Tim O’Sullivan: Loss of Hernandez may be too much for Patriots offense to overcome
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) crosses the goal line after a reception for a touchdown in front of Houston Texans inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton (51) and free safety Danieal Manning (38) during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, left, is led into Attleboro District Court for arraignment Wednesday, June 26, in Attleboro, Mass. Hernandez was charged with murdering Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semi-pro football player for the Boston Bandits, whose body was found June 17 in an industrial park in North Attleborough, Mass. (AP Photo/The Sun Chronicle, Keith Nordstrom) MANDATORY CREDIT. MAGS OUT. PROVIDENCE JOURNAL OUT.
The most important issues surrounding Aaron Hernandez right now are, obviously, legal and moral. They are questions of life and death. That’s why the Patriots released Hernandez after his arrest yesterday with a statement that concluded, “this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”
But this is a high profile, public case because Hernandez was a key football player for a marquee NFL franchise, which means there are football questions to be answered as well, even if their importance is minimal compared with the murder of Odin Lloyd.
So, how will the loss of Hernandez impact the New England offense? Most likely with a crashing thud, like a wrecking ball taking down the last supports to a crumbling structure.
With Hernandez released, Rob Gronkowski shelved with multiple injuries and surgeries, Wes Welker in Denver, Danny
Woodhead in San Diego and Brandon Lloyd on the free agent scrap heap, New England has lost its top five receivers from last year. During the 2012 regular season, that quintet accounted for 3,984 of Tom Brady’s 4,827 passing yards (82.3 percent), 338 of his 401 completions (84.3 percent) and 29 of his 34 touchdowns (85.3 percent).
The Patriots offense was built around the mismatches Hernandez and Gronkowski created when they were on the field in tandem. If defenses loaded up on the run against that two tight end set, Brady would pass and take advantage of a mismatched linebacker. If the opposition tried to take away the pass by playing more defensive backs, Brady would audible to a run.
Those options are gone now, as are New England’s top targets in the middle of the field. Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez were primary options for the short, high-percentage passing routes between the hash marks that have been the Patriots’ bread and butter over the years, routes that are critical when converting on third downs or in the red zone, the two most important situations for an offense.
If the Patriots had known Gronkowski’s forearm and back would pose lingering and long-term problems, and that Hernandez would be lost before the season began, it’s doubtful they would have allowed Welker to sign with Denver. Surely they would have ponied up the few extra dollars it seemed necessary to keep Brady’s short-yardage security blanket if they knew what was coming.
It won’t be easy for New England to rebuild the offense for the upcoming season, which is only about two months away. But it won’t be impossible. The Patriots still have Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to engineer the construction, and they still have Brady and some other talented pieces to build around, but don’t expect Tim Tebow to be one of them.
Even before the Hernandez situation, Tebow’s name came up as a tight end option, and it’s been bandied about even more now. But the reality is Tebow could maybe be an emergency tight end, a stop-gap solution at absolute best, and more likely a disaster if he was used at that position on any kind of regular basis. He’s a third-string quarterback with enough size and athleticism to fill in for a play or two, but nothing more.
The ideal situation, of course, is that Gronkowski can return to 100 percent and do it quickly, although getting him back before the first game, or even early in season, seems unlikely. The Patriots do, however, have five tight ends on their roster after releasing Hernandez and not including Gronkowski – veterans Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells, and rookies Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld. None of them have Hernandez’s talent, and chances are slim they’ll be able to match his production (Hoomananwanui and Fells combined for nine catches last year; Hernandez had 51), but at least the Patriots have a deep pool of tight ends to choose from. And if none of them can fit the bill, Dallas Clark, Chris Cooley and Visanthe Shiancoe are all available.
Replacing the lost production with wide receivers won’t be much easier. Newcomer Danny Amendola is New England’s best hope to fill the void in the slot/middle of the field, but there’s no way he can make up for the loss of Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski. Since he played for McDaniels in the past, he probably has a better chance of grasping the Patriots offense and clicking with Brady than some other previous free agent receiver acquisitions, but it’s no guarantee.
Donald Jones, another new veteran, also has experience in the slot, but he’s been plagued by injuries the past two years, so asking him to catch too many balls over the middle might not be the best idea. Rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are both intriguing talents, but relying on rookies to fill major roles is always a gamble.
With his ability to catch balls out of the backfield or from the slot, and his penchant for gaining yards after the catch, Julian Edelman could be a major player in making up for Hernandez’s lost production. But at just 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, there’s only so many hits Edelman can take.
So that leaves the running backs, a group of players who suddenly seem much more important. New England relied heavily on them last year (the Pats were second in the NFL in rush attempts in 2012) and in all likelihood will do the same this year. Stevan Ridley ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and he’ll need to put up similar numbers this year for the New England offense to be successful.
Heavy hitters like Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) and LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 247) will help Ridley with the rushing load, but what the Patriots will really need is backs Shane Vereen and Leon Washington to impact the passing game. Vereen showed his receiving ability when he had five catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s playoff win against Houston. And Washington was a receiving threat during his first three seasons, 2006-08, with the Jets (a combined 108 catches for 838 yards), although he wasn’t used in the pass game during his last three years in Seattle.
So there are some potential options for Brady, Belichick and McDaniels, but that’s all they are right now – potential. Much of the offense that led the league with 557 points last year has left town, been injured or been arrested, and there’s little time left to rebuild.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)