Friday Football: How do the Patriots Replace Aaron Hernandez?

The story of Aaron Hernandez’s fall from grace has seemed to add on another chapter every day over the past week. New England’s decision to release Hernandez, a formal charge of murder and further investigation of a previous double homicide are only the latest events in the ongoing saga.

Hernandez’s departure means the Patriots have yet another hole to fix with both Wes Welker and Hernandez missing on the offensive side. The injury situation of Rob Gronkowski makes matters worse — the Patriots have gone from a lethal tight end duo to the possibility of having neither on the field to start the season.

In late June, teams are aware that the free-agent market has dried up at many positions, as is the case with tight end. As such, it’s important that New England identify who to take snaps with the starters before the preseason begins.

Bill Belichick pulled a move on the Giants in 2012, when they claimed Jake Ballard off of waivers when New York expected no team to claim the injured two-year pro only months after Ballard helped to defeat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. In 13 starts in his sophomore season, Ballard put up respectable numbers — 38 receptions, 604 yards and four touchdowns — as he was only surpassed in yards and touchdowns by the receiving duo of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.

The addition of Daniel Fells last season was at the time an end of the roster move — with Gronkowski and Hernandez established as offensive weapons, Fells saw very little playing time — but now it seems he could play a more visible role in 2013. Fells has a similar skill set to Ballard as a blocker with some receiving work in past seasons. At 29 and with six NFL seasons under his belt, Fells offers the Patriots much more experience than Ballard. A capable starter who hasn’t received much of a shot to play outside of a one-year stint in Denver a couple seasons ago, it would prove interesting if New England chose to start Fells over the more newsworthy Ballard.

The difficulty here is that both veteran players are more suited to in-line tight end positions. While either would make a suitable replacement for Gronkowski in the short term, Hernandez always served more of a receiver role than a tight end — seen when looking at his snap counts on offense this past season, over 50-percent of which were at wide receiver in the slot (only accessed with a premium account at Pro Football Focus).

The only other tight end on the roster is undrafted rookie Zach Sudfield. A 6-foot-7 behemoth of a receiver, Sudfield only started one year of college ball at Nevada without injuries as a senior in 2012, tallying 45 receptions and 598 yards with eight touchdowns. With an athletic skill set suitable to playing a pass-catching role at the professional level, Sudfield is very similar to Hernandez in play style and is a player to watch in camp.

Sudfield’s inexperience could lead to an opening for a former division rival receiver in Donald Jones as a potential replacement for Hernandez on the offense. Jones, still young at 25-years-old, played three years in Buffalo after signing as an undrafted rookie in 2010. Although not incredibly productive as a slot receiver with the Bills (82 catches in 35 games), Jones could be used as a bigger slot target to complement the smaller, quicker former-Rams receiver Danny Amendola — much like the Patriots offense utilized Welker and Hernandez in past seasons. Jones’ pairing with Sudfield could allow the Patriots to gradually integrate Sudfield into the offense rather than throwing the rookie to the wolves.

With the influx of receivers this offseason — including rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce — it’s entirely possible that Belichick gives a different look in 2013 utilizing a combination of Amendola, Julian Edelman and any number of the fore mentioned players rather than sticking with the tight end dual attack.

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