Aaron Hernandez earned a lot more than a Pro Bowl selection with his 79 receptions, 910 yards and seven scores for the New England Patriots in 2011. The 22-year-old also tremendously improved his earning potential, with the majority of that production coming when lined up as a wideout.
Pro Football Focus tracked Hernandez's formation trends, finding that he lined up with his hand in the dirt only 29 percent of the time last year, per Rotoworld.com.
Hernandez (123 snaps) ranked second only to Jerimichael Finley (132 snaps) among tight ends who lined up at receiver, according to FootballOutsiders.com per Greg Bedard. No other player broke 100 snaps and third place Jimmy Graham (78 snaps) had a 46 snap lead on Zach Miller in fourth.
It's a growing trend, but clearly one still in it's infancy. What these players are doing is largely unprecedented which makes contract deliberations all the more complex.
When Finley and his agent Blake Baratz went to the negotiating table with Green Bay Packers officials last February, they brought that exact argument.
“The team’s going to say he was a tight end in college, he sits in the tight end meeting room, and he’s a tight end in the media guide, and on websites he’s a tight end. That’s all great, but our argument was what’s the definition of a tight end? To us, [that] says he plays tight to the end, which is the traditional definition.”
The Pack's cheapest option was to label Finley, a free agent at the time, a tight end and slap him with the franchise tag for $5.446 million. The more expensive choice was agreeing to re-label him, with the franchise tender for wide receivers standing at $9.515 million.
In the end the two sides agreed on a two-year deal worth $15 million, representing the increased value of this hybrid position.
“I think the Packers believed enough that there was going to be a sound argument there,” Baratz said. “I think that’s part of the reason they were going to do a deal, otherwise they would have franchised him and been done with it.”
Hernandez's contract doesn't expire for another two seasons, making him a low-priority to re-sign. The team has illustrated both hesitance and enthusiasm for handing out extensions recently.
Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tom Brady can all attest to Bob Kraft's willingness to open up the wallet. Logan Mankins, Wes Welker, Asante Samuel and Richard Seymour might have other things to say.
In 2012, Hernandez will earn $540,000 in base salary and can earn up to $104,000 in per game roster bonuses. A $96,000 workout bonus brings his total compensation this season to $740,000, which is about what franchised Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis will have earned by halftime of Week 3 (provided Davis plays out the season on the franchise tag).
If precedent has anything to say about it, Finley and Baratz did successfully open the door to compensation for hybrid positions. Baratz thinks the same argument can be made for Hernandez should he face the franchise tag in 2014.
“When we broke it down every single snap, Jermichael was close,” Baratz said. “It was maybe 53 percent off the line in a two-point stance vs. like 47 percent on the line. If Aaron’s hardly ever in a two-point stance, I think he has a very sound argument.”