The New England Patriots have the best tight end duo in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez; that is not debatable. What is debatable is where Hernandez stands when ranking the best tight ends in the NFL. Personally, I have him behind Jason Witten and Gronk but have him in a virtual deadlock with Jimmy Graham at third.
But this piece isn’t about if Hernandez is the best pure receiving tight end in the NFL or if Graham is. It’s about looking at the newly extended Patriot’s expected production in the 2012 season. He’s going to be used more often than he ever has been in 2012 with Josh McDaniels as the offensive coordinator, and the Patriots will align him in more different ways to help give him more looks. We should see him at H-Back, aligned as a normal tight end, playing in the slot, and set out wide as well (that’s going to be interesting).
All told, Tom Brady will have his eyes set more on Hernandez this season as a result of what will likely be an increased role for the former Florida Gators standout.
Last season, “Herny” was able to haul in about 70% of every pass thrown at him and averaged a total of 11.2 yards per reception. I expect him to average some more yards per catch, because he should be given more deeper routes and averaged 12.5 yards per catch in 2010. I expect an average of 12.5 yards per reception from Hernandez next season; the same number he attained in 2010.
Given expected totals of a 70% catch rate and 12.5 yards per reception, all that’s left is deciding exactly how many targets Hernandez will receive. The addition of Brandon Lloyd will cut into his targets, but I expect Hernandez to cut into some of Wes Welker’s and Gronkowski’s targets next season. After receiving 103 looks last season, we should expect 115 targets in 2012. Remember, he also missed two games but still averaged 7.36 targets per contest. Multiply that by 16 and you get 117. The decrease in targets takes injury into account as well as the addition of Lloyd.
If Aaron Hernandez receives 115 targets in the 2012 NFL season and catches 70% of those targets, then expect him to haul in 81 passes. If each reception goes for 12.5 yards, then Hernandez is in line for 1,006 receiving yards. Those are realistic numbers if he can stay healthy for at least 14 games, as he is the top receiving tight end in the league (yes, I would take him over Graham). Hernandez can consistently gain yardage and will be utilized more heavily this season and has looked terrific in the offseason.
A 1,000-yard season is certainly achievable for Hernandez, but what about touchdowns? He has caught six touchdowns in each of the past two seasons, but I would expect eight touchdowns out of him. He has averaged a touchdown on about 7% of his career targets, which amounts to eight touchdowns in a season with 115 targets.
Hernandez can beat out this projection, as his upside is off the charts. But 81 catches, 1,006 yards, and eight touchdowns seems like a realistic projection for him. It’s hard to be realistic with such a talented young player who is just an absolute monster and a weapon on offense who can do so many different things. I mean, truncating his expectations into a few numbers using math and past results is difficult to dictate and project, but the most difficult thing is looking at the targets. But the basic numbers (70% catch rate, 12.5 YPR, 7% TD per target) are ratios that he won’t deviate far from.
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