What now for Patriots after Aaron Hernandez's release?
On the same morning that Aaron Hernandez was arrested in connection with the murder of Odin Lloyd, the New England Patriots released their talented tight end.
The team made this statement:
"A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do."
The Patriots' decision is the latest development in a stunning fall from grace for one of the NFL's most talented players. Hernandez caught 175 passes and scored 18 touchdowns over three seasons in New England, teaming with Rob Gronkowski to give Tom Brady an incomparable tandem of tight ends with which to work.
Hernandez's future in the league is very much up in the air now. He could be facing jail time or a lengthy trial at some point, and figures to incur some sort of punishment from Roger Goodell.
As for the Patriots, though they deserve credit for quickly putting their foot down despite Hernandez's obvious ability, the ramifications on the field could be jarring. Not only does Hernandez's release put a major dent in the Patriots' salary cap -- Hernandez will count more than $12.5 million against the cap in dead money over the next two seasons, per OvertheCap.com, though New England may attempt to recoup some of the signing bonus Hernandez received last August since the franchise waited until he was arrested to release him -- it also puts additional pressure on the Patriots to rework their offense heading into 2013.
Hernandez and Gronkowski had been centerpieces of the New England attack since being drafted together in 2010 (that was especially true in 2011, when the duo combined for 169 catches and 24 touchdowns, as the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl). Now, the Patriots have to rebuild that attack on the fly, sans Hernandez's ability to create mismatches all over the field.
So, where might New England turn in his absence?
Well, if and when Gronkowski is 100-percent healthy again, the Patriots might become even more run-heavy than they were last year, when they finished No. 2 in rush attempts and No. 7 in yards. Gronkowski's blocking ability serves them well in that regard (Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best TE run blocker in the league).
But there is no way for the Patriots to replace Hernandez's all-around ability with an in-house option. They did claim Jake Ballard off waivers from the Giants last year, then stashed him on injured reserve in 2012. Ballard, if he's all the way back from the serious knee injury he suffered in New York's Super Bowl win over New England, could get first crack at Hernandez's snaps. Neither Michael Hoomanawanui (five catches for 109 yards in '12) nor Daniel Fells (four for 85) offers much hope for the passing attack.
There are some veteran free-agent options still available, like Dallas Clark and Chris Cooley. Also still on the market is Visanthe Shiancoe, who spent part of 2012 with the Patriots; he did not catch any passes.
The wild card in the mix, and someone whose name no doubt will come up even more incessantly now, is Tim Tebow. The Patriots signed the ex-Broncos and Jets QB earlier this offseason, then deemed him their third-string quarterback. However, there has long been speculation that Tebow eventually could slide over to an H-back spot, where he could take advantage of his athleticism.
There's no evidence that Tebow could handle such a move, of course, so relying on him to replace a dynamic player like Hernandez would be misguided.
The reality is that nothing New England can pull off between now and Week 1 will replace Hernandez's impact completely. Such a realization is doubly concerning considering the Patriots' situation at wide receiver, which is underwhelming. Still, rather than try to find a TE who can play the role of a poor man's Hernandez, New England may be better off getting rookie WRs Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce or veteran slot man Julian Edelman on the field.
The impact Hernandez's arrest and subsequent release has on the 2013 football season obviously pales in comparison to the situation unfolding in North Attleboro, Mass. -- and kudos again to the Patriots for realizing that.
Still, Hernandez's loss will have a profound effect on the Patriots as they move forward. Hernandez had proven himself to be an elite talent at his position, and there certainly was no contingency plan in place for this set of circumstances.