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.
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.
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.
|Stat||2011 NFL Ranking|
|Passing yards||2nd (5,084)|
|Passer Rating||3rd (105.7)|
|Points per game||3rd (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.
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.
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:
|Jimmy Graham||499 (3)||6,280 (1)||59 (2)|
|Antonio Gates||479 (4)||6,223 (2)||59 (2)|
|Aaron Hernandez||539 (1)||6,160 (3)||50 (4)|
|Rob Gronkowski||405 (11)||6,095 (4)||68 (1)|
|Jason Witten||523 (2)||5,965 (5)||27 (41)|
|Tony Gonzalez||468 (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.
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.
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