Boston's TE Party: Patriots' Gronkowski & Hernandez Key to Offensive Juggernaut

Aaron Dodge@Aaron_DodgeAnalyst IJanuary 25, 2012

The final look and dynamic of the 2011 New England Patriots' offense turned out to be a developing, year-long story.

We knew at least some form of the 4-3 was going to be implemented on defense as far back as training camp, but how the offense was going to shape up was another story. With the addition of Chad Ochocinco and the expected development if not emergence of Taylor Price, Julian Edelman or Brandon Tate, there were a lot of unknowns. 

Tate and Price both ended up cut—a common theme this season for fledgling Patriots' draft picks. Edelman's focus and value remained on special teams, and he even did his best Troy Brown impression, playing slot corner on defense. Ochocinco caught 15 passes, three more than Benjarvus Green-Ellis did in 2010. 

The production at the wideout position came solely from veterans Deion Branch and Wes Welker—the league's leading receiver. Welker looked completely unhindered by his surgically repaired knee all season as he cruised to career highs in yards, touchdowns and yards per catch average.

Still the combined efforts of Branch and Welker accounted for less than half of quarterback Tom Brady's production. 

And then there were the tight ends.

With the rookie performances of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski firmly implanted in the back of their minds, many experts and analysts expected, and with good reason, a jump in production. But no one could have predicted what actually happened.

For review purposes, Hernandez pulled in 45 receptions in his first season and did it to the tune of 563 yards. That's an average of 12.5 yards a catch with six touchdown receptions to boot. He had proven himself a downfield threat, but no one predicted a near two-fold increase in production. 

The 22-year-old former fourth-rounder collected 79 receptions in his second pro season and nearly maintained his insane yards per catch average. Hernandez, who became a yards-after-the-catch addict, earned another 534 extra yards and ranked ninth in the league after pulling in the ball. The new 81 in town also set a career high with seven touchdowns. 

His performance at the tight end position is made all the more impressive once his teammate's antics at the very same position are taken into consideration.

Gronkowski, also 22 and in his second NFL season, more than doubled his rookie production in some respects, nearly tripled it in other areas and was the inspiration of a newly coined verb. 

The 2010 season saw "Gronk" haul in 42 receptions for 546 yards and a team-leading 10 touchdowns. He had become a red-zone fixture for Brady, and the connection became lethal in it's second full season of operation.

The two hooked up for 17 regular-season touchdowns, just six shy of the NFL single-season record set by Randy Moss (a 10-year veteran at the time) and Brady in 2007. 

His 90 receptions and 1,327 yards were good enough for a 14.7 yards per catch average. His touchdown and yardage totals were also good enough to stand as new NFL records for his position. Gronkowski ranked fourth in the league with 668 yards after the catch and tied for fourth in broken tackles with, yes you guessed it, Aaron Hernandez. 

These two completely blew the lid off the top of New England's offense during their sophomore efforts. Boston's TE Party barely ever came off the field in 2011 and barely ever ceased making plays while they were on it.

The freakish athletic nature of this duo paired with their understanding of the game, overall stamina and versatility were integral factors which earned the Patriots yet another Super Bowl berth.

The two may be banged up as the season winds down to its final weeks, but New England will be counting on them as much as ever.

The team can only hope Gronkowski and Hernandez can replicate the success they had against the New York Giants in Week 9 when the two combined for 136 yards and two scores. 

Do that, and these two tight ends become more than just young phenoms: they'll be champions.

Interested in reading more by this Featured Columnist? Check out more of Aaron Dodge's work on Bleacher Report.

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