The opening of a first-degree murder case against recently released tight end Aaron Hernandez is likely also the closing of the New England Patriots' window to win another Super Bowl with quarterback Tom Brady under center.
The Patriots' release of Hernandez on Wednesday ended questions about the troubled 23-year-old's future with the team but raised many more questions about the direction in which New England's offense is heading. With Hernandez off the team and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski reportedly set to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, the Patriots' offensive identity has completely eroded in one offseason.
The focal point of New England's offense since 2010 has been the Patriots' two-tight end sets. By drafting both Hernandez and Gronkowski that year, the Patriots were able to spend the next three seasons moving both of their tight ends all over the field to create a plethora of mismatches for opposing defenses.
The mismatches created by the Patriots' two-tight end sets allowed the team to seamlessly transition from the three- and four-wide receiver spread attack they had used heavily since acquiring Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007. When the team jettisoned Moss in 2010, the offense didn't miss a beat as Gronkowski and Hernandez finished the season with a combined 1,353 yards and 17 touchdowns and the Patriots rolled to a 14-2 record.
Since then, the Patriots set numerous records for receiving statistics achieved by a group of tight ends on one team, went to the Super Bowl after the 2011 season, and made it to the AFC Championship after the 2012 season.
Now the Patriots no longer have the services of either member of the offensive duo that propelled them to such heights. While being on the Physically Unable to Perform list will only sideline Gronkowski for six weeks, he will then have to get into game shape after missing the team's offseason program.
Until Gronkowski is healthy and fully conditioned for the physical demands of the regular season, the Patriots' tight end depth chart is bleak. Hernandez and Gronkowski's ability to line up nearly anywhere on the field gave the Patriots a wide variety of options for plays and formations to audible into based on the defense's personnel package when both tight ends were on the field.
The remaining tight ends on the roster have huge shoes to fill, and little evidence to provide certainty they can do so. Jake Ballard, who showed promise in 2011 for the Giants before missing the 2012 season with an ACL injury, and Zach Sudfeld, a 6'7" undrafted free agent with a 37" vertical jump, are intriguing prospects but far from guaranteed to contribute meaningfully to the team.
With Tom Brady firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, more and more speculation is bound to arise that the Patriots signed Tim Tebow to play tight end, but such talk is uninformed and poorly thought-out. If the team doesn't consider Tebow to be good enough to play full-time in the NFL at the position he's played his whole life, expecting him to learn an entirely new position in the next two months is a ludicrous proposition.
Size is an issue as well. Tebow stands at 6'3" and weighs 236 pounds, meaning he's considerably less bulky than the 6'1", 245-pound Hernandez, who's small for the position. Being scrawnier than the team's smaller tight end doesn't bode well for Tebow's chances of filling the void left by Hernandez and Gronkowski.
With the tight end position threadbare, the Patriots' passing attack will hinge on the wide receivers, which isn't a promising sign for New England. A lack of investment in receivers since Moss's departure has left that position stretched just as thinly as the tight ends.
In the 2010 draft, as Moss was entering the final year of his contract, the Patriots traded down from the 22nd pick to the 27th, only to see Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant selected 22nd and 24th. Their wide receiver from that draft, third-rounder Taylor Price from Ohio, played in a total of four games in two seasons, starting none, before being released at the end of the 2011 season.
Similarly in the 2011 draft, New England drafted running back Shane Vereen in the second round. Two picks later, the Baltimore Ravens drafted receiver Torrey Smith, whose downfield playmaking ability was a major role in propelling the Ravens to Super Bowl XLVII. The Patriots' biggest investment in a receiver that offseason was trading for Chad Ochocinco, who only caught 15 passes as a Patriot.
The 2012 draft saw New England spend only a seventh-round pick on a receiver, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert. The team released Ebert in its final round of 2012 preseason roster cuts.
The Patriots finally attempted to upgrade the wide receiver position this year, but it may be a case of doing too little, too late. Former Marshall receiver Aaron Dobson, taken in the second round, will not have time to ease into his transition to the professional ranks. Instead, he'll immediately be facing opponents' top cornerbacks and double-teams as he has become the Patriots' top receiving option by default.
With Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker and Brandon Lloyd gone, the most productive remaining 2012 pass-catcher on the Patriots' roster is Julian Edelman, who hauled in 21 receptions for 235 yards. The Patriots signed Michael Jenkins and Danny Amendola this offseason, but neither of the two have shown the ability to carry the load as a full-time outside receiver.
Since the Patriots' release of Moss, the lack of an outside deep threat has always been the Patriots' biggest offensive weakness and the main factor in New England's playoff defeats each of the past three years. When the Patriots fell behind and had to score quickly to stay in the game, though, the offense couldn't keep up and fell apart. Now that the Patriots can't lean on Hernandez and Gronkowski to sustain their offense, the team's lack of receiver depth will be even more critically exposed.
While Gronkowski's out, Dobson will have to play at an award-worthy caliber for the Patriots' passing attack to have any chance of scoring consistently. Whenever Gronkowski is fully ready to play again, the Patriots' passing attack will still be far less multifaceted and dangerous than it was with Hernandez and Gronkowski creating matchup problems all over the field.
With the offense's greatest strength crippled and greatest weakness even more glaring, even a surefire first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback like Brady will face arguably the hardest road to Super Bowl contention he's ever seen.
He doesn't have as good of a defense as he did in his first three Super Bowls.
He doesn't have anywhere near as good of an outside and slot receiver combination as he did in his fourth Super Bowl.
He doesn't have the spectacularly adaptable tight ends he had in his fifth Super Bowl.
All he is left with is a slim-to-none chance of playing in a sixth Super Bowl.
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