Aaron Hernandez wasn’t the best player on the Patriots offense. That honor goes to Tom Brady. He wasn’t the best blocker or biggest offensive mismatch either — that’s Rob Gronkowski. He wasn’t the most agile player (Julian Edelman), nor did he have the best hands (Michael Jenkins). He wasn’t fastest either (Aaron Dobson). But Hernandez was what made them unique and unpredictable.
In New England’s impressive tool kit, he was the Swiss Army knife. When Hernandez was on the field, no opposing team knew if he would be catching the ball, run blocking, pass blocking or taking a carry out of the backfield. He gave the team a three-wide receiver set, two-tight end set and two-running back set just by being on the field.
Now the team will be without their second-best tight end. The Patriots released Hernandez on Wednesday after he was arrested for his involvement in the murder of Odin Lloyd.
That news, on top of Rob Gronkowski‘s multiple ailments and the lack of familiar targets that Tom Brady has to work with this season, ensures that the Patriots’ offense will not be as good as it was in 2013. It doesn’t help that Tom Brady is getting older or that no one could possibly predict who will be starting at wide receiver come September, other than Danny Amendola. The Patriots’ offense won’t be the worst in the league, but they won’t be the best either.
Michael Jenkins is not Aaron Hernandez, nor is Zach Sudfeld, Jake Ballard or Aaron Dobson. No one in the league is like Hernandez, and we know that now more than we ever have before, for better or for worse.
The Patriots will be far more predictable in 2013 than they were in 2011 or 2012 because of the loss of Hernandez. On running downs, the Patriots will need to employ a tight end, and in passing downs a third wide receiver will need to be brought in. New England will automatically have to show their hand more in 2013.
Over the last two years, Hernandez played less than 50 percent of snaps in 10 games. The team was 6-4 without him. The team is 5-2 without Gronkowski during the same time period.
Hernandez gave the team a level of insurance going into 2013, too. If push came to shove, the team could have used Hernandez across from Amendola at wide receiver and put Gronkowski and Ballard on the field at the same time. Bill Belichick is all about using the best 11 players.
Other players on the Patriots could play the Hernandez role. Zach Sudfeld can line up out wide at receiver and inline at tight end. So can any number of players available in free agency. But playing them in nearly 100 percent of snaps doesn’t result in the Patriots playing the best 11 players on offense. Hernandez allowed the team to be the strongest they could against the pass and run because of his versatility and the unpredictability it allowed.
To start the season, the only familiar faces Brady may be throwing to are Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman. Welker, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Lloyd are gone, Gronkowski will likely still be recovering and Deion Branch is still available in free agency because he’s lost a few dozen steps in the past couple years.
Releasing Hernandez was the right move for the team, and they showed that winning is not more important than character or image. The team likely knows this situation more than anyone other than police, but anything could still happen. Hernandez could be a free man in September, but New England isn’t taking the chance of having that person on its team.
But the offense will be worse in 2013 and the team will likely have to depend heavily on the defense as they did back when they were in the business of winning Super Bowls. The team will need to stay healthy, too. Amendola has to be on the field, Gronkowski has to get healthy and a second wide receiver has to emerge.
Until then, assume the Patriots offense won’t be setting any record in 2013.