- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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1. Tight end duo locked in for long term. Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski tag-teamed in 2011 to form the most productive tight end duo in all of football, finishing fourth and first respectively in receiving yards at the position. Gronkowski was rewarded for his record-setting season with a deal that could keep him in New England through the 2019 season, and Hernandez will now enjoy similar long-term security. Colleague Mike Reiss has reported that the Hernandez deal extends through the 2018 season. Like Gronkowski, Hernandez's rookie contract was not set to expire until after the 2013 season, which suggests how much the team values his ability, given that it was willing to discuss a new deal two full seasons before he was set to hit free agency. It's also a testament to the importance of the tight end duo within this offense.
2. Hernandez trades shot at free agency for early security. A lot can change between now and the 2014 offseason, but if Hernandez continued on his current arc of improvement, he would likely have been in line for a handsome pay day on the open market in 2014. That could have been prevented, of course, by the Patriots implementing the franchise tag, but nonetheless, Hernandez has decided to trade the possibility of becoming a free agent for a long-term commitment from the Patriots now. That long-term commitment also comes with a likely hefty raise, as Hernandez was due to earn just $1.115 million over the final two seasons of his rookie deal.
3. Patriots buck trend, again. The Patriots have been hesitant in previous negotiations to throw away years on players' rookie deals, with notable cases that included current wide receiver Deion Branch, who was once traded from the Patriots to the Seahawks after being unable to come to terms on a new deal. The new deals for Gronkowski and Hernandez buck that trend and are a further testament to the value this team places on each player.
4. What does it mean for Wes Welker? Another critical component to the team's offense remains without a long-term agreement: receiver Wes Welker. The 31-year-old will play the 2012 season under the franchise tender and will once again be eligible for free agency in 2013. It's unclear whether the commitments to Gronkowski and Hernandez will directly impact Welker's negotiations, but it's possible that the team will have to consider how many resources it can allocate to skill position players on offense.
5. Offensive core in place. Taking a step back, the deal for Hernandez secures yet another piece of the offensive nucleus in New England for the long term. Along with Hernandez and Gronkowski, the Patriots also have Tom Brady, Brandon Lloyd, Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Daniel Fells under contract through at least the 2014 season. The Patriots have long been able to field a competitive roster, while also keeping an eye on the future and building toward long-term consistency. This deal is another chip in place for the offense to maintain success now and going forward.
6. Assessing the risk for the Patriots. Though Hernandez has no major injury history to speak of, the Patriots are not without risk in committing to a player with only two seasons under his belt. Although unlikely, there's the possibility of Hernandez not meeting the team's expectations in terms of the pace of his development (we'd call this highly unlikely). And not to be overlooked are concerns over maturity and off-field issues, which played a major part in Hernandez lasting until the fourth round in the 2010 draft. That being said, it seems unlikely that the team would commit to the tight end in the long term if it didn't believe he had straightened those issues out. Given that Hernandez was arguably the team's second-best offensive player during training camp, it's hard to argue against locking him up.