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Spotlight: Aaron Hernandez

posted by Matt Waldman on Aug 6th


Matt Waldman's thoughts

As I've mentioned in the Rob Gronkowski Spotlight, he and Aaron Hernandez are the DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart of NFL tight ends. You can't have a discussion about one Patriot without addressing something about the other. Both had eye-popping moments as 2010 rookies and individually, both have 1000-yard, double-digit touchdown talent. However unless one member of the duo suffers an early-season injury, their combined 2011 totals may only amount to the 1000-yard, double-digit TD range.

I believe Aaron Hernandez is the more fantasy-friendly option for several reasons. The first is a pragmatic one. Currently, Hernandez is the TE15 off the board but he has more statistical upside than Gronkowski, who is generally the TE10. Second, that ADP is inflated by what I believe is the illusion of Gronkowski outplaying Hernandez down the stretch for 2010. Third, Hernandez is a more versatile option as a receiver.

When you consider that their projected numbers are considered to be similar if both remain healthy, the fact that Hernandez is going 51 picks after Gronkowski makes his a better draft day value, especially due to his natural skill sets as a WR/TE hybrid. Whereas Hernandez's hybrid role gives him 1000-yard upside regardless of Gronkowski's presence on the field, I believe Gronkowski's production ceiling only rises to elite status with an injury to Hernandez.

Last Season's Year-Ending Stats Don't Tell the Right Story...
...But the game splits do. Hernandez was nearly twice as productive as Gronkowski in the first half of 2010.

Gronkowski Hernandez
WK OPP TARG REC YD TD FPT WK OPP TARG REC YD TD FPT
1 CIN 1 1 1 1 6.1 1 CIN 2 1 45 0 4.5
2 NYJ 2 1 14 0 1.4 2 NYJ 6 6 101 0 10.1
3 BUF 3 3 43 1 10.3 3 BUF 7 6 65 0 7.8
4 MIA 1 1 4 0 0.4 4 MIA 5 5 29 0 2.9
6 BAL 1 1 24 0 2.4 6 BAL 6 4 61 0 7.9
7 SD 2 2 10 1 7 7 SD 8 5 54 0 5.4
8 MIN 3 1 5 0 0.5 8 MIN 3 2 33 0 3.3
9 CLE 8 4 47 0 4.7 9 CLE 9 5 48 2 16.8
10 PIT 5 5 72 3 25.2 10 PIT 2 0 0 0 0
11 IND 1 1 25 0 2.5 11 IND 1 1 8 1 6.8
12 DET 5 5 65 0 6.5 12 DET 1 1 18 0 1.8
13 NYJ 2 1 12 0 1.2 13 NYJ 5 3 51 1 11.1
14 CHI 6 5 43 1 10.3 14 CHI 4 2 19 0 1.9
15 GB 2 1 25 0 2.5 15 GB 5 4 31 2 16.7
16 BUF 7 4 54 2 17.4 16 BUF
17 MIA 10 6 102 1 16.2 17 MIA
TOT 59 42 546 10 114.6 TOT 64 45 563 6 97
9-Jan x 21 14 148 3 32.8 9-Jan 46 34 436 2 58.7
17-Oct 38 28 398 7 81.8 17-Oct 18 11 127 4 38.3

The rate of production between the two tight ends flip-flopped once Hernandez began to feel the effects of a hip injury that eventually cost him the final two games of the year. At this point Gronkowski's production climbed, including three touchdowns in the final two games that Hernandez missed. Prior to this point, they were still even with their skill at getting into the end zone. Except, Hernandez was actually more efficient based on his targets.

Gronkowski averaged a touchdown in roughly a little more than every five targets. Hernandez averaged one in roughly a little more than four targets. Not much of a difference except when you consider that Hernandez was banged up. Gronkowski maximized his opportunities with Hernandez hurt, but it doesn't guarantee he is the better option.

The Hands Debate
Aaron Hernandez had some drops as a rookie - six of them. Some people are labeling him the less reliable receiver than Gronkowski because of his drops. However, Texans tight end Owen Daniels had the same number of drops last year as Hernandez, and Owens' percentage rate of drops was even higher. No one is staying away from Daniels because he had six drops last year. Daniels is actually one of the more sure-handed receivers at his position and the stats reflect this point over a three-year period. In contrast, Jason Witten was among the worst.

This is another example where straight stats don't tell the real story. Until we see stats for drops of difficult passes and have a clear definition of what a difficult pass is, I'm not buying a straight statistical argument. Sometimes players with great ability are targeted in situations with higher difficulty, which result in more drops. I believe Witten qualifies. Before his first year in the NFL Hernandez was known as a sure-handed receiver. Expect Hernandez to rebound this year.

The Versatility Edge Goes to Hernandez
Gronkowski's natural position is tight end. But in an offense with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez the Patriots can dictate match ups with Gronkowski in the slot because the team can find specific match up advantages depending on how the defense chooses to defend Hernandez. With Welker, Deion Branch, and Chad Ochocinco the Patriots can change the personnel formations with Gronkowski and Hernandez before the snap:

  • 11 personnel, three-receivers with Hernandez as the H-Back/Fullback.
  • 10 personnel, three-receivers with Hernandez and Gronkowski as a two-tight end set.
  • Empty personnel with Gronkowski and either Hernandez or Welker in the slot.

Depending on the defensive personnel as the Patriots approach the line, Tom Brady can change to run or pass and dictate viable mismatches, which other teams can't do. This benefits Gronkowski because if defenses play nickel or dime, the tight end will have a true size advantage. If the defense is in a 3-4 or 4-3, Gronkowski receives the benefit of the slowest defensive player because of Hernandez. Also, the faster Hernandez creates more consideration from the safety in the zone, which opens seams for Gronkowski. Even without Ochocinco last year, this is one of the reasons why Gronkowski had a higher percentage of catches on intermediate and deep routes than Hernandez.

One advantage Gronkowski has in the red zone over Hernandez is when the Patriots do go to a two- or three-tight end set that incorporates him with Alge Crumpler and rookie Lee Smith. In this case Gronkowski will undoubtedly be the first option on play action passes or presnap adjustments where Brady splits the tight end away from the formation.

However, Hernandez still has the versatility advantage. He's big enough to use on the line in some situations, especially as a wingback, which still forces defenses to account for him as an inline blocker. But it's the fact that Hernandez runs routes with the agility and precision of a receiver that can kill defensive coverage using zone or man. Then there's the yardage after the catch. Hernandez routinely made linebackers, corners, and safeties miss in the open field last year. This combination of route skill and athleticism makes Hernandez a viable option on a combination of quick-hitting routes that we'll never see from Gronkowski.

Positives

  • Hernandez can play outside, inside, and in the backfield, creating more opportunities for targets and coverage mismatches in his favor because of his route running and ball carrying.
  • He was more productive than Gronkowski on a per-target basis last year, therefore dispelling the notion that Gronkowski is a better red zone option.
  • Hernandez doesn't need Gronkowski to dictate mismatches as much as the other way around.

Negatives

  • Hernandez was among the worst tight ends in the league last year with six dropped passes.
  • Even as a WR/TE hybrid, Gronkowski's presence limits Hernandez's upside because Gronkowski will see even better match up advantages when both TEs are on the field.
  • Even when used as an H-Back, the big-bodied Gronkowski might have a bigger role in the red zone than Hernandez depending on the personnel sets the Patriots use in thee situations.

Final thoughts

When it comes to this TE pairing, I think Aaron Hernandez presents better value on the field and in fantasy drafts. The fact that Gronkowski is very likely to accumulate low-end TE1 stats regardless of Hernandez's health diminishes Gronkowski's downside as a pick in the second half of fantasy drafts. However, if I'm going to draft a tight end this late, I'm looking for upside. Gronkowski's upside is better than a lot of tight ends after him, but I don't believe his teammate Hernandez is one of them. Expect Hernandez's receiving stats to lead tight ends in New England: 60 receptions, 720 yards, and 6 touchdowns.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

Iwannabeacowboybaby! said:

Aaron Hernandez is a very young player with a lot of talent. He isn't your conventional blocking TE as he's more of a receiver playing the TE position. At first thought you'd think that might be a good thing but I felt his inability to block well or at least compared to Gronk kept him off the field at times. I think Hernandez is a guy who you can draft as a TE 2 that has upside due to the QB he plays with as well as his young age.

houndirish said:

I think what New England did with their rookie tight ends last year was impressive as both were able to make immediate impacts. If I was pressed to list a preference I'd take Gronkowski. I'm a big believer in the notion that a tight end that is a strong blocker with above average receiving skills is in a position to be a valuable fantasy producer because he'll be on the field more than an offensive specialist type. The only exceptions being the tight ends that seem to play almost exclusively as H-Backs and who also rarely leave the field. Hernandez has excellent offensive skills but is a liability as a blocker so he won't be an everydown player. Gronkowski is a strong blocker and also possesses mismatch opportunity for the offense. Hernandez is the superior offensive player but Gronkowski is the superior all around player. IMHO that makes Gronkowski the more valuable fantasy player due to increased opportunity and the ability to fool defenses. Hernandez while difficult to cover, won't surprise the defense. They know why he's in the game and what he'll be doing. With Gronkowski's ability to block he can also catch the D off guard and slip into routes where due to his size he's a huge target and a load to tackle. That's part of what makes him a great red zone option. He'll be lethal inside the 10 yard line his entire career. I think you can make an argument that some of Hernandez's effectiveness is tied to the fact that the Patriots have the luxury (due to Gronkowski) to use Hernandez solely as a pass catching threat because they have have a strong blocking tight end that can also provide protection. So Gronkowski actually makes Hernandez better. The opposite cannot be said.

Faust said:

Gronkowski and Hernandez are both players who are worth targeting in your drafts. Gronkowski is very reliable and will have a very well defined role, and he will be productive as he earned Brady's trust last year, especially in the second half of the year when Brady locked in on him. He is the "safer" pick, but he will also come with a higher price in terms of his ADP in league drafts. What Hernandez did last year was also amazing, given that he was also only 20 years old at the start of the season. His ADP is significantly lower then Gronkowski and he can be acquired at a much lower price with an enormous upside given that he is more in the mold of the new hybrid style of TE that plays more like a WR.


Aaron Hernandez projections

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Matt Waldman60720600
Message board consensus50599500