Commentary

Hernandez will be hard to replace

Former Patriots tight end's unique versatility was invaluable

Updated: June 27, 2013, 9:25 PM ET
By Field Yates | ESPNBoston.com

The timetable for a verdict for former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez on six charges, including the murder of Odin Lloyd, is unknown, but what we do know is this: The Patriots will take to the practice fields outside Gillette Stadium to begin training camp in advance of the 2013 regular season in less than one month.

All eyes will be on an offense that endured substantial turnover this offseason, while also dealing with multiple surgeries to standout tight end Rob Gronkowski. He most recently underwent a back procedure that is likely to keep him off the field to start training camp and might jeopardize his availability for the start of the season.

Tight end isn't the only position that was affected this offseason, as wide receiver Wes Welker signed with the Broncos in free agency, while Brandon Lloyd, who totaled more than 900 receiving yards in 2012, was cut in March.

That means the Patriots will be without at least three of their top four targets from last season when they travel to Buffalo in Week 1, with the possibility of Gronkowski sitting out as well.

It's a steep challenge to overcome for any team, even one that has successfully evolved following previous personnel changes in seasons past.

The benefit the Patriots have had is a full set of organized team activities and a two-day minicamp to work without the quartet of top targets from 2012, but it was not until recently, of course, that they discovered they would be without Hernandez. For that reason and more, replacing him will be the most difficult personnel task for the Patriots entering the 2013 season.

It was Welker who led the Patriots in receptions in 2012 (in fact, no other NFL player caught more passes than Welker during his six seasons as a Patriot), and his reliability and toughness will undoubtedly be missed. But the swift, deliberate approach the Patriots took to adding Danny Amendola following Welker's bolt to Denver speaks to the team's confidence that Amendola can serve in his role.

No other Patriots receiver stood out more than Amendola this offseason, and he has shown in previous NFL seasons that he's a gifted slot presence. He has had two seasons cut short due to injury, but his talent is apparent.

The replacement for Lloyd is less obvious, but the Patriots have multiple options to fill the role. Julian Edelman is currently dealing with a foot issue, but he's a dogged worker who has improved each season. Second-round wide receiver Aaron Dobson is both raw and promising, standing at 6-foot-3 and possessing unique length.

[+] EnlargeShane Vereen
AP Photo/Michael DwyerWith Aaron Hernandez out of the picture, running back Shane Vereen could play an increased role this season.

Other young players to consider are fourth-round wideout Josh Boyce and undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins (another standout this offseason). Veteran Michael Jenkins, added in free agency, also gives the team a steady presence to compete for the job.

While Gronkowski hasn't been ruled out for the start of the season, the Patriots have built-in protection for such a scenario. Jake Ballard, who finally looks 100 percent after a knee injury of his own more than two years ago, stands at 6-6, 275 pounds, identical in height to and 10 pounds heavier than Gronkowski.

Ballard isn't the athlete Gronkowski is, but he's a similarly reliable blocker with sufficient receiving skills, too. Gronkowski's dominance stems in part from his transcendent combination of size, strength and speed. The Patriots do move him around the offensive formation at times, but he's largely anchored in a conventional tight end alignment. While Ballard wouldn't equal Gronkowski's ability, he has the requisite traits to fill the role Gronkowski played from an alignment standpoint.

And that is the challenge in replacing Hernandez, who, although listed as a tight end, was a jack-of-all-trades offensive player. In a span of five plays, Hernandez could be deployed in five different alignments along the formation. He was used as a conventional tight end, a split-out wide receiver, a slot receiver, a fullback and even a running back on occasion.

Of his 175 career receptions, 81 came when Hernandez aligned in the slot, 49 from a tight end alignment, 31 as a wide receiver and 14 when starting in the backfield, a perfect snapshot of his unique versatility. There might not be another NFL player with the capabilities Hernandez brought to the table.

Hernandez not only caused defenses headaches, he altered their ability to focus squarely on Gronkowski. The two played off each other, attracting a defense's attention. Paying too much attention to Gronkowski meant a favorable matchup for Hernandez, and vice versa.

So just as the Patriots have had to evolve with the departures of players such as Randy Moss and Corey Dillon before him, they must do so again in the case of Hernandez.

Will the two-tight end offense evaporate in New England? That's a long shot at best. No team has been more reliant on two-tight end sets over the past three seasons. The Patriots have run an NFL-high 2,070 plays with at least two tight ends on the field in that time frame.

When Gronkowski returns to action (and even before then), look for a steady dose of two-tight end sets, with others such as Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells and Zach Sudfeld (not exactly Hernandez-level replacements) in the mix to compete for reps.

But the Patriots also have the personnel to develop new offensive sets, perhaps with the introduction of more two-running back looks (often referred to as "Pony" sets) in lieu of a second tight end.

Third-year player Shane Vereen could prove to be a critical piece, as he's a natural pass-catcher with elusiveness and speed to make defenders miss in space. His talent has been on display in short bursts during his first two NFL seasons, but 2013 might be the time that the Patriots rely more heavily on the former second-round pick.

Prior to the evolution of their two-tight end offense, the Patriots -- like many NFL teams -- operated with three-wide receiver sets (paired with a lone tight end). When Hernandez was forced out of action in 2012 due to an ankle issue, the Patriots turned to three-receiver sets featuring Welker, Lloyd and Edelman.

Although no receiver outside of Amendola has separated himself yet, two or more could emerge during training camp, giving the team options to employ three-receiver packages.

The Patriots have options to make up for the loss of Hernandez, but the offense will be different, and the impact will be noticeable. Players such as Hernandez simply don't come around that often, which is exactly why the team signed him to a long-term extension just 10 months ago.

No team has proved itself more capable of overcoming personnel changes in the past, but replacing Hernandez will be no small chore for the Patriots.

Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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