Three years ago, coach Bill Belichick decided to build his offense around two rookie tight ends.
Quarterback Tom Brady still would have slot receiver Wes Welker as his primary target, but the Patriots made a conscious decision to feature their tight ends.
Rob Gronkowski, a second-round draft pick from Arizona, and Aaron Hernandez, a fourth-rounder from Florida, were dropped into Brady’s offense as potential game-changers.
In three seasons, the experiment was a rousing success.
Gronkowski caught 187 passes and scored 38 touchdowns in 43 regular-season games, establishing him as the best at his position. Hernandez was an emerging star, making 175 catches and scoring 18 touchdowns in 38 regular-season games.
The Patriots were 39-9 from 2010 to 2012, winning three playoff games and advancing to one Super Bowl on the shoulders of their tight end-centric offense.
Today, it’s unclear what Brady’s offense will look like when the 2013 season begins.
Hernandez, a Bristol, Conn., native, was released by the Patriots after he was led from his home in handcuffs last week. He was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Odin Lloyd, a Dorchester, Mass., man who was gunned down not far from Hernandez’s North Attleborough home.
At 23 and with a seemingly long NFL career ahead of him, Hernandez now faces a long legal road, and his football future is bleak. The Patriots are left with a gaping hole on their roster while Gronkowski recovers from back surgery — his fifth surgical procedure since November.
Meanwhile, Brady has lost his favorite receiver. Welker signed a free-agent contract with the Denver Broncos and was replaced by free agent Danny Amendola.
From 2010 to 2012, Welker (326), Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 688 receptions. Brady (1,126) and other New England quarterbacks (nine) completed 1,135 passes combined during those three seasons, so those three receivers caught 61 percent of the passes.
They also caught 78 of the 110 passing touchdowns in the past three seasons.
Now the Patriots are seemingly starting over. Hernandez, who lined up at H-back and was expected to fill the receiving void left by Welker, is gone.
The Patriots wasted no time, issuing a statement within hours of his arrest June 26: “A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation.
“We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”
The NFL later issued a statement: “The involvement of an NFL player in a case of this nature is deeply troubling. The Patriots have released Aaron Hernandez, who will have his day in court. At the same time, we should not forget the young man who was the victim in this case and take this opportunity to extend our deepest sympathy to Odin Lloyd’s family and friends.”
With Gronkowski’s health an issue and Hernandez gone, the Patriots’ biggest strength has become a concern.
Gronkowski had multiple forearm surgeries, and in June, he underwent back surgery and could miss several games early this season. Former New York Giants tight end Jake Ballard is on the Patriots’ roster after missing all of last season because of a knee injury. If healthy, Ballard figures to play a significant role.
The Patriots also have holdovers Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells at tight end.
Amendola, who had 63 receptions last season for the St. Louis Rams, is expected to replace Welker, and Julian Edelman is back as the understudy at slot. But beyond Amendola, there’s not much experience at receiver.