Posted June 26, 2013

What now for Patriots after Aaron Hernandez’s release?

New England Patriots
Aaron Hernandez could be claimed off waivers by any of the 31 other teams in the league. (Elise Amendola, AP)

Aaron Hernandez could be claimed off waivers by any of the 31 other teams in the league. (Elise Amendola, AP)

On the same morning that Aaron Hernandez was arrested in connection with the murder of Odin Lloyd, the New England Patriots released their talented tight end.

The team made this statement:

“A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”

The Patriots’ decision is the latest development in a stunning fall from grace for one of the NFL’s most talented players. Hernandez caught 175 passes and scored 18 touchdowns over three seasons in New England, teaming with Rob Gronkowski to give Tom Brady an incomparable tandem of tight ends with which to work.

BURKE: Hernandez not Patriots’ only problem

Hernandez’s future in the league is very much up in the air now. He could be facing jail time or a lengthy trial at some point, and figures to incur some sort of punishment from Roger Goodell.

As for the Patriots, though they deserve credit for quickly putting their foot down despite Hernandez’s obvious ability, the ramifications on the field could be jarring. Not only does Hernandez’s release put a major dent in the Patriots’ salary cap — Hernandez will count more than $12.5 million against the cap in dead money over the next two seasons, per OvertheCap.com, though New England may attempt to recoup some of the signing bonus Hernandez received last August since the franchise waited until he was arrested to release him — it also puts additional pressure on the Patriots to rework their offense heading into 2013.

Hernandez and Gronkowski had been centerpieces of the New England attack since being drafted together in 2010 (that was especially true in 2011, when the duo combined for 169 catches and 24 touchdowns, as the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl). Now, the Patriots have to rebuild that attack on the fly, sans Hernandez’s ability to create mismatches all over the field.

So, where might New England turn in his absence?

Well, if and when Gronkowski is 100-percent healthy again, the Patriots might become even more run-heavy than they were last year, when they finished No. 2 in rush attempts and No. 7 in yards. Gronkowski’s blocking ability serves them well in that regard (Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best TE run blocker in the league).

But there is no way for the Patriots to replace Hernandez’s all-around ability with an in-house option. They did claim Jake Ballard off waivers from the Giants last year, then stashed him on injured reserve in 2012. Ballard, if he’s all the way back from the serious knee injury he suffered in New York’s Super Bowl win over New England, could get first crack at Hernandez’s snaps. Neither Michael Hoomanawanui (five catches for 109 yards in ’12) nor Daniel Fells (four for 85) offers much hope for the passing attack.

There are some veteran free-agent options still available, like Dallas Clark and Chris Cooley. Also still on the market is Visanthe Shiancoe, who spent part of 2012 with the Patriots; he did not catch any passes.

The wild card in the mix, and someone whose name no doubt will come up even more incessantly now, is Tim Tebow. The Patriots signed the ex-Broncos and Jets QB earlier this offseason, then deemed him their third-string quarterback. However, there has long been speculation that Tebow eventually could slide over to an H-back spot, where he could take advantage of his athleticism.

There’s no evidence that Tebow could handle such a move, of course, so relying on him to replace a dynamic player like Hernandez would be misguided.

The reality is that nothing New England can pull off between now and Week 1 will replace Hernandez’s impact completely. Such a realization is doubly concerning considering the Patriots’ situation at wide receiver, which is underwhelming. Still, rather than try to find a TE who can play the role of a poor man’s Hernandez, New England may be better off getting rookie WRs Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce or veteran slot man Julian Edelman on the field.

The impact Hernandez’s arrest and subsequent release has on the 2013 football season obviously pales in comparison to the situation unfolding in North Attleboro, Mass. — and kudos again to the Patriots for realizing that.

Still, Hernandez’s loss will have a profound effect on the Patriots as they move forward. Hernandez had proven himself to be an elite talent at his position, and there certainly was no contingency plan in place for this set of circumstances.

15 comments
Michael E
Michael E

Not sure why people are heaping praise on the Patriots for releasing him, it was a business decision.  What else could they have done?

AlexMuller
AlexMuller

"The impact Hernandez’s arrest and subsequent release has on the 2013 football season obviously pales in comparison to the situation unfolding in North Attleboro, Mass"... This is simply not true. If it were, you would be writing a column about the crime, the trial, or the victim, rather than something titled "What Now for Patriots"

John64
John64

No Welker, no Lloyd, no Hernandez, no Woodhead, no Branch.  Those 5 players accounted for 75% of Tom Brady's completions in 2012.  All he has left from last season is Gronkowski (he of 5 surgeries in 8 months) and Julian Edelman. 

I'll be amazed if the Patriots win 8 games this season.

LarsMothander
LarsMothander

Why aren't teams adding a clause in contracts that absolves them of salaries if the player is cut for getting arrested/going to jail/beating his wife/driving drunk/etc...

TimRBailey
TimRBailey

Good for the Pats in doing the right thing.  They can move on.  Of course, the anti-Belichick media is eating this up.  Somebody (Sudfeld?, Ballard?) will step up.

ChickenWolf
ChickenWolf

@AlexMuller If this were a news site they would be writing a column about the crime. Since this is a sports website, they are covering the sports side of this, as well as the criminal side. Do you see SI.com covering any news stories unrelated to sports, no matter how important they might be?

Cheese or Mini-Me
Cheese or Mini-Me

@John64  The Pats won 11 games after losing Tom Brady for the season to injury.  I think they'll survive the loss of their #2 Tight End.  They have been winning the AFC East on a regular basis long before they drafted their 2 stud TEs in 2010 and they should still be the favorites to win it again this season.  Now their chances to advance in the playoffs may have taken a big hit but they'll be there none the less.

marino.eccher
marino.eccher

@John64 They won 12 in 2006 with Reche Caldwell as their leading receiver. That defense was better but last year's wasn't bad (9th in scoring) and they're not entirely bereft of offensive talent. As good as Hernandez was, he was injury-prone and they did OK without him.

PigglyWinks
PigglyWinks

@LarsMothander NFLPA......

There are clauses for certain items that are considered detrimental to the team, but I'm surprised they did it now, rather than wait for the jury to decide, which is the usual MO of these things.

AlexMuller
AlexMuller

@ChickenWolf If it wasn't a sports related story, it wouldn't be on any major news site, just local news. It would have no national attention. Ergo, the effect this has on football is more impactful than the crime.

John64
John64

@Cheese or Mini-Me  Right, but that was back when they still had their core defense from the SB years. Look at the Pats' defense from 2008: Mayo, Bruschi, Wilfork, Seymour, Vrabel, Harrison, Hobbs, Seau, etc... They don't have that anymore and their pass defense stinks. 

They'll still be favorites to win the AFC East-- that's pretty much by default-- but that's only 6 games. They still have 10 other teams to play.

The loss of Hernandez is huge. Not only because of his production, but also his versatility and the fact that he was a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. Now the Pats have 2 months to overhaul their offense with 6 receivers who have never caught a regular season pass from Brady.  That's a very tall order and this will literally be the biggest challenge of Brady's NFL career.

John64
John64

@marino.eccher  The 2006 Pats defense was infinitely better than this current group.  And now it's Amendola, Gronk, two rookie WRs, and a bunch of cast-offs at receiver for Brady.  If any QB can make it work with this scrap heap, it's Brady... All I'm saying is if he DOES make it work (win 10 games), he should be the runaway MVP.