’s obviously a proven pass-catching tight end. He’s an all-around tight end.”

But veteran Ravens safety Eric Weddle is not losing sleep over Henry.

“I mean, he’s coming off a knee (injury) so I wouldn’t put much thought into it,” Weddle said. “(Virgil) Green and (Antonio) Gates, they’re all really good tight ends, so they add another good tight end in there and we’ll see what happens. But we’re not really worried if he is or isn’t. He’s another good player.”

Perhaps out of a desire to battle the Chargers at their best, defensive lineman Matthew Judon said he hopes Henry can play.

“Obviously he’s a good player, he got drafted early and unfortunately got injured,” Judon said. “We don’t control their roster. We have no clue or nothing to do with what they do, with their tight end situation. Hopefully he can play.”

In the regular season, the Ravens allowed only 60.3 yards per game and six total touchdowns to opposing tight ends.

The Chargers can turn once again to Gates, a future Hall of Famer, if Henry is unable to play. But as a 38-year-old in his 16th season, Gates is more than a step behind where he once was in his prime. He posted only 28 catches and two touchdowns in the regular season, totals that have not been that low since his rookie year.

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