New England Patriots Links 4/09/12 - Aaron Hernandez: The Modern Model for the NFL

Aaron Hernandez has the athleticism, smarts and versatility that is the envy of the league.

Sam Monson (Pro Football Focus) Aaron Hernandez: The new NFL athlete.

... The Patriots have devised ways of using Aaron Hernandez that are proving equally successful, but for slightly different reasons. Hernandez is not the fastest player on the field, nor is he the strongest, or a physical monster like Rob Gronkowski, but he is an unusual blend of those traits such that it makes him uniquely between positions. The Patriots can at any time play him in one of three spots on offense: wide out, tight end, or running back. The league’s complete dependency on personnel packages and substitutions makes that very important. ...

Hernandez played significant time as a tight end, a wide out, and a running back in the backfield last season as the Patriots shifted him around to try and force favorable match-ups with defenders. Moving tight ends into the slot and back is commonplace in the NFL today, with a new breed of athletic, receiving tight ends providing advantages against coverage just by their presence, and that’s exactly how Hernandez started this season. The trouble is that his ability to run block was extremely poor, even by the standards set by today’s receiving tight ends, so there was little incentive for a team not to treat him as a receiver. Even if the Patriots lined him up tight and ran the ball, the defense wasn’t at a disadvantage because his blocking was so bad.

So New England changed tack: when they saw teams treating Hernandez as a receiver, instead of aligning him in tight and using him to block against smaller defensive backs, they would put him in the backfield, and have him run the ball. Hernandez may not be much of a blocker, but he is tough enough to run the ball into contact or hit the hole with power, and more than athletic enough to make people miss with the ball in his hands. ...

While The Planet Theory still holds weight in today’s NFL, those super athletes are becoming harder and harder to find, so teams have modified the theory. The league’s ever increasing specialization means that the key to unlocking a defense can come either from finding an athlete that no single defender can match up with physically, or otherwise find an athlete that can transcend a single-position role and force a defense into the wrong personnel grouping before the snap. If an offense can do that on a consistent basis, they have the cutting edge that everybody is looking for. Aaron Hernandez is the best example of that player, but if teams have been watching the tape this season, there are going to be a lot more looking for their own version of the new NFL athlete.

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