Rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez burst on to the Patriots' scene in the week two defeat to the New York Jets, hauling in six receptions for 101 yards and tearing up the middle of the field. He proved to be a lethal weapon through the Cleveland loss, when he disappeared for most of the remaining games, with a couple sparks in the Jets blow out and the Packers squeeker. Hernandez was nicked up and fellow rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski had no problem shouldering the load as a solid receiving target for quarterback Tom Brady.
Still, Gronkowski possesses a different skill set from Hernandez and both are extremely valuable as receiving targets. However, maybe there was more to Hernandez's Houdini act at the end of the season than some bad injuries. Perhaps he went the way of wide receiver Brandon Tate; a case of bad hands can lead to a doctor's visit to the bench. The combination of injury and drops can cause any young player on the Patriots to take some time off as the depth steps up and performs.
Just how different were Gronkowski and Hernandez? Pro Football Focus calculated Gronkowski as having the 10th most reliable hands out of tight ends in the league, with 3 drops out of 49 catchable targets, against the Minnesota Vikings, the Buffalo Bills, and the Miami Dolphins. I was a little surprised to see no drops against the Cleveland Browns, but I guess "fumbles" don't count. Still, Gronkowski was one of the most reliable tight ends in the league.
Hernandez? He ranked 37th out of 38 qualifying tight ends. That's second to last. That's plenty of room for improvement. PFF tagged Herndo for dropping 9 passes out of 55 catchable targets. For a player who missed the final two games of the regular season, that's far too high of a drop rate. For a versatile tight end who's main weapons are his hands, Hernandez needs to be the reliable target for Brady, especially with the question marks in the receiving core.
Has Wes Welker fully recovered? How will Deion Branch's perform in his encore season? Will Brandon Tate finally learn how to run a deep route? Will Julian Edelman emerge? How will Taylor Price impact the receivers? With so many questions, hopefully Hernandez can become an answer.
This off-season, it's clear that Hernandez needs to call up wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Tate and they need to find the nearest JUGS machine or Tom Brady and start working on their repetitions. This is a slow off-season for fans, but for individuals who call football a "job", it must be even more slow for them. Hernandez needs to take advantage of this time to ensure that he takes the next step as a sophomore.