After the recent news that tight end Rob Gronkowski will reportedly start the preseason on the physically unable to perform list, Wednesday’s release of Aaron Hernandez and subsequent murder charge put an end to what had been an incredibly potent tight end duo for New England.
There’s a lot of questions now that former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is no longer here in New England. (USA Today Images)
The fact the Patriots released him was a necessary move, and the team responded to his arrest Wednesday morning with a statement that expressed their sympathies to the family of Odin Lloyd and felt that parting ways with Hernandez “is simply the right thing to do.” What happened transcends football, and it will be up to the legal system to figure out what the future holds for the now-former Patriots tight end.
From a football standpoint, it’s disappointing considering the promise and potential he’s shown since being drafted with Gronkowski back in 2010. Obviously we know the team is in transition at the wide receiver position and the hope had seemed to be centered around the fact they had both Gronkowski and Hernandez to build from. Both players were extended last season with long-term deals and they’ve both been explosive in this offense.
If Gronkowski isn’t ready in time for the start of the regular season, with Hernandez now permanently out of the mix Tom Brady now finds himself facing the task of trying to break in an entirely new group of players in the passing game to start the year.
Offensively the tough part about losing Hernandez is the fact he was such a versatile and explosive player and he had another productive year last season despite only appearing in 10 games. As we know he was moved around quite a bit and was targeted frequently on short passing routes, with 32 of his 51 receptions last season having come between 1-10 yards.
On short throws to the right side he and Wes Welker were the ones who dominated Brady’s attention attacking that side of the field. Overall Brady completed 106 passes to that area, with Welker catching 33 passes for 315 yards, while Hernandez had 22 for 196 yards. That accounts for 52% of those completions by Brady and when you factor in the next closest player, who was Brandon Lloyd with 14 grabs and 144 yards, followed by Danny Woodhead (10 catches for 146 yards), that percentage rises even higher to 75%. That’s a significant amount of production that will need to be replaced this season.
Hernandez was also the team’s third leading receiver in receptions last season on third down with 12 catches for 126 yards, along with 10 first downs including a touchdown.
Inside the red zone he also finished the year with four touchdowns, 3rd best on the team.
That’s a tough player to replace, especially in an offense that has so many moving parts and relies so heavily on knowing how to adjust to what the defense is giving them. There’s no substitute for experience and his loss is definitely going to present yet another challenge for a group that now has only Julian Edelman left as someone who fits that description in the passing game.
The move to pick up Jake Ballard by Bill Belichick last season now looms large as he’s now their #2 tight end, with guys like Zach Sudfeld, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui also suddenly finding themselves having moved up the depth chart.
Fortunately given Hernandez’s injury history they’ve dealt with having him missing from the offense in the past. After today’s events they’ll simply now move forward toward next month’s training camp dealing with yet another challenge for Brady and the offense heading into the upcoming season.