In the 2010 NFL draft, the New England Patriots selected two tight ends who some analysts considered first round talents at bargain prices. Rob Gronkowski went in the second round. Aaron Hernandez was chosen in the fourth.
Gronkowski fell in the draft because of his injury history, Hernandez due to character concerns. But for three seasons, the Patriots’ risk paid off handsomely. They combined for 4,619 yards receiving and 57 touchdowns.
The “Boston TE Party” helped New England secure three playoff berths, two AFC Championship Games, and a Super Bowl appearance that might have produced a Lombardi trophy if both tight ends had been healthy. They raised the bar on tight end play and kept the Patriots from missing a beat after the departure of future Hall of Fame wideout Randy Moss.
When they were on the field together, Gronkowski and Hernandez were practically uncoverable. Paired with wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch, they supplied quarterback Tom Brady with the league’s most potent passing attack without a reliable deep threat.
Suddenly, things no longer look so promising. Gronkowski has undergone multiple surgeries, most recently on the troublesome back that interrupted his college playing career. Hernandez has been charged with murder and five weapons violations. The Patriots released him Wednesday.
At 23, Hernandez’s NFL career might be over -- and so might be his life as a free man. The life of 27-year-old semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd is surely over, perhaps by Hernandez’s hand. A media spotlight has been trained on Hernandez’s gang connections and episodically violent past.
Until more facts are known, not much can be said about Hernandez’s alleged crimes. An NFL statement on the matter said simply, “The Patriots have released Aaron Hernandez, who will have his day in court.” The Patriots organization was similarly succinct: “At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do."
The football implications are already apparent. The Patriots will be without some of their best offensive players for some or all of next season. Hernandez is gone. Welker is gone, having signed with Denver. Danny Woodhead is in San Diego. Brandon Lloyd was released. Gronkowski’s health is a question mark. Branch could return, but we saw a steep decline in his physical skills last year.
In their place, the only standout is Danny Amendola. The former St. Louis Rams wide receiver is similar to Welker, but faster, better as an outside receiver, and younger. He has also displayed an early chemistry with Brady. He is not as durable as Welker, however, having missed 20 games in the last two seasons.
After Amendola, there is a steep drop-off. The Patriots assembled a collection of journeyman castoffs and rookies at the wide receiver position during the offseason. Aaron Dobson was the most promising acquisition, a possible outside threat from Randy Moss’ alma mater. But it might be asking too much for him to contribute immediately. Julian Edelman has shown flashes at receiver, but has similar skills to Amendola -- and similar problems staying healthy. At tight end, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, and even Tim Tebow seem more like possible Gronk substitutes than potential Hernandez replacements.
While reading hysterical dispatches about dropped passes filed from the offseason training exercises, your humble servant was confident it was too soon to panic. Amendola was the only projected starter reporters were seeing in action, and by all accounts he was playing beautifully. The return of Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Edelman would fix everything even if none of the other receivers emerge.
Now it may be time to panic. Gronk and Hernandez gave the Patriots the option of playing with multiple tight end and running back formations, utilizing only Amendola as a pure wide receiver if need be. There was always a risk that this revamped offense would attack too small a part of the field even with the two start tight ends. But Hernandez and Gronkowski could theoretically be used as downfield threats, or Amendola could play outside with Hernandez in the slot.
Somehow, this offensive approach looks much less promising if Daniel Fells, Ballard, Hoomanawanui, or Tebow are out there on the field. That means some receivers will likely have to step up, and both Amendola and Edelman will need to avoid injury.
The good news for the Patriots is that Hernandez was the less productive of the two tight ends. He was versatile, lining up all over the offense and putting pressure pre-snap on opposing defenses. But the team played much better with just Gronkowski than just Hernandez.
Brady and Bill Belichick have won with a lesser set of pass-catchers before. Belichick even went 11-5 during the 2008 season without Brady. But it’s a lot to ask of a quarterback who will turn 36 before the season starts.
If Hernandez is a murderer, then the inconveniences he has imposed on his former teammates seem trivial. But they are one part of this story requiring no further deliberation.
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