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Spotlight: Aaron Hernandez

posted by Steve Holloway on Jul 15th


Steve Holloway's thoughts

Setting the Stage
Aaron Hernandez was born in Bristol, Connecticut, hometown of ESPN. He excelled there in high school playing both offense and defense. As a senior, he caught 67 passes for 1,807 yards and 24 TDs while playing wide receiver. On the defensive side of the ball, he made 72 tackles, forced and recovered a few fumbles and blocked four kicks. He was ranked as the top tight end prospect in 2007 by Scout.com and Rivals.com.

He played collegiately for Florida with Tim Tebow as his quarterback. He played well for the Gators, but did not excel until his junior season when he was their leading receiver, catching 68 passes for 850 yards and 5 TDs. He finished his career in style leading the Gators in a Sugar Bowl victory over Cincinnati with 9 catches for 111 yards and a TD. After the season, he was named the John Mackey award winner as the nation's best tight end.

He slipped considerably as the draft approached amid reports that he had failed a college drug test. He was drafted much later than early projections, in the fourth round by the New England Patriots and was the sixth tight end selected. He signed a four year $2.4 Million contract that included only a $200,000 signing bonus. He will make $644,000 this year and $693,000 in 2013 and can earn an additional $1.3 Million escalator based on playing time. He will be a free agent in 2014. He has had remarkable production in his two seasons with the Patriots, but has largely been overshadowed by the play of Rob Gronkowski. His career statistics are provided in the table below.

Year Gms Targets Catches Catch% Yards YPC TDs
10 14 64 45 70.3 563 12.5 6
11 14 113 79 69.9 910 11.5 7
Total 28 177 124 70.1 1,473 11.9 13

In his rookie season, he never had double digit targets in a game and only went over 7 targets three times. Despite missing the final two games that year, he played better in the second half scoring all six of his TDs after week 9. He had two games where he caught two TDs.

He was much more involved in the game plan in 2011, his second season. Including the playoffs, he had 12 games with 7 or more targets and caught 7 or more passes in 8 games. He topped 100 yards receiving in three regular season games.

As we prepare for the 2012 season, the Patriots seem poised to once again have one of the league's most dynamic passing attacks. The team added Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney to the receiving corps, which already was led by three very good receivers, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez. The general perception is that the Patriots did not run the ball often last year, but in fact ranked 17th in rushes per game with 27.4 per game. With the additions at wide receiver and the loss of their most experienced running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, it would not be surprising for the rushing attempts to be decreased this year.

Looking Forward to 2012
The Patriots signed Josh McDaniels as the team's offensive coordinator replacing Bill O'Brien who took over the Penn State program. McDaniels has had previous success with the Patriots, particularly throwing the ball. While he was leading the Broncos in 2010, they threw for 4,306 yards and 25 TDs featuring Lloyd and Gaffney (the same two players added this off-season by the Patriots) as the primary targets. That year those two players caught 142 passes for 2,323 yards between them.

The Patriots will continue to be led by Tom Brady, who a season ago was amazing throwing for 5,235 yards and 39 TDs. No NFL team had ever thrown for that many yards and that many TDs before. Normally Brady's production would garner greater attention, but Drew Brees topped that by 200 yards and 7 TDs. The Patriots feature an excellent offensive line, among the league's very best at protecting their quarterback. Their top two running backs on the other hand are both very young and lack NFL experience, having a total of only 102 career rushes between them. Some think that the Patriots want to balance the offense and run more this season, but their off-season acquisitions and the players allowed to depart strongly indicate otherwise. Expect the Patriots to continue to focus on the passing game and rely primarily on the leadership and arm of Tom Brady.

The biggest question regarding Aaron Hernandez and indeed the entire Patriots receiving corps is what will the impact of Gaffney, and more specifically Lloyd, be to the opportunities and production of the Patriots' returning dynamic trio. Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez caught 122, 90, and 79 passes last season for 3,806 yards. Those three combined for 72% of the team's receptions and receiving yards and an even more impressive 85% of Brady's TD passes. Most anticipate that Lloyd will be frequently targeted, primarily on deep routes. It is mildly surprising that a year ago Gronkowski led the Patriots in plays that went for over 20 yards. He had 27 of those plays, with Welker next at 21, then Hernandez with 14 and Branch had only 11. The anticipated deep targets for Lloyd might impact Gronkowski more than Welker and Hernandez. It is possible that both Welker and Hernandez benefit as Lloyd stretches the field and provides them with even more room to operate in the middle of the field on shorter patterns.

Positives

  • Brady is extremely accurate and Hernandez is an efficient route runner with very good hands (70.1% career reception percentage)
  • The addition of Lloyd may actually open up the middle of the field even more for Brady
  • Hernandez surprisingly had slightly more targets and receptions per game last year than Gronkowski
  • Hernandez is in his third season and likely is still growing in the complex Patriot offense and should continue to get more comfortable with Brady and the system

Negatives

  • Brady does not lack for excellent receiving options to target
  • The Patriots defense should be improved
  • Lloyd could potentially take away targets from Hernandez

Final thoughts

The Patriots' offensive game plan will continue to attack opposing defenses regardless of the score, which means that even with expected defensive improvement, they will continue to pass the ball early and often. Brady and his receivers will have another very productive fantasy season. Although many are expecting Lloyd to be much more productive than Branch in a similar role this season, it is also likely that his abilities to stretch the field may be a positive for those receivers running the underneath routes. Aaron Hernandez could provide excellent value since his ADP is about three rounds later than that for Gronkowski and Graham, this season's anticipated top two tight ends.


Quotations from the message board thread

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

butcher boy said:

A stud TE who is unfortunately on the same team to a superior stud TE. Still, he gets his fair share.

FF Ninja said:

I've been trying to find guys to steal targets from when projecting the NE offense this year and I've got Hernandez for around 90-100, but that's a tough one as he saw 113 last year in only 14 games (8.1/gm). He producted 910 yds (11.5 ypr) and 7 TD on 79 receptions last year. I don't project injury, but the guy has missed 2 games a season for both seasons so that's got to be factored in when drafting him just a few picks ahead of Vernon Davis and Jason Witten.

Let's say he does get 95 targets, catching 70% like last year would put him at 66.5 receptions and 12 ypr would give him about 800 yards which is likely less than or equal to guys drafted later than him, so you pretty much have to be expecting Lloyd to be a Branch-like factor next year (or for Welker's role to be myseriously decreased by a lot) in order to justify drafting him 60th overall (TE4). Since I do plan to snag Lloyd in every league, I won't be drafting Hernandez in any.

David Yudkin (Footballguys.com Staff Writer) said:

I tried tackling the Pats pass protection dilemna in on of the other Pats threads. IMO, Welker will continue to get his. He's Brady's security blanket. Maybe not as many targets as last year but still basically 10 a game. As I see it, Gronk will lose targets because I don't believe he will be 100% and teams will cover him better. Hernandez will also see fewer targets, as the Pats upgraded their receiving corps and those targets have to come from somewhere. Maybe they trow a bit less than usual to the RBs. I just don't see Gronk and Hernandez having the same total numbers as last year, as there are too many mouths to feed.

IMO, too many people are taking what the Pats players did last year and then allocating only crumbs to the new guys. I don't think you can make a decent projection using that model . . . you have to remap with the assets that are there and rebuild from the ground floor up.

Since Moss left, the Pats have been trying to make do with the likes of Price, Tate, Ocho Cinco, Slater, Underwood, and Edelman. Branch did ok for a while, but they really have been lacking for WR depth. They could have 3 new options this year in Lloyd, Gaffney, and Stallworth (although I doubt Stallworth will make the team). Teams will be forced to cover outside receivers for a change.


Aaron Hernandez projections

RECRECYDRECTDRSHYDRSHTD
Steve Holloway851020800
Message board consensus74920600