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What’s next for Aaron Hernandez?

08.15.11 at 6:16 pm ET

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FOXBORO — It’s a common line of thinking to believe Patriots’ second-year tight end Rob Gronkowski is primed for a breakout season this year, but what about Aaron Hernandez?

While Hernandez didn’t put up the numbers of Gronkowski as a rookie in 2010, he did put up similar (better) numbers to another notable first-year player in 24th overall pick Dez Bryant. Both Hernandez and Bryant had 45 catches and six receiving touchdowns last season, with Hernandez’s 563 receiving yards outpacing Bryant’s 561. If that’s the type of production the Patriots can get out of a fourth-round pick as a rookie, perhaps Hernandez can take a big step in an offense that feature’s an MVP quarterback and an offensive line that’s only gotten stronger.

“I’m in a great offense,” Hernandez said after Monday’s indoor practice. “They give you a lot of chances to make plays, and you’ve just got to make them when your number’s called.”

When his number was called in Thursday’s preseason opener, he didn’t exactly make the most of the situation. With Gronkowski among the Patriots’ starters sitting out the contest against the Jaguars, Hernandez started things off treacherously, fumbling on the first offensive play of the game and and adding a second fumble later in the first half. He got a talking to from Bill Belichick on the sidelines after the second one, making his first preseason game a forgettable one despite his six catches for 68 yards.

While Hernandez showed a propensity to put the ball on the ground on Thursday, he proved Monday that he could hold onto it through an example he’d rather not experience again. After hauling in a pass during drills in the red zone, Hernandez was absolutely lit up by safety Patrick Chung.

“I wasn’t expecting it, but it was still a good little pop and got me a little aggravated,” Hernandez said with a smile after practice.

While the hit couldn’t have left Hernandez feeling good, the fact that it was his body and not the ball that ended up on the ground was both encouraging for him and something he said players need to experience as they get ready for the regular season.

“You need to know what it’s like to get hit,” Hernandez said. “And when you get hit like that, you need to learn to hold onto the ball, which we know from last week.”

Despite entering his second season, Hernandez is just 21 years of age and won’t be 22 until Week 9 of the season. Though he is one of the youngest players on the team (2011 sixth-rounder Markell Carter is over a month younger), Hernandez hopes he can remain a big part of the Patriots’ offense. Considering where he stood among rookies last year, it will be interesting to see what Hernandez does in an offense that has added the likes of Chad Ochocinco and could have more help at receiver on the way.

“They just give me a job and plays,” Hernandez said. “I just run them to the best of my abilities and keep working hard.”

Like Gronkowski, Hernandez was a member of the 2010 draft class that could be among the best of the Belichick era. Boasting the likes of All-Pro cornerback Devin McCourty (27th overall), punter Zoltan Mesko (150th overall), a pair of front-seven contributors in Brandon Spikes (62nd overall) and Jermaine Cunningham (53rd overall) among others, the group showed promise in all three facets of the game.

Though the two biggest names in that bunch were the first two the Pats chose in McCourty and Gronkowski, Hernandez put up numbers to warrant a higher selection than where the Pats found him in the fourth round. In addition to trying Bryant for sixth in catches among rookies, he finished third among rookies in both receiving yards (behind Mike Williams and Jordan Shipley) and receiving touchdowns (behind Williams and Gronkowski). Failed drug tests reportedly led to his slide in the draft, but the Patriots cashed in on a player who creates matchup problems by being too fast for linebackers to hang with and too big for defensive backs to cover.

“The thing is that everyone’s going to make mistakes,” Hernandez said of falling to the Pats last year. “You’ve just got to learn from them. Obviously it hurt me a lot, and I’m just trying to stay away from trouble now.”

Hernandez has stayed away from trouble as a member of the Pats, but he’ll have to hold onto the ball if he wants to take the next step into the class of elite tight ends in the game.

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