While the potential “real-life” repercussions of the Aaron Hernandez situation greatly exceed those on the football field, there will still be some negative effect on the New England Patriots. Less than one year ago, Hernandez signed a monster five-year, $37.5 million contact with the Patriots, slotting him to count a little over $4 million against the cap this season. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will potentially give New England some relief, allowing them to recoup some of Hernandez massive signing bonus and will spread out the “cap hit” over the next two season, as opposed to only 2013. However, the CBA will do nothing to mend the massive hole left in the Patriots’ roster at tight end, once the strong-point of the team.
Some speculation around Rob Gronkowski’s surgery suggests that he will be able to play by September; the start of meaningful football. Other are suggesting the timetable for return is still unknown at this point. Either way, that means no OTAs, no minicamps, no training camp, and certainly no time to get back into “football shape.” With Hernandez release and Gronkowski’s injury troubles, it appears as thought the Patriots will have to look down their depth chart for their “next man up.” Currently, that would be Jake Ballard and ex-St. Louis Ram, Michael Hoomanawanui…
Ballard himself has injury concerns, missing all of the 2012 season with a nagging knee injury sustained against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI… at the end of the 2011 season. Prior to that, he was only average as a receiver, and below-average as a blocker. In fact, Ballard has really only played one season as a tight end in the NFL, finishing with 38 catches for 604 yards, along with 4 touchdowns and 5 dropped passes. That same season, he graded out negatively as both a run blocker and a pass blocker…
Regardless of Ballard’s play, assuming the Patriots stick with their “two-tight end sets,” Michael Hoomanawanui will be seeing some heavy playing time. The injury concerns surround all three of New Englands’ top tight ends will certainly force them to maintain an above average number on their 53-man roster, which might bode well another ex-St. Louis Rams player, Daniel Fells. The well-traveled tight end played for the Denver Broncos last season, but most in Rams Nation still remember Fells for his sub-par performance during Sam Bradford’s rookie year. In 2010, during Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks, the St. Louis Rams were one win away from being crowned the NFC West champions. Fells played his worst game of the season, grading out negatively as both a receiver and a blocker, and dropped a crucial pass on 3rd down late in the game that essentially ended the changes of the Rams winning.
With release of Brandon Lloyd and losing the battle for Wes Welker in free agency, the Patriots are also spread thin at wide receiver. Their top offensive weapon, aside from the injured Gronkowski, is another ex-Rams, Danny Amendola. The rest of the receiver depth chart is comprised of a below-average, No. 2 receiver in Michael Jenkins (43 catches for 545 yards in 2012) and an overdrafted rookie from Marshall University, Aaron Dobson, who was projected as a late-3rd, early 4th rounder by most reputable scouting sites.
As of right now, assuming the Gronkowski is “out” as the starter at the beginning of the season, the New England depth chart should look something like this…
|’13 Patriots||Player 1||Player 2|
|Wide Receiver #1||Danny Amendola||Aaron Dobson|
|Wide Receiver #2||Mike Jenkins||Donald Jones|
|Tight End #1||Jake Ballard||Daniel Fells|
|Tight End #2||Michael Hoomanawanui||Zach Sudfeld|
That looks eerily similar to one particular depth chart from a couple of seasons ago… the 2010 St. Louis Rams? Just take a look…
|’10 Rams||Player 1||Player 2|
|Wide Receiver #1||Danny Amendola||Keenan Burton|
|Wide Receiver #2||Laurent Robinson||Brandon Gibson|
|Tight End #1||Billy Bajema||Daniel Fells|
|Tight End #2||Michael Hoomanawanui||Fendi Onobun|
Not listed on that chart is Mardy Gilyard, an early 4th rounder by the Rams in 2010, who never panned out after coming from a lesser-division school, similar to Aaron Dobson.
The comparison is clear, Danny Amendola is the best offensive weapon overall, surrounded by mediocre receiver talent elsewhere on the depth chart. In fact, one could easily argue that Laurent Robinson is a better overall player than Michael Jenkins, and Brandon Gibson is undoubtedly a better player then Donald Jones has been. In terms of tight ends, Jake Ballard and Billy Bajema are incomparable, with one being purely a blocking tight end, and the other being a pass catcher… at least in the one season he was healthy. However, Zach Sudfeld is a “wildcard” type player, similar to Fendi Onobun, although for significantly different reasons. That leaves Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells as upper-depth chart players on both rosters.
The obvious difference between the 2010 St. Louis Rams and the projected 2013 New England Patriots is the man throwing them the football… a rookie (Sam Bradford) vs. a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer (Tom Brady). Still, there is only so much a quarterback can do once the ball has left his hand. In 2010, Bradford’s eerily similar receiver corps dropped 36 passes, the 5th highest total in the league that season. Couple the lack of talent with the laundry list of players with previous, significant injury issues (i.e. Danny Amendola, Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard, Zach Sudfeld, Donald Jones, and, of course, Rob Gronkowski) and you have a solid recipe for offensive failure. There is still a lot of time before the start of the regular season, time in which the Patriots could add some more pieces to the offensive puzzle. However, if this is the “final roster” for New England… well, all of Rams Nation would like to extend our sincerest apologies and wish Tom Brady good luck with his “new” receiving corps.