I know that I said I was going to break down CB Darius Butler for this film session, but I'm waiting for some additional information so he'll be the third installment. For now, we'll examine soon-to-be sophomore tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez was drafted in the 4th round of the 2010 NFL Draft as a receiving complement to the larger and more-abled blocker Rob Gronkowski. Hernandez was expected to be a late 2nd or 3rd round pick before news of his marijuana habits dropped his draft value. The Patriots offered Hernandez a contract of lesser value than his draft position, but included potential bonuses should Hernandez not fall by the wayside; the contract was created to keep Hernandez in line.
Prior to the season, I predicted that Hernandez would have 7 starts, 45 receptions, 600 yards, and 6 touchdowns. I believed that he could provide a Dallas Clark-type target for Tom Brady to utilize all over the field. By Week 9, Hernandez was at 6 starts, 34 receptions, 436 yards, and 2 touchdowns and was on pace to surpass my expectations. However, a hip injury and unreliable hands led to lower production and playing time for the remainder of the season. Still, he finished with 7 starts, 45 receptions, 563 yards, and 6 touchdowns on the year.
I believe that everyone has high hopes for Hernandez, especially as a dangerous receiving target. He created mismatches in the secondary by burning past linebacker coverage and out-muscling the safety coverage. He would find pockets in the coverage almost every time and would be able to generate YAC by running around or over the defensive backs. Let's look at Hernandez's game to see where he excelled and where he needs to improve in order to take the next step in his sophomore season.Again, we will be using Ninja's fantastic videos on YouTube.
Early in the season, Hernandez showed why he was highly regarded as a receiving tight end prospect. In the first few games, he took the field by storm. Against the Bengals, he made a great play for large yards- a play that would become a basic play in his repertoire. Against the Jets (not on the same tape), he completely annihilated the defense for a tremendous game. Against the Bills, he flashed his athleticism with quick feet, great concentration, fantastic cuts on routes and solid hands. Against the Dolphins, he showed great concentration with great hands even while under contact.
During this span of time, he had a few drops; most notably (in the video) the drop in the end zone against the Bengals. He had the ball in his hands, clutched against his chest, but he dropped the ball. He did a phenomenal job on the route to be in position to make the play, but the drop is inexcusable, especially with how much of the ball he had before going to the ground.
Still, during the first quarter of the season, Hernandez greatly exceeded everyone's expectations. He had an immediate impact and was a great option for Brady with usually reliable hands, even if traffic.
However, in the second quarter of the season, something happened to Hernandez that made his less reliable. He still flashed his athleticism and made great plays, but either he was hit by a bad case of "the rookie" or his early success went to his head. Against the Ravens, he trounced their linebackers for a big play, but suffered from two terrible drops in overtime- drops where he wasn't under contact, he wasn't under pressure, and where he had time to pluck the ball. Instead, he started moving without full possession and left the ball behind.
Against the Chargers, he pushed off a defender to negate a big play with an offensive pass interference call. Still, he produced his now expected 20+ yard reception and moved on. To finish the second quarter of the season, Hernandez gained some of his early stride and was able to make big catches while moving, while also making tough grabs in traffic. Against the Browns, he dropped an semi-excusable ball on a full extension jump over the middle of the field that went through his fingertips. He had a second drop in the red zone after a big hit from behind.
However, keep in mind that fellow rookie TE Rob Gronkowski had an awful game against the Browns. He fumbled in the red zone and allowed the kickoff turnover. In the next game against the Steelers, Bill Belichick and Brady crafted a plan to get Gronkowski involved in the offense and over his poor game. Now I won't say that Hernandez' decrease in production was a result of an increased focus on Gronkowski- if Hernandez was open, he'd get the ball- but there's definitely a link. Gronkowski had a monster game against the Steelers and emerged as a real dual threat in both the passing and blocking game. As a result, Brady started to look towards Gronkowski after checking Wes Welker and Deion Branch and Hernandez saw his opportunities decrease.
In the Steelers' game, Hernandez didn't record a yard for the first time in his young career. He dropped a poorly thrown screen pass and that was his only activity for the day. For the next two games against the Colts and Lions, Hernandez would have one look, make a great play, and that would be it for his production. Either Hernandez was set aside to continue the growth of Gronkowski, or Hernandez had to make up something to the coaching staff to regain playing time.
For the rest of the season until his injury, Hernandez was utilized more frequently. He had another great performance against the Jets and was involved against the Bears, despite having his clock cleaned at least three times by vicious hits. Against the Packers, Hernandez showed great movement and versatility as an offensive weapon and produced at a high level.
Unfortunately, Hernandez was either injured late in the game or the next week at practice because he missed the final two games of the regular season with an injured hip.
Watching the tape of Hernandez shows how well Hernandez was used in the offense.
He ran end-arounds.
He split out as wide receiver.
He blocked at halfback.
He blocked as set-back tight end.
He ran up the seam as a receiver from the tight end spot.
He ran slants from the receiver slot role.
He ran screens.
He blocked inline and downfield.
Hernandez was a man who wore many hats in his first season with the Patriots. He was just a pure offensive weapon and he should continue to use that versatility to his advantage to help move the ball down the field.
It's clear, though, that Hernandez might always be dinged up to end the season. He's not the largest player and he was used as a receiving tight end up the middle of the field. Brady showed no fear throwing to him in traffic with the expectation that Hernandez come down with the ball regardless of opposing contact- and for good reason. More often than not, Hernandez would come down with the ball, even with a player riding his back to the ground.
Still, Hernandez has plenty to work on. His attention to the little details were what made him so dangerous earlier in the season, with phenomenal routes (by the way, Hernandez should go teach Tate how to run routes. It's impressive) and great hands. Those same details were the reason for Hernandez's stall in production. He stopped focusing on the ball and was thinking too quickly. He was being overly aggressive against defenders. The game is fast for a rookie, especially for one who set the bar so high early in the season. Opposing defenses put a target on Hernandez, which means more than enough pressure was placed on the rookie to succeed.
Hopefully next season the game will slow down for Hernandez and he'll continue to focus on the little things. There was no glaring place for improvement for Hernandez. He's a great route runner. He shows tremendous hustle. He's fearless in traffic. He shows his great hands when under contact. In fact, the only time that Hernandez struggled was when he had too much time. When the play was too easy, Hernandez couldn't do it. He dropped at least four passes that were in his hands with no player going to hit him. He dropped another couple passes with a defensive player on the way. If Hernandez learns to slow down the game and take advantage of all of his opportunities, he'll be a stud for many seasons.
As much as Chris Collinsworth bugs me (no real reason. I just feel like he wants the Patriots to fall when he commentates), he makes a great point at the end of the video. He talks about how Hernandez adds tremendous value in audible calls. If Brady sees a potential mismatch, he can flex Hernandez out to wide receiver on a goal line play and force a linebacker to try and cover Hernandez, which just won't happen. On other plays when teams bring on numerous defensive backs, Brady can send Hernandez up the seam to take advantage of the size differences.
Watching the tape of Hernandez's season shows that his improvement is extremely possible. As long as he continues to work on the little parts of his game, and as long as he's given repetitions in the game, he will continue to improve. A lot of these corrections will come with time and experience. At 21 years of age, Hernandez looks to have plenty of time and experience in front of him.