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What will the Patriots offense look like without Aaron Hernandez?

By Jared Smola 6:32am EDT 6/28/13

If you're looking for legal mumbo jumbo on Aaron Hernandez, you've come to the wrong place.  We're all about football here.  More specifically, we wanna know how Hernandez's release will impact the Patriots' offense - and your 2013 fantasy football season.

Hernandez has been a key cog in New England since arriving via the 4th round of the 2010 draft.  He's played in more than 52% of the team's offensive snaps in each of the past 3 years.  That number climbed beyond 76% each of the last 2 seasons. 

Hernandez finished 3rd on the team in targets, catches, receiving yards and TDs in both 2010 and 2011.  He missed 6 games this past year but still ranked among the top 4 in all 4 categories.

Since 2010, only Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski have more catches, receiving yards and TDs for the Pats.

So what will New England's offense look like without one of its top pass-catchers?

For starters, expect the Patriots to throw less and run more.  They took to the air about 55% of the time in 2012.  It was a 58/42 run-pass split in 2011. 

The personnel dictated that play-calling, though.  In addition to having a future Hall of Fame QB, New England had a pair of stud TEs and one of the best slot receivers in the game.

But HC Bill Belichick isn't opposed to going more run-heavy.  With QB Tom Brady sidelined in 2008, New England threw on just 51% of its plays.  Even with Brady in 2001, 2004 and 2006, the Pats threw less than 51.5% of the time.

The personnel dictated it.  The pass-catching corps in those years sported guys such as Troy Brown, David Patten, David Givens and Reche Caldwell. 

The group New England will trot out in 2013 won't be much better.  Four of last year's top 5 pass-catchers are now gone (Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Hernandez and Danny Woodhead).  The other, Gronkowski, is questionable for the start of the season.

It only makes sense for the Patriots to run more.  They have a couple of young, talented backs in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.  And the offensive line has finished 2nd in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking rankings in 5 straight seasons.  After throwing 55% of the time last year, expect New England to settle in between 51% and 53% in 2013. 

That figures to mean fewer plays, too.  The Pats led the NFL with 1,164 offensive snaps last year - largely a result of a hurry-up, pass-leaning offense.  Expect a more deliberate pace this season, resulting in a lower snap count.

When New England does take to the air, the passing attack figures to look quite different.  The 2-TE set has become a staple since Hernandez and Gronkowski arrived in 2010.  Per Pro Football Focus, the Pats went with 2 TEs 59% of the time in 2010.  That number rose to a whopping 76% in 2011.  It dropped to 47% last year - largely because of Hernandez's and Gronk's injuries. 

With Hernandez out of the picture, New England has only Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui behind gimpy Gronk.  We're obliged to mention Tim Tebow here, too, although it sounds like the Pats are committed to keeping him at QB.  We can never be completely sure with Belichick, but it's a good bet that we'll see a lot fewer 2-TE sets from New England this year.

Besides, when the Patriots released Hernandez, they lost a WR just as much as a TE.  Over the last 3 seasons, Hernandez ran 52% of his routes from the slot or out wide.  49% of his targets have come when lined up in the slot or out wide.

Gronkowski might end up seeing more action detached from the line.  But he already ran a career-high 62% of his snaps from the slot last year.  It's tough to see that number climbing much more.  And New England's other TEs don't appear athletic enough to handle that role.

Patriots WRs are more likely to step into Hernandez's slot role.  Danny Amendola was already expected to play a ton there.  His snaps might not increase, but his targets probably will. 

We're also keeping an eye on Julian Edelman.  The 5'10, 198-pounder is a prototypical slot receiver - undersized but quick and shifty.  Early last year, it looked like he was assuming a significant role in the Pats passing game.  He played 59% of the offensive snaps and racked up 15 targets, 10 catches, 85 yards and a TD in the first 3 games.  Some folks even thought he was taking over Wes Welker's spot as New England's primary slot receiver.

A hand injury cost him the next 3 games, though, and Edelman returned to a reduced role.  He at least flashed in Week 11 with 5 catches, 58 yards and a score, plus a 47-yard run.  Edelman broke off a 56-yard TD catch the following week.  He also averaged 15.5 yards per punt return with 1 score.  Durability has been a problem (he suffered a setback with a foot injury already this offseason), but there's intriguing ability here.

When Edelman re-signed with the Pats in April, it looked like he'd be a strict backup to starting slot receiver Danny Amendola.  But now that Hernandez is out of the picture, we could see Edelman and Amendola on the field together in 2013. 

We'll be closely monitoring this new-look Patriots offense throughout the summer.  For now, we're expecting to see more of a lean toward the running game.  Amendola figures to dominate targets - at least until Gronkowski gets healthy.  Edelman could be a sneaky fantasy pick in PPR drafts.  Rookie Aaron Dobson is also capable of making an immediate impact if he can get comfortable in the offense.  Pass-catching RB Shane Vereen could haul in a bunch of balls, too.

We made some significant adjustments to our Patriots projections after Hernandez was released.  And we'll continue to update our rankings all summer.  Draft Sharks Insiders can check ‘em out right now.


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