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What happens to Patriots offense without Aaron Hernandez?

06.26.13 at 11:03 am ET
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Much of the offseason has been spent speculating about what the Patriots would do if they were forced to operate without one of their tight ends (Rob Gronkowski) for the short term. Now, New England will have to figure out a way to reinvent the offense once again, as the Patriots have released troubled tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In his three seasons with the Patriots, Hernandez proved himself to be one of the most dynamic offensive options in the league. (In the 2012 season opener against the Titans, he lined up at 10 different spots on the field, including running back, in the slot and split wide.) From a statistical perspective, Hernandez had 175 catches for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns in three seasons, including 51 catches for 483 yards and five touchdowns in an injury-shortened season last year. His versatility, speed and pass-catching skills made him a unique offensive presence, one that will be difficult for New England to replace.

With the loss of Wes Welker in free agency, more of the burden in the passing game was expected to fall on the shoulders of new slot receiver Danny Amendola. Now, without Hernandez in the picture, those responsibilities likely will increase — Amendola and quarterback Tom Brady showed a nice chemistry through the recently completed spring practice sessions, and that should continue to evolve over the course of the summer.

As for the tight end spot, the Patriots have veterans Jake Ballard (who spent the entire 2012 season on the shelf because of a knee injury), as well as Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui. However, the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ballard is more like Gronkowski in his physical skill set and playing style — not the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Hernandez, who was more of a finesse presence. Despite the fact that the Patriots also have rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford available, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them go out and pick up another tight end who can serve as a downfield passing threat. Veteran Dallas Clark still is out on the open market, as well as David Thomas, a former New England draft pick who played for the Patriots from 2006 through 2008.

With the understanding that the Patriots likely will be without Gronkowski for the start of the season as he rehabs from offseason forearm and back surgeries, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots open the 2013 season with a run-heavy scheme while the disparate elements of the New England passing game work to find a proper chemistry.

An underrated backfield consisting of Stevan Ridley, Leon Washington, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen could prove to be a big asset out of the gate. It’s important to remember that New England was second in the league with 523 regular-season rushing attempts (trailing only the 536 rushing attempts from the Seahawks). For the Patriots, that represented the most regular-season rushing attempts in franchise history since the 2004 team finished with 524 rushing attempts. New England also finished the regular season with 2,184 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

In addition, from a practical perspective, it would make sense for the Patriots to run the ball out of the gate, particularly when you consider the schedule and the run defenses they’ll face over the first six games of the regular season. New England’s first six games are against the Bills (31st in the league in run defense in 2012, having yielded an average of 145.8 rushing yards per game), Jets (26th, 133.6 ypg), Bucs (first, 82.5 ypg), Falcons (21st, 123.2 ypg), Bengals (12th, 107.2 ypg) and Saints (32nd, 147.6 ypg). With the understanding that teams have made changes to their respective defenses since the end of the 2012 season, other than Tampa Bay, none of those teams boast particularly fearsome run defenses.

Ultimately, as we wrote in the days leading up the departure of Welker, if there is an offense that could make the transition into a post-Welker landscape, it’s the Patriots. The loss of Hernandez feels the same way. It’s important to remember that while there’s been plenty of continuity over the last decade-plus — the Patriots have had the same coach-quarterback combo since 2001, the longest current run in the NFL — they’ve made some tweaks to the system at least three times under Belichick. (The initial move from Drew Bledsoe to Brady, the creation of the shock and awe offense of 2007, and the post-Randy Moss era that incorporated the young tight ends and signaled the move to uptempo football.) On each occasion, the transition wasn’€™t exactly seamless, but the Patriots were able to make it work in large part because of the quarterback.

Now, the loss of Hernandez could force New England’s hand once again, and provide another challenge for Brady, Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. How they respond ultimately will provide the template for the Patriots offense in 2013.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski,
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