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Words With Frenz mailbag: Aaron Hernandez's status for 2013 looms large

Posted by Erik Frenz  June 21, 2013 10:00 AM

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What a crazy few days it's been for the New England Patriots.

Tight end Aaron Hernandez is under investigation involving the death of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd. Details continue to pour forth (click here for Greg Bedard's most recent report) but Patriots fans have already begun to wonder how this will affect the team.

We get to that and a bit more in this week's mailbag.

None, really.

It's too early to tell what the long-term future holds for Hernandez with the team, but it would be a shock at this point if Hernandez didn't miss some time, at least early in the season. The precedent was set with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger two years ago, and he was suspended the first four games of the 2010 season even though he was not found guilty of any charges.

The Patriots have done all they can do at this point to address the depth at tight end, and while they might look around for another camp body, they are five deep on the depth chart entering camp. Between Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Brandon Fells, Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford, the Patriots have options if they want to continue on with the two-tight end set.

As we explored earlier this offseason, Daniel Fells was the one who got the majority of the snaps with Hernandez out in 2012. Zach Sudfeld impressed reporters at OTAs and minicamps, but at 6'7" and 255 pounds, he more closely resembles Gronkowski. He also doesn't have Hernandez's short-area quickness.

Hernandez's combination of size (6'1", 245 pounds) and speed (4.64-second 40-yard dash) made him a matchup nightmare, and it would be tough to find a player that can replicate his abilities in the open field and when working the seam. Part of the problem with replacing Hernandez, though, is that it's not just about his abilities at tight end; the Patriots used him in the backfield, at fullback and elsewhere.

One under-the-radar name I'll be watching this offseason is rookie Brandon Ford. He ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash at 6'4" and 245, so he also has the size and speed to potentially cause matchup problems.

He's no stranger to lining up all over the field, either.

Much of Hernandez's role was as a de facto receiver, so there could also be increased pressure on the wide receiver group -- as if there wasn't enough already, in the wake of Wes Welker's departure and the complete turnover of the position.

A three-receiver set could feature Julian Edelman and Aaron Dobson on the outsides with Danny Amendola in the slot and Gronkowski at tight end.

It's going to look different than it has in recent years, and it may not be the same Patriots offense that was good for 30-plus points a game, but they have some options and can tinker with it until they find what works best.

Well, good to see some Bills fans are cozying up to the idea of the Patriots slipping a bit this season.

To answer this question, we first have to ask how one would go about unseating the Patriots. Besides counting on injuries, or lack of continuity in their offense being a huge downfall, it's a three-step process:

  1. score points
  2. create pressure on Tom Brady
  3. score more points

The Jets took some major steps back last year, and although they added some nice pieces this offseason, they lost their best piece in Darrelle Revis. Their offense could take some steps forward under Marty Mornhinweg, but if the Patriots have weaknesses on the back end, the Jets don't have the personnel to exploit them.

To me, the race for No. 2 is down to the Bills and the Dolphins.

The Dolphins are a trendy pick because of the offseason splashes they made to add wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebackers Danell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, cornerback Brent Grimes, tackle Tyson Clabo and others. In addition to what was a growing defense and what they hope will be a maturation year for Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins could make a big jump if things go right.

The Bills are an unconventional pick here, but there's some merit.

Thumbnail image for first-year QB HC Combos since '08.pngSome teams have done well with the new quarterback-head coach combo in their first year. The Bills already have talent on defense, and now they have a great young defensive mind in Mike Pettine to lead the charge and spice things up for what was a vanilla defense last year. They already have skill position talent on offense in running back C.J. Spiller and wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods.

Of course, a lot of this will fall on the shoulders of EJ Manuel and whether he is up to the challenge of leading an offense his first year. Scouting reports indicate he had trouble with decision-making and going through his progressions, and that he didn't make many pre-snap checks.

The Dolphins weren't a high-scoring offense last year, but adding a bevy of receivers might help. The Bills, however, already have the offensive talent to put up points, and defensively could be better equipped to slow down Brady and the Patriots with Pettine now in charge of the defense.

I'll go with the Dolphins. Tannehill has shown the ability to make all the throws in the NFL, and if the Dolphins open up the offense, they could be fun to watch in 2013.

Keller became one of Mark Sanchez's favorite targets in the passing game, and that wasn't by mistake. From 2009 to 2011 (48 games, 38 starts) Keller was targeted on 297 of Sanchez's 1,414 throws.

He was also a frequent red zone target, with 45 of 185 targets inside the 20-yard line, the most on the team.

He could get favorable matchups if Hartline and Wallace are attracting the attention of a defense, but Keller isn't considered much of a threat as a blocker, so opposing defenses might just put a cornerback on him even when he lines up as a true tight end.

If healthy, though, Keller could be the third or fourth option in the Dolphins passing game.

That'll do for this week. Thanks for the questions, folks!


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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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