What Does Aaron Hernandez's Release Mean for the Patriots?
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
The saga around tight end Aaron Hernandez took two major turns on Wednesday morning.
The first was when he was taken into police custody, according to the Massachusetts State Police Department's Twitter feed, and as shown on NFL Network Wednesday morning.
That may be the worst news Hernandez received Wednesday, but it wasn't the last bit of news to break.
Less than two hours after he was taken into custody, the Patriots announced they have released the tight end.
The New England #Patriots have released Aaron Hernandez.— New England Patriots (@Patriots) June 26, 2013
The move carries major implications on the Patriots roster.
They have spent the past couple of offseasons stockpiling their depth at tight end, so they have options, but there's no doubt this will impact the team.
Jake Ballard spent the season on injured reserve, but he has made his return to team practices. While he hasn't looked completely recovered from his knee injury, he could be a candidate for playing time if healthy; he is one of the more versatile tight ends on the roster due to his abilities as both a blocker and a pass-catcher.
Undrafted free-agent Zach Sudfeld has also impressed at OTAs and could work his way onto the roster. Another UDFA signing, Brandon Ford, has been more under the radar this offseason, but he could be a similar size-speed matchup problem for opposing defenses at 6'4" and 245 pounds while running a 4.66-second 40-yard dash.
For an offense that has been so heavily reliant on its two-tight-end formations, names like Hoomanawanui, Fells, Ballard, Sudfeld and Ford don't quite carry the same ring to them that Hernandez does.
There are plenty of options—that is, if they want to continue down the same path on offense.
It's also possible that the loss of Hernandez forces the Patriots to go back to the drawing board. Maybe a two-tight-end set is no longer the best recipe for success in New England.
Hernandez spent much of his time lined up in the slot, and even on the outside on occasion, so the Patriots could run more three-receiver sets, which would lead to more opportunities for slot receivers like Julian Edelman.
The spotlight on the wide-receiver position, which already shines bright following the loss of Wes Welker, may be blinding.
The Patriots have already added veterans Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones this offseason and could be going back to the well before we know it. Steve Breaston is an intriguing candidate, but only the Steelers have shown an interest, and that interest was over as of Wednesday.
The Patriots released Brandon Lloyd earlier this offseason, but he remains on the market and there's been no buzz of activity on that front. The Patriots also had wide receivers Austin Collie and Chaz Schilens in for workouts during minicamp, according to ESPN Boston.
Familiar names like Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch are still unclaimed, and neither would need an "assimilation" into the Patriots' offense, as both are familiar with the system from their experience in New England and with Josh McDaniels.
It's also possible that the Patriots look to run the ball a bit more than they have in years past. They kept a fair balance between the run and pass last year, and with one of the better run-blocking offensive lines in the game, they could look to employ a more smashmouth attack in 2013.
Following Hernandez's release, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots try to recoup some of the money they gave him when they signed him to a contract extension last offseason.
Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com tweeted some interesting information regarding how the Patriots might get back some of that money:
Wow. #patriots did not waste any time. Under conduct policy his guar should void but without guilt verdict not sure how it affect sb— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) June 26, 2013
To clarify, Hernandez's guaranteed money ($16 million) should void as a result of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement (Article 4, Section 9), which says that a "forfeitable breach" has taken place when a player "is unavailable to the team due to conduct by him that results in his incarceration." Since he has not yet been found guilty, it's unclear how this will affect their ability to recover any, some or all of his $12.5 million signing bonus.
Fitzgerald also told me that Hernandez's cap hit for 2013 could drop from $12.51 million in dead money to $2.632 million.
Clearly, the impact of this whole situation spreads far and wide.
Regardless of the financial impact, Hernandez's arrest and release from the roster likely means the Patriots' offense will look much different than it did last year. That was the case already, but instead of cosmetic changes, these events could lead to structural changes.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from Pro Football Focus' premium section, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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