NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The New England Patriots offense already had a new look in the first two weeks of 2012 than it did in 2011. They became more explosive at the running back position with the promotion of Stevan Ridley to the starting lineup, and as downfield weapon Brandon Lloyd emerged as one of Brady’s favorite targets, the role of Wes Welker, the NFL’s reception leader in 2011, decreased significantly.
When the Patriots’ offense takes the field for their Week 3 matchup versus the Baltimore Ravens, they are going to have a different look yet again.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, the main reason for that is a very bad one. One of the team’s two star tight ends, Aaron Hernandez, is expected to be out up to six weeks with a low ankle sprain, according to NFL.com.
The consequence of losing Hernandez should not be understated. Between elite route-running ability, tremendous quickness, great hands, physical power and even the ability to line up in the backfield as a running back, Hernandez brings a unique skill-set to the field that no other player on the team, and possibly in the entire league, can fully replicate.
With or without Hernandez, the core weapon for quarterback Tom Brady in the Patriots’ offense will continue to be the team’s other elite tight end, Rob Gronkowski, whose combination of size, explosive athleticism and blocking strength make him the league’s most complete at his position. Hernandez, however, provides a perfectly complementary skill set, and without an ample replacement, Gronkowski is likely to draw more defensive double-teams.
In an effort to lessen the impact of Hernandez’s loss, the Patriots signed two veteran skill-position players for their offense on Tuesday. The direct replacement for Hernandez in the lineup could be Kellen Winslow, who caught 75 passes for 763 yards in 2011. The Patriots also brought back wide receiver Deion Branch, who they cut prior to the opening week of the season, while they released Greg Salas, a wide receiver they traded for prior to the season.
Winslow does not have the versatility, nor run the sharp, quick routes that Hernandez does, but if he is healthy and in shape, he is a big, athletic tight end who can provide a solid secondary receiving threat opposite Gronkowski at tight end. As for Branch, his release came as a significant surprise, but now that he is back, his experience and familiarity with the team should enable to contribute for the Patriots again immediately, whereas Salas never saw the field in two regular-season games.
Since the Patriots have built their offense around their two star tight ends, losing Hernandez raises a question: how will the roles of the Patriots’ other tight ends and wide receivers change as a result of his injury, as well as the new additions the Patriots have made?
Another interesting decision made by the Patriots in Week 2 was to start Julian Edelman as the No. 2 wide receiver, opposite Lloyd, and ahead of Welker on the depth chart. At first, it appeared as though Welker may not see much playing time against the Cardinals. That changed when Hernandez went down on the Patriots’ third offensive play of the game, as the Patriots moved Welker in the flex slot receiver role that Hernandez essentially plays as a receiving tight end.
The addition of Winslow could decrease Welker’s role again, as Winslow will likely split repetitions with Daniel Fells, who has been inactive for the season’s first two games, as the team’s second receiving tight end.
However, while the Patriots rarely use three-receiver sets with Hernandez and Gronkowski both in the lineup, expect them to use more without Hernandez on the field. Welker is best suited to play the slot receiver role, so their best chance of success without Hernandez may be if Edelman can establish himself as a solid No. 2 wideout in the Patriots’ lineup, and having Welker play the majority of offensive snaps as the third receiver.
But while Lloyd seems safely established as the Patriots’ No. 1 wideout this season, which may be a surprise to some considering Welker was an All-Pro in 2011, Edelman and Welker are going to have to compete for playing time with the variety of formations that the Patriots will try without Hernandez in the mix.
If healthy and active, Winslow and Fells should both see time as pass-receiving tight ends in two-tight end sets, while the team also uses run-blocking specialist tight end Michael Hoomanawanui frequently in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Another receiver competing for playing time will be Branch, who could supplant Edelman for many of his snaps as the second outside receiver if the Patriots continue to focus on Welker as a third receiver.
With Fells inactive last week, and Winslow not yet on the roster, the Patriots had no other option for replacing Hernandez in the lineup and still keeping four receiving weapons on the line of scrimmage than by using Welker in his position. Between Winslow and Fells, at least one if not both of them should be active in Week 3, so expect the Patriots to revert back to the two-tight end formation often, probably for somewhere between one-third and one-half of the team’s total offensive snaps.
With that said, Welker’s role should be a very significant one going forward as a result of Hernandez’s injury.
Hernandez and Welker are the team’s two best route-runners, so the team should always want one of them on the field. Welker will still probably be utilized most often in the third receiver role, with Edelman and Branch playing as the second outside receiver, but expect Welker to take some snaps back as the second receiver as well when the Patriots use two tight ends.
Of course, under the guidance of head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the Patriots’ offense is consistently one of the NFL’s most creative and unpredictable in regards to how they utilize their personnel and in what formations they do so. The above are my best projections of how the Patriots will utilize their new additions and game plan without Hernandez, but when it comes to the Patriots’ offensive schemes, expect the unexpected.