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What Tuesday’s personnel changes mean for Patriots offense

09.18.12 at 11:24 pm ET
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Deion Branch is returning to the Patriots. (AP)

It’s not the seismic shift in offensive philosophy they underwent midway through the 2010 season, but the moves the Patriots made on Tuesday will bring some new wrinkles to their offense while tight end Aaron Hernandez is on the shelf, and could spark some more debate regarding playing time for New England’s wide receivers.

On Tuesday, the Patriots made several changes on the offensive side of the ball, releasing wide receiver Greg Salas and fullback Lex Hilliard and adding veteran tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Deion Branch. Salas and Hilliard went essentially nonfactors through the first two weeks of the season — Salas did not catch a pass in two games, while Hilliard was on the field working primarily as a fullback for a combined nine snaps in two contests.

In their place are Winslow and Branch. While Winslow doesn’t have anywhere near the same positional versatility that Hernandez has (Hernandez lined up in 10 different spots in the regular-season opener against the Titans), his game has some similarities with the Florida product. Provided that he’s healthy — remember, there are some questions about the health of his right knee — he is also a long, lean tight end who is more of a pass catcher than a blocker. In a perfect world for the Patriots, Winslow will work as the “joker” tight end (a role that Hernandez has filled the last two-plus seasons) while Hernandez is on the shelf.

As for Branch, his return is one of the least surprising things we have seen in our time covering the team. Ever since he was released in late August, the team didn’t clear out his locker. He stayed in constant contact with teammates. And he stuck around the area, even making a very public appearance at Troy Brown’s Hall of Fame induction last Sunday. In the end, it was not a matter of if, but when.

While Branch won’t likely play 100 percent of the snaps — and while he has some versatility — he will get the bulk of his time working on the outside, opposite of Brandon Lloyd. His familiarity with the offense and his excellent working relationship with quarterback Tom Brady likely means he will be able to have an impact this weekend against Baltimore. (In an interesting twist, the last time Branch rejoined the Patriots in 2010, his first game back was also against the Ravens.)

With Branch officially back in the mix and Winslow possibly getting reps, it will be interesting to see how that impacts both Wes Welker and Julian Edelman. Welker has already seen a decrease in his usual snaps since the start of the year, while Edelman has seen an upturn in work. It could also mean the return of some three-receiver sets, utilizing Branch, Lloyd and Edelman, as the offense continues to find its footing without Hernandez.

One more thing worth noting: The fact that the Patriots have brought in two new veterans after he went down also speaks to just how much the team relies on Hernandez. Forget his stats: he is capable of being deployed in any number of ways and creating any number of stressful situations for the defense. As a result, when he goes down, you need multiple bodies to do what he does.

As we wrote here, his versatility gives New England the option of changing what they’re doing up all the way up until the snap of the ball. If an opposing defense comes out in a base look, Hernandez can shift from working as a typical tight end — or motion out of the backfield — and split out to become a wide receiver. If the defense breaks the huddle in a nickel or dime set expecting a pass, he can line up anywhere to give the Patriots a power run look. To put in bluntly, his impact cannot be overstated, and even with the moves they made on Tuesday, New England needs him back in the lineup sooner rather than later.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch, kellen winslow,
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