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Rookie Hernandez a tight fit

AARON HERNANDEZ Hip is feeling better AARON HERNANDEZ
Hip is feeling better
By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / January 15, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — There is something in the way Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez makes a cut that knocks defenders off their feet. Hernandez seems to own the advantage one on one, as he shakes opponents and collects chunks of yards.

In two meetings against the Jets, Hernandez has nine catches for 152 yards and one touchdown.

“They are a man-to-man team and they’re going to come in and do what they do,’’ Hernandez said. “They’re going to play man [coverage]. In a man-to-man game it’s you versus him and you’ve got to get open. I love man-to-man and I’m ready.’’

Hernandez missed the last two games of the regular season with a hip injury and is listed as questionable for tomorrow’s divisional playoff game. After the bye week and limited participation in practice this week, the rookie said yesterday his hip is feeling better.

“It was definitely good to get the bye week,’’ he said. “I could relax, get my hip better, and be ready for a huge playoff game.’’

If Hernandez plays, he could prove to be an important factor. The Patriots spent a fourth-round pick on Hernandez, acquiring a 6-foot-1-inch, 245-pounder with the hands and quickness of a receiver. Once Hernandez picked up on some of the critical points of the Patriots’ system he was able to do more, coach Bill Belichick said.

“He’s a smart kid. I think he loves football. I think he loves to practice. He practices hard,’’ Belichick said. “When we’ve had him simulate some of the other tight ends we’ve played, he does a great job of giving the defense a look and he loves the competition of it. I think he’s done some good things. He’s improved in a lot of areas. I think he still has a lot of upside.’’

But Belichick added the rookie has “a long way to go.’’

“I think he understands that and hopefully he can continue to work and get better in those areas,’’ Belichick said. “But I certainly think there’s a lot of progress over the course of the year.’’

Hernandez and fellow rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski have helped the Patriots’ offense recreate itself. They have lockers on either side of veteran tight end Alge Crumpler, and have worked with Crumpler since training camp to absorb the offense.

Gronkowski (10) and Hernandez (6) were first and second in touchdowns among rookie tight ends this season. Hernandez’s 45 receptions were the most by a rookie tight end in Patriots history, and Gronkowski was second with 42. Hernandez had 563 receiving yards, the most by a Patriots rookie tight end since Russ Francis set the franchise record with 636 in 1975.

Although Gronkowski and Hernandez offer different options for quarterback Tom Brady, they don’t view their production as a competition.

“The thing that’s crazy is that when we both came in, we’re a lot alike,’’ Hernandez said. “We love the game of football and we just want to win games. If there was that battle between us, we probably wouldn’t be as good of friends as we are.

“We don’t really compete. The world is out there trying to [say] who’s better and this and that. We’re good friends. We don’t need to compete. We’re just trying to win games.’’

Hernandez is determined to be a versatile tight end.

“I consider myself a tight end, but I feel like I’m just a more athletic tight end than most,’’ he said. “I feel like everyone has their own unique things that they can do and we’re all different and there’s really 10 different types of tight ends. It just depends on what they do. You may consider me a receiver/tight end, but I feel like I’m a tight end.’’

As Hernandez prepared for tomorrow’s game, he listened to the advice of the veterans around him. He is one of 11 rookies on the Patriots’ roster.

“Basically, it’s time to make plays,’’ Hernandez said. “Give it your all or you are going home, there is no tomorrow. We have got to leave everything on the field. The intensity is going to pick up and the game is going to get faster, so I am ready to see what happens.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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