This season, the Patriots have shown that they may have the best depth at tight end in the NFL, as they have two tight ends that are capable of having big games.
Rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have both been reliable targets for quarterback Tom Brady this season.
Gronkowski has proven that he is a solid red zone threat for New England, as he finished the regular season with 10 touchdowns, leading all Patriots receivers. Gronkowski also finished the season as the featured tight end while Hernandez was battling a hip injury.
Meanwhile, Hernandez has also proven a more viable option for Brady throughout the course of the season. This season, Hernandez finished with 45 receptions and 563 yards, both totals are a little bit higher compared to Gronkowski's total of 42 receptions and 546 yards. Hernandez also compiled six touchdowns.
While both have been key in the Patriots success this season, only one will likely see more targets. The question is which one will have that opportunity in Sunday's divisional playoff game against the New York Jets? Lets examine how both tight ends might fare against the Jets defense:
Rob Gronkowski's Case
Gronkowski has spent nearly the entire season taking back seat to Hernandez as Tom Brady's favorite tight end. However, Hernandez suffered a hip injury after his 2 touchdown performance against Green Bay, which opened the door for Gronkowski for the Patriots final two games.
In that span, Gronkowski combined for 10 receptions 148 yards and 3 TDs. Gronkowski became Brady's favorite target in goal line situations. Gronkowski put up nearly a third of his total numbers in New England's last two games.
Despite his success in the last two games of the regular season, Gronkowski hasn't had tremendous success against the Jets. In New England's two regular season games against New York, Gronkowski has only combined for 2 receptions for 26 yards and no touchdowns. Gronkowski was seemingly the only Patriots receiver in New England's 45-3 victory over the Jets that did not get involved.
Gronkowski has shown he is more of a short-yardage tight end when the Patriots need to convert a third down and three or a third and goal from the one yard line, hence his 10 touchdowns. Despite his success on short yardage, Gronkowski has been well covered by the Jets linebackers this season.
In Saturday night's victory over the Indianapolis Colts, the Jets defense limited Jacob Tamme's ability as they held him to 46 yards and kept him out of the end zone. This comes as a shock, as Tamme has developed into one of Peyton Manning's favorite targets since the injury to Dallas Clark. Similar to Manning, Tom Brady has had the same confidence in his young tight ends.
If the Jets defense brings the same effort and intensity on Sunday as they did against the Colts, Gronkowski's production may be limited.
Aaron Hernandez's Case
Hernandez has developed into one of Tom Brady's favorite targets this season as a wide receiver/tight end hybrid option.
During the season, Hernandez recorded 45 receptions for 563 yards and six touchdowns. Because of Hernandez's 6-1, 245 pound build, it has allowed him to become more of a wide receiver as he is faster than both Gronkowski and Alge Crumpler. Because of Hernandez's speed, Tom Brady likes to use him a lot on crossing routes, contradicting Gronkowski's use on Goal line situations.
Unlike Gronkowski, Hernandez has had tremendous success against the Jets in New England's two games. In New England's 28-14 loss to the Jets in Week 2, Hernandez finished with six receptions with 101 yards, in his first break out game as a rookie. Hernandez kept it going in the Week 13 45-3 victory against the Jets, as he finished as the second leading receiver with 3 receptions 51 yards and a touchdown.
Hernandez's ability to create a mismatch in coverage as a tight end allowed him to run over the Jets in his two performances against the Jets. Also, the Jets are coming off a game where they allowed 6-0 210 pound Pierre Garconto explode for five receptions 112 yards and a touchdown. Although Garcon has a similar build to Deion Branch, Hernandez could be in store for a big game against the Jets linebackers.
The only concern for Hernandez, is the hip injury that caused him to miss a few games. Hernandez was ruled out of games against both the Bills and Dolphins with his hip injury, but with a bye week and a full week of practice on the way, the hope is Hernandez becomes healthy enough in order to become the big play threat he has been throughout the season for the Patriots.
Both tight ends have had their bright spots this season, but with his success against the Jets and two full weeks of practice, I think Aaron Hernandez is going to be the featured tight end against the Jets. With Hernandez's fresh legs against a Jets defense that will be taking on a fresh Patriots team, it looks like their is a big performance in store with the former Florida Gators tight end.