This off-season finds the New England Patriots with a gigantic hole to fill on offense: No, not at slot receiver, where the production of Wes Welker should be ably filled by both Danny Amendola and/or Julien Edelman (who had taken playing time from Welker at the beginning of 2012 before injuries slowed Edelman) and/or Lavelle Hawkins and/or rookie Josh Boyce; No, not at slot or the “joker” tight end where Aaron Hernandez played less than 50% of the offensive snaps in 2012 and was ranked by FootballOutsiders.com as the 28th best tight end in the NFL last season; but rather with the currently injured-but-on-the-mend tight end Rob Gronkowski.
By 2011 the tight end position in the NFL became “Gronk and everyone else” as he was number one with a bullet in all major metrics as rated by Football Outsiders. Based on his statistical performance and value, Gronkowski was clearly the most valuable tight end in football. Hernandez, however, may have been overvalued. Football Outsiders uses custom statistics to measure value called YAR, DYAR, VOA, and DVOA: Very simply DYAR means a tight end with more total value than other tight ends; DVOA means a tight end with more value per play; and VOA and YAR are the same stats just not adjusted based on strength or weakness of the opponent.
In 2011, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski swept the three advanced statistics at tight end and Hernandez rated eleventh. In 2010, as rookies, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was second to Antonio Gates in the major statistical rankings while Hernandez was fifth. Last season, Gronkowski–despite only playing ten games–swept the major statistical rankings with ease. Hernandez, due to injuries and “other potential distractions”, fell to 28th in the NFL.
Despite missing 25% of the games, Gronkowski played almost 60% of the total snaps on offense last season (or 80% of the offensive snaps of games he played in). For the past two seasons, it has clearly been tight end Rob Gronkowski as the focal point of the offense, especially at tight end. Whether with Hernandez or not lining up on the other side of the offensive line, the only thing that slows Gronkowski has been his own physical limitations.
The challenge for the offense is using a tight end and a combination of two slot receivers and an outside receiver or a slot receiver and two outside receivers as a base offense without the flexibility of Aaron Hernandez. Any two tight end package is obviously not going to force an opposing defense into their nickel defense and dictate the match-ups as this offense did the past few years with both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the field together.
That said, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were only on the field together for four games last season. In 2012, the offense was forced to adapt to playing a two-tight end set without either Gronkowski or Hernandez, or to operate with with the three or four wide receiver set. The offense was forced to play against base or nickel defenses without the two blocking and receiving tight end match-up or to spread the field and face dime defenses that could bring in the extra defensive back without fear of the two tight ends blocking those extra defensive backs on running plays rather than matching-up with front seven personnel on defense.
The New England Patriots front office obviously realized that the personnel around and in place of their tight ends was lacking in 2012. Wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker were replaced, despite both playing over 80% of the offensive snaps last season. Veteran wide receiver Deion Branch played almost 40% of the offensive snaps in 2012 as well, and was not invited back in 2013. The entire position was overhauled, with two new rookies (Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson) joined by the only receiver re-signed, Julian Edelman, and a number of veteran receivers highlighted by former St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola, former Buffalo Bill outside and red zone threat Donald Jones, former Tennessee Titans slot receiver Lavelle Hawkins, and former Falcons and Vikings big body at wide receiver, Michael Jenkins.
The wide receiver position had been already targeted as a priority to upgrade after the 2012 season and a number of new receivers of varying skill level, experience, size, position flexibility, and athleticism are vying for a roster spot and playing time. Expect the Patriots to turn to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels–who excelled in his previous tenure in New England, in Denver as head coach, and in St. Louis as offensive coordinator–in order to revamp, re-evolve, and re-make the New England Patriots offense into a multi-dimensional threat to opposing defenses in 2013 with or without a two tight-end set.
One final note about the wide receiver position and worrying about replacing Wes Welker’s production: Andy Benoit of FootballOutsiders.com and the New York Times’ NFL blog, The Fifth Down, had a fascinating and prescient comment in his 2012 preview of the New England Patriots that he first posted back before last season in August 2012:
The likely reason New England has not rewarded Welker for his fourth 100-plus catch season with a long-term contract is they know that Welker’s production is liable to dip a bit. Thus, Welker will be cheaper next year than he is this year. The Patriots may not need him by that point. Welker is a great role player, not a great player. Much of what he does stems from the crafty structure of the offense. That makes him replaceable.
There is no denying that the Patriots are not the same offense without Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez together on the field, and that showed last season. The combination of blocking ability and elusiveness that came from the freakish athletic ability of both tight ends is a combination that thirty-one other teams have tried to copy since 2010. The problem with copying that equation is that finding the best tight end in football is the first part of the equation, and there are very few Rob Gronkowski’s available in the NFL Draft or free agency. Hernandez’s skill set would play in any system, but his strengths are highlighted by having Gronkowski on the field with him. In New England, the most important person on offense not wearing number twelve is tight end Rob Gronkowski, and his presence or absence is what will drive the offense in 2013.