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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

First Sound: Patriots cut Aaron Hernandez

(Our sympathies are with the family of Odin Lloyd, but please remember we're here to talk about the footballing ramifications of Hernandez being released, not the morality of Hernandez's accused actions or the Patriots decision to cut him before formal charges were laid down or before he has a trial)

The average NFL career is just over 3 years. For a 4th round pick it's even less. To get 175 receptions, 2,053 total yards and 18 touchdowns in the first 3 years from a 4th round tight end is an excellent return for a small investment.

For it to end in release after that tight end was taken away in handcuffs during a murder investigation, less than a year after signing him to a 5 year, $40 million extension is terrible.

After Aaron Hernandez's arrest today, the Patriots released Hernandez, putting them on the hook for all of his $12.5million signing bonus, a $5m cap hit this season, a $7.5m hit in 2014 and possibly more actual dollars in guaranteed salary.

In terms of on the field impact, the loss of Aaron Hernandez is huge. It's not so much his personal production as quoted above, but the way the Patriots have built the offense and overall roster for this season.

Since establishing himself with the team Hernandez has been the ultimate chess piece in the NFL, his blend of agility, size and speed allowed the Patriots to use him much in the same way the Vikings had used Percy Harvin. Lining him up as a wide receiver, slot receiver, true tight end and even a running back, and from all those positions they would give Hernandez the ball (He has 18 career rushing attempts including post-season). The way the opposing defense tried to account for Hernandez would determine if Tom Brady would audible to a run or pass, where his first read was and much more. And when combined with Rob Gronkowski's all-round game it was an almost un-defendable combination.

With the success the two tight ends had wide receiver became a less important position, so much so that this season the Patriots were content to open mini-camps with the newly acquired and oft-injured Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Donald Jones, none of whom have had more than 700 receiving yards in a single season, as the most recognisable names on the depth chart.

But with Hernandez's release and Gronkowski's off-season back issues this looks more and more like a terrible decision. Maybe Gronkowski will be healthy by week 1, but how will he operate without the other part of the "Gronknandez" tandem? And how do the Patriots replace their lost chess piece?

Last season they claimed tight end Jake Ballard from waivers and stashed him away while he recovered from a knee injury. A lot of people have pointed to Ballard as the obvious replacement, and to a certain extend they are right. He may well see the majority of snaps of all those who "replace" Hernandez, but his strengths are not close to being the same as Hernandez's. He can't play in space like Hernandez, doesn't have that explosive burst or the versatility. One other possibility is using running back Shane Vereen more. Vereen lined up as a "wide receiver" 41 times in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus (though only twice was he in the slot, both times in week 4 vs NYJ), with good results. Can he be used there consistently? Maybe, but Vereen's main role was thought to be as a Danny Woodehead replacement, taking shotgun runs and quick outs, not being an Aaron Hernandez replacement.

Some have been shouting Tebow's name from the rafters, but his hands are about as good as Jaime Lannister's right now, not to mention that his route running ability is entirely unknown which is not a good thing for a QB who relies on timing as much as Tom Brady does.

Did the Patriots make a mistake cutting Hernandez then, since he appears so irreplaceable? Maybe. He could come away from this without jail time (he wouldn't be the first seemingly guilty athlete to avoid prison), though there will no doubt be a large suspension coming down from Mr. Goodell's office if he does. And on the face of it his importance to the Patriots is huge, but we've said that before about plenty of Patriots players, but as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are pulling the strings they just keep rolling on. The Patriots have had success with poor receiving options before, reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2006 with Reche Caldwell as their top receiver, and there are still options out there to be had such as bringing Brandon Lloyd or even Randy Moss back.

Having removed the speculation and uncertainty from their roster, New England have all summer to plan a new offense and give their opponents different, if not as tricky, problems in 2013.

- Toby Durant (@TDOnSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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