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What Could Have Been With Aaron Hernandez And The Patriots

Credit: © Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

How great could Aaron Hernandez have been if he didn’t commit his horrific acts of violence?

When former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in prison this past April, it concluded one of the saddest sports stories of the past 10 years. The most devastating part of this situation is the pain Hernandez’s victims and loved ones will have to endure for the rest of their lives. And Hernandez’s family and friends will have their own pain and suffering to endure.

It all went downhill for Hernandez when a life altering incident occurred at 16 years old. His father tragically passed away due to a medical error. Hernandez turned from a sweet, goofy kid to the troubled psychopath who surrounded himself with bad influences.


These issues were evident when he played at the University of Florida. In April of 2007, he got into a fight at a Gainesville bar and in September he may have been involved in a Gainesville shooting. This troubling behavior then transferred to the NFL with his murder of Odin Lloyd and his involvement in a double murder. Without the unfortunate circumstances of his childhood, it’s unknown how the rest of Hernandez’s life would have unfolded. By no means do these circumstances excuse him, but they are important to understanding the person Hernandez was and the legacy he leaves behind.


The less important angle of this story is how Hernandez wasted an incredibly promising football career. Even though that part of the Hernandez story is not as important as the human side, it certainly is interesting enough to dive into. It’s been nearly five years since Hernandez has played for the Patriots, so it’s easy for people to forget how talented of a player he was. 


First, we are going to analyze Hernandez’s brief career to refresh our memories on him as a football player. Then we will project where he and the Patriots could be if he never committed these heinous crimes.


Entering the 2010 NFL Draft, Hernandez was recognized as a great talent but many teams were concerned about the aforementioned off-field issues at Florida. The concerns were so high to the point that the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals took Hernandez off their draft boards entirely. This is what caused him to drop all the way to the 15th pick of the fourth round where the Patriots selected him. 

Hernandez came into the league in 2010 as the youngest player on any active roster. Despite his youth and inexperience, he was able to learn the notoriously difficult Patriots playbook and carve out an impactful role for himself in his rookie season. In 14 games, he caught 45 passes for 563 yards and six touchdowns while only playing in 48% of the offensive snaps. In these snaps, he showed flashes of brilliance, but what stood out the most was his quickness in the open field for a guy his size.



As shown in the clip, at 6‘2 and 250 pounds, he was able to break the ankles of several defenders including Antonio Cromartie, who as a corner, shouldn’t be at a quickness disadvantage to a tight end. 

Hernandez broke out in his sophomore campaign, racking up 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. His athletic attributes were on full display during this season with his snap percentage rising from 48% to 77%. This level of production from Hernandez, along with the breakout season from Rob Gronkowski, made the 2011 Patriots offense revolutionary. Gronk had the best season ever for a tight end catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Combining that with Hernandez’s production created the most dominant tight end duo that the league had ever seen. 

No other tight end combination in NFL history has come within the same stratosphere as Gronkowski and Hernandez. This unprecedented attack made the offense nearly unstoppable.

Stat2011 NFL Ranking
Passing yards2nd (5,084)
Touchdowns4th (39)
Passer Rating3rd (105.7)
Points per game3rd (32.1)

If Gronkowski was fully healthy in the Super Bowl against the Giants that season, the duo might have been a driving force behind another Patriots Super Bowl title. When they were both on the field together, it created constant mismatches for the defense. Both Hernandez and Gronkowski had size advantages on corners, and speed/quickness advantages on linebackers and safeties. This is evidenced by the fact that in 2011 Tom Brady threw 31 touchdowns and only four interceptions with both on the field, and eight touchdowns and eight interceptions with at least one of them off the field. 

What also made the combination lethal is that both guys had the mental and physical capacity to line up almost anywhere on the field. Hernandez had the ultimate versatility, being able to line up at running back in addition to wide receiver and tight end.

There probably aren’t any tight ends in the history of the league that could make a run like the one Hernandez pulled off in the 2011 divisional playoff game against Denver.

via GIPHY


Injuries stymied Hernandez’s final NFL season. He missed six games and ended the season playing in only 47% of the team’s offensive snaps. In those snaps, he caught 51 passes for 483 yards and five touchdowns.


The loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 AFC title game was the last game Hernandez ever played in. He was arrested at his home five months later on June 26th, which was the beginning of the end for him.  


One of the key pieces of the story that got lost in the wake of Hernandez’s arrest was how big of a role he was expected to take on in 2013. It all started at the beginning of 2012 when Hernandez agreed to a five-year, $40 million contract extension. Then once the season began, he started taking snaps away from Wes Welker. In the Patriots Week 1 victory over the Titans, Hernandez played 99% of the snaps while Welker only played 64% of the snaps. That plan was then scrapped once Hernandez sprained his MCL the next week and dealt with injuries the rest of the year.


After the season, the Patriots let Welker sign with the Denver Broncos assuming Hernandez would take a bigger role in the offense. Obviously that never happened and the Patriots skill position group became depleted, causing Brady to have one of the worst statistical seasons of his career.  

So it begs the question: What if Hernandez got to play in this expanded role? With the expectation that he was going to replace Welker as Tom Brady‘s top target, it would be reasonable to look at a number of snaps Welker played in the 2011 season. This was the only season in which Welker was the Patriots top target playing alongside a dominant Gronkowski. Welker, in that season, played in 89% of the offensive snaps. In theory, with the versatility that Hernandez had, he would have played that type of role for the Patriots in 2013 and beyond. 


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Credit: Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports


When you examine Hernandez’s three-year career, the production he had in the 2011 season-best represents what he could have been in future years. The reasons being that he didn’t suffer any serious injuries, and he was an integral part of the Patriots offense. All of that being said, the best way to project Hernandez’s production in future years is to take the stats he put up in 2011 and calculate what the numbers would be in 89% of the snaps instead of the 77% of the snaps (that was his snap percentage in 2011).  

When those calculations are done, this is what the projected stat line looks like: 91 receptions, 1,051 yards, and eight touchdowns. There are a few other factors that could have made these numbers fluctuate. One of the reasons why the projected production could have increased is because of Gronkowski’s health. Gronkowski didn’t start having injury problems until 2012, so theoretically Hernandez could have been playing in an even bigger role from 2013-2016 when Gronk couldn’t stay healthy.  

Another factor that could have had Hernandez’s projected production increase is the fact that the Patriots wouldn’t have as much cap space to sign players. With Hernandez under contract for a high price, there would be less money for the Patriots to spend on skill players, hence more targets for Hernandez.  

The only piece that could have made Hernandez’s production worse than the projections is the lack of talent on the offensive line from 2013-2016. Hernandez never played in a Patriots offense where the offensive line was liability. If he played for the Patriots when the line was a major problem, chances are his production would have decreased because of it.  

All three of these major factors were not included in the projections. If you take those factors in consideration, ultimately, it is fair to say that the projections serve as a valid, rough estimate for what Hernandez’s per season production could have been from 2013-2016.

If you add four seasons of this stat line to Hernandez’s numbers from his three years in the NFL, he catches 539 passes for 6,160 yards, and 50 touchdowns. When comparing the first seven years of every tight end in NFL history to the first seven theoretical seasons of Hernandez, this is where Hernandez stacks up:

NFL Tight End Greats First Seven Season Leaderboard: 


NameReceptionsYardsTouchdowns
Jimmy Graham499 (3)6,280 (1)59 (2)
Antonio Gates479 (4)6,223 (2)59 (2)
Aaron Hernandez539 (1)6,160 (3)50 (4)
Rob Gronkowski405 (11)6,095 (4)68 (1)
Jason Witten523 (2)5,965 (5)27 (41)
Tony Gonzalez468 (5)5,647 (6)47 (5)


These theoretical numbers put Hernandez in the conversation with the best tight ends to ever play the game. He and Gronkowski would have been linked together as the tight end duo that took the league by storm. The uniqueness of having two of the best tight ends to ever play on the same team would have made them tremendously fun to watch. 

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Credit: The Boston Globe-Pool Photo

This excitement about what Hernandez could have been reflects a bigger cultural problem the NFL has. That problem is the NFL and its teams don’t care enough about criminal behavior. In a billion dollar industry, there is always a ton of pressure to win games, so a player’s talent can overshadow any shortcomings they have character wise. This problem has existed for a while in the NFL.

A classic example of this is back in 2000 when former All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis was charged for murder yet the Baltimore Ravens stood behind him and kept him on the team. Cincinnati Bengals corner Adam Jones is another example of a player who has had serious run-ins with the law. He has been arrested four times and was involved in two shootings outside of nightclubs where he wasn’t arrested. Even after all of this criminal activity he still finds himself on an NFL roster. In addition to that, Greg Hardy, Tyreek Hill, and most recently Joe Mixon are players who played in the NFL after being involved with domestic violence. 

It is pretty apparent that if a player has the talent to help a team on the field, the criminal issues are taken less seriously by the franchise. Think of it this way: if Hardy, Hill, and Mixon were at the same talent level as a player like Jonathan Dwyer, would they have still gotten second chances? Probably not. If the NFL and its teams did what was ethically and morally correct, NFL teams, media, and fans wouldn’t feel so conflicted when reveling in the success of a player like Hernandez or Hill.

Everything was there football wise for Hernandez. He had all of physical talent in the world and he was playing with one of the most successful franchises in the history of sports. He had a chance to become one of the better tight ends to ever play the game. Unfortunately, the football part of Hernandez’s life is now an unimportant footnote in his life story.


Edited by Jeremy Losak, Andy Narotsky, Brian Kang.

SQuiz
What round was Aaron Hernandez drafted in?
Created 5/26/17
  1. 1st
  2. 6th
  3. 3rd
  4. 4th

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