Aaron Hernandez is no longer a member of the New England Patriots organization, and now the focus turns to moving forward from Hernandez. The Patriots aren’t going to be replacing Hernandez any time soon, and that’s because of his uniqueness. The kind of athleticism that we saw from a man of Hernandez’s size was unprecedented, and his 2011 season was certainly one to behold. Hernandez is a tight end in name only, and he lines up as a slot receiver more than a TE, as a wide receiver as often as a TE. Flash back to last year at around this time of the year, and most of the talk with Hernandez was about how he was in for a true breakout year and would be the most productive pass-catcher on the Patriots with the creative Josh McDaniels at the helm.
A nasty ankle sprain in Week 2 hobbled Hernandez for almost the entire 2012 season, and that breakout season never materialized. This offseason, his stated goal was to work on cutting down on injuries through exercises that help avoid injuries, but now that breakout season will never materialize for something other than injuries.
Hernandez isn’t going to be replaced by the Patriots, so the Patriots will have to replace his production by changing their scheme. The focus can no longer be on the middle of the field, because that’s where the Pats lived with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Hernandez. Tom Brady had the ability to choose from the greatest mis-match of the three mis-match makers, but he will now have to do without two of those three and will likely be missing one of them for a chunk of the season. Brady has a tall task ahead of him, but he’s proven to us time after time that he is up to the task.
What the Patriots need to do to replace Hernandez is simply change their scheme into a spread offense. We talk a lot about how the Patriots lack an impact wide receiver, and that’s true. But what gets lost is that the Patriots have depth at the wide receiver position and a few guys who could end up being that “X” receiver they covet. Aaron Dobson is the player we are mostly banking our hopes on as the Pats second-round pick, but guys like Josh Boyce and even Donald Jones are also worth watching.
The Patriots should spread the field with their wide receiver, and I could easily see more four and five receiver alignments. They could place Dobson and Jones out wide with Boyce, Amendola, and Edelman bunched inside. I usually talk about how the Patriots need somebody to break out as the true “X” receiver, but maybe all we need is for the receivers to chip-in in different roles and just be solid players in the formation. We are going to see more different alignments with receivers and even running backs, and a part of me is excited at seeing what Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick will put together in the form of a new scheme. The Patriots Hernandez-Gronkowski system is over, but it wasn’t even a true twin-TE attack.
Edelman becomes even more important with Hernandez gone, because Edelman is a guy who has improved his long speed to the point where he can be a playmaker. Those who think that Edelman is a slot receiver are falling into a misconception, because he is that kind of versatile receiver who can align anywhere and run different routes. As we saw in November when he put things together, Edelman can be a weapon (even downfield) when healthy, and he can also move the chains as needed.
Last season, the New England Patriots survived when Aaron Hernandez was hobbled with an ankle injury, and he was worth just 0.2 wins last season per the advanced stat WPA. He was worth 0.61 wins in 2011, but the ironic thing is that advanced stats like DYAR and WPA had Jake Ballard rated higher than Aaron Hernandez in 2011. So is Hernandez overrated? No. His production has never been the key. Hernandez is a productive player and could have been a true star in this league with better character and less injuries, but the main importance of Hernandez was scheme. The Patriots could essentially line him up anywhere, and that kept defenses off guard and took pressure off of guys like Welker and Gronkowski. Hernandez had plenty of production (72 receptions for 807 yards with a 69.9% catch rate in 2012), but his true value came from creating bad matchups for the defense.
How will the Patriots overcome that loss and continue to create favorable matchups? By being more creative. Losing Hernandez is a significant blow, but it isn’t a crushing one. The Patriots dealt without Hernandez for six games last season, and there were three additional regular season games when he was too limited to do anything. Hernandez did heat up in the playoffs, though, and his 15 receptions for 168 yards in those two playoff games underscore the challenge of moving forward. My plan would be for the Patriots to start using the whole field better by spreading out their wide receivers, because Jake Ballard isn’t Hernandez’s replacement. Nobody is. But, again, good, versatile inside-and-out wide receivers like Edelman will likely be the antidote, and Hernandez is not irreplaceable in terms of production. To me, that’s where it counts. Hernandez was a very good player for the Patriots, but most of his value was derived from schematic importance. He isn’t directly replaceable, but the Patriots can replace him by successfully retooling their offense, which was probably in order anyway given the turnover on offense this offseason.