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I’d like to begin this with a very frank and genuine admission: I’m fully aware that discussing the fantasy implications of Aaron Hernandez’s release from the Patriots feels cold and grimy, even though it’s now become a common practice on the Twitters over the last few days. Hernanadez was released because he’s been charged with ending a human life, and so therefore the two principle people in this discussion are either no longer living (Odin Lloyd, the victim), or their normal life could soon end with a lifetime sentence in jail (Hernandez).

However, we discuss all matters related to fantasy footballing around here, a focus that may fade somewhat during the offseason before increasing ten-fold in September. And though the circumstances may be horrible, gruesome, disgusting, and a few more similar adjectives, one of the premier tight ends in football being released and remaining unemployed (Hernandez cleared waivers) is a damn big deal.

For more than just Hernandez, too. By now you’ve come to the easy conclusion that if you’re going to make a steep investment in any player at the tight end position, that player’s name has to be Jimmy Graham. Sure, if by some miracle the various body parts which comprise Rob Gronkowski are held together successfully by fishing line and he can play in Week 1 (or shortly thereafter), then go nuts with an early pick on him too if you’re the type who thoroughly enjoys risk.

But the resulting aftershocks of Hernandez’s release will effect many other members of the Patriots’ offense, and beyond that, the very structure of the offense. Let’s explore a question that’s quite significant.

Can Tom Brady still be Tom Brady?

At first, this question seems like the most trolly troll question to ever troll. Tom Brady will always be a magnificent specimen of a man. Any man brave enough to knowingly pose for a picture with a baby goat that will follow him for the rest of his existence is more man than any of us.

But let’s assume for a moment that the worst-case scenario with Gronkowski becomes reality after his back surgery, and he’s placed on the PUP list, where he’ll sit for the first six weeks of the season. Immediately, that means Brady will be without both Gronk and Hernandez, which adds to losing wide receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and running back Danny Woodhead. Combined, those five caught 338 passes last year, and if we then add in the departure of depth pass catchers like Deion Branch, Visanthe Shiancoe, Dante Stallworth, and Kellen Winslow, the turnover becomes absolutely monumental. In total, the departed players account for 77 percent of Brady’s targets.

That’s difficult to fathom. Yes, Danny Amendola will step in for Welker, and an early pick was invested in Aaron Dobson. But the current Tom Brady that we know and love as a fantasy commodity could be a shell of himself without his dueling uber athletic tight ends. At best, he could fall out of the top five at his position (again, that’s with the assumption that Gronkowski lands on the PUP list).

Both Gronkowski and Hernandez missed time last year, sitting out a combined 11 regular-season games. That sucked for our boy Tom, but they were never both out at the same time, a cruel fate the Patriots haven’t dealt with since the two tight ends were drafted back in 2010. Remarkably, Gronkowski still finished with 790 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing five games, while Hernandez missed six and he still recorded 483 yards with five scores.

With that highly versatile athleticism at his disposal (both Gronkowski and Hernandez lined up in the slot and out wide in addition to conventionally in-line), Brady finished the 2012 season with 332 fantasy points, second only to Drew Brees overall. If we disregard both 2008 due to his leg injury and 2007 since his 50 touchdowns were a vicious outlier (his career single-season average disregarding that year and 2008 is 28.4), here’s how Brady’s fantasy production has looked without two large tight ends to play with (whatever greases your wheels, Tom):

  • 2009: 310.9
  • 2006: 263.1
  • 2005: 294.1
  • 2004: 279.7
  • 2003: 260.8

During one of the years in that sample (2009) he had the luxury of throwing to both Welker and Randy Moss, which was a pretty sweet deal.

Last year, a tight end who isn’t Gronkowski or Hernandez caught a ball only 10 times (Michael Hoomanawanui: five, Daniel Fells: four, Kellen Winslow: one), a rather meager sliver of Brady’s overall 401 completions. The common assumption has been that Jake Ballard will slide in for Hernandez and be just fine. But naturally, that assumption could be woefully incorrect.

Firstly, those on Team Ballard are assuming his knee doesn’t explode into several pieces sometime this summer or fall. It was only just a week ago that Mike Garafolo reported Ballard is “almost 100 percent”, even though he’s well over a year removed from microfractice surgery after blowing out his knee during the Super Bowl in 2011.

But for the sake of our little adventure here, let’s make another assumption: Ballard is healthy, and in top form come Week 1. A healthy and fully functioning Ballard is a fine tight end, though certainty several levels below Hernandez. However, simple talent isn’t his only problem. What Ballard does best (use his large frame to be physical while fighting for balls up the middle, and just generally be a conventional tight end), doesn’t come close to matching what Hernandez did best (which is a bit of everything).

Last year, Hernandez lined up as a wide receiver on 59 percent of his snaps. Those snaps often came from the slot, but he was split out wide frequently too. Hell, Hernandez even found himself in the backfield on five percent of his snaps, according to Mike Clay from Pro Football Focus.

That’s not Ballard’s jam. Since Hernandez was frequently used as a wide receiver, it makes a lot of sense that he’ll be primarily replaced by, well, a wide receiver. NESN’s Doug Kyed has the snap breakdown for the games when Hernandez was broken last year:

Deion Branch played the most snaps in his absence with 249. Julian Edelman played the next most at 131, followed by Daniel Fells with 117 and Michael Hoomanawanui with 88. Visanthe Shiancoe, Matthew Slater, Greg Salas and Kellen Winslow also piled up reps without Hernandez. The tight ends of that group — Fells, Hoomanawanui, Shiancoe and Winslow — played 244 snaps without Hernandez, and only 84 came on passing plays. That means that wide receivers filled in for Hernandez on passing plays approximately 77.6 percent of the time and tight ends filled in for Hernandez on running plays roughly 48.5 percent of the time.

Of the wideouts mentioned there, only Edelman remains. Amendola will obviously be the top receiver, and be used in a Welker-like fashion. But beyond him, it’ll a cluster-mess of names competing for the second spot.

Dobson makes sense there, but he could be a little raw early. Edelman does too, but if a field stretching presence is desired (and it is) he’s not your man because he’s very Amendola-like, and Amendola is already Welker-like. I know, I’m dizzy too.

In addition to those two, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, and Lavelle Hawkins will compete for the two spots behind Amendola. The wildcard here will be Shane Vereen, the running back who was often a running back in name only last year, spending 19 percent of his snaps lined up at wide receiver (again, you’re pretty good, Mike Clay). He finished with 149 receiving yards on just eight catches, with much of that yardage coming on an 83-yard grab in Week 12.

Vereen should quickly become the new Danny Woodhead after the shifty Benjamin Button moved on to San Diego, a possibility I wrote about in more depth a few months back. Woodhead finished 2012 with a career high 55 targets, which he turned into 40 catches and 446 yards (both also career highs). But it’s Vereen’s ability to slide outside which makes him at least a periodic Hernandez replacement, keeping Ballard where he belongs: at the line of scrimmage.

Hoomanawanui and Fells are also options, while undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld looked great at minicamp, and his super sleeper train is already chugging. So between maybe him, Vereen, and Wide Receiver X in the aforementioned gaggle, there will be value to be found on the Patriots offense, even with Hernandez and Gronkowski gone.

But you should probably think long and hard about making Brady the fifth quarterback off the board, and let him fall behind Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, and Colin Kaepernick.