Aaron Hernandez Released: Where Do The Patriots Go From Here?

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So Much Talent, So Hard To Replace It

The arrest and subsequent release of Aaron Hernandez, represents just the latest depletion to what had been Tom Brady's sizable collection of productive receiving weapons. The Patriots could enter the season without their five most productive targets from 2012, if Rob Gronkowski is sidelined. Whenever Gronk does return, make no mistake: the team will be weaker at WR and at TE than they were last year.  Despite what you might read and hear to the contrary. Logic simply dictates that despite Brady's exceptional ability, New England's current stable of WRs and TEs cannot magically step onto the field and begin stockpiling receptions and TDs in the same manner as the weapons that they are being asked to replace. This is not to suggest that Brady will now endure a forgettable season. Or that the Patriot offense will now struggle mightily. But it does mean that the changes in personnel will alter how Bill Belichick and his staff utilize their current roster.

And the Patriot offense has a significant amount of production to replace. Starting with Hernandez, who caught 51 passes and five TDs last season, despite missing six contests. That placed him fourth on the team in receptions, just behind Gronkowski, who collected 55 passes and scored 11 times. Brandon Lloyd, who was second on the team with 74 receptions last season is gone. As is the always reliable Wes Welker, who of course was the team's leading pass catcher in 2012, and averaged 112 and receptions during the past six seasons. When you add the loss of Danny Woodhead via free agency, you suddenly find Brady without his five most productive targets from last season. The gradual elimination of weapons has initiated massive discussion regarding Brady's value. And in my opinion, he is now the sixth best fantasy option at QB. He will remain on of the league's highly prolific signal callers. But at a position that possesses sizable depth, he will no longer benefit from a seemingly endless number of talented options. And he certainly will not have the same arsenal of dynamic weapons that some of his counterparts can now rely upon.

The Patriots Can Run Extensively, But They Already Did   

However, Brady will not be lining up against opponents by himself. And there will be WRs and TEs to locate as part of their passing attack. But what is of greater importance will be the enhanced significance that Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen now possess to the Patriots, and for fantasy owners. But if that appears to be a prediction that the team will dramatically increase their percentage of running plays, it is not. The Patriots led the league in total offense last season, averaging 428 YPG. But it is important to remember that they accomplished that with a mixture of effective passing and running the ball. Brady and the aerial attack ranked fourth through the air, averaging 291 YPG, but New England was also seventh in rushing, with 136.5 YPG. Plus, they led the NFL with 25 rushing TDs. Therefore, leaping to a conclusion that the team will simply run the ball frequently is unwise, because they have already been executing that approach. New England's ground game can be emphasized more extensively, but not to an enormous degree.

Ridley And Vereen Will Carry The Load

It cannot be emphasized enough that the team might be compelled to add more WRs and TEs onto the roster. But this writing will concern itself with their current options. And it is ironic that Danny Amendola is the most likely candidate to become New England's leading receiver, because he is another former Texas Tech receiver who can potentially thrive in the slot. Just as Welker did so adeptly. But Amendola does not currently offer Welker’s track record of dependability as a steady target in the lineup. He was unavailable to the Rams in five different contests last season due to ankle and shoulder concerns, and was sidelined for a whopping 15 games after dislocating his elbow in 2011. Fantasy owners should consider his history as they revise their rankings. And make it a priority to target Ridley and Vereen.

Ridley was allotted 290 rushing attempts last season, which was the NFL's sixth highest total. It is difficult to envision his carries being increased, considering the voluminous number that he was already collecting. But it is conceivable that he will be utilized more frequently as a receiver. 11 teammates caught more passes from Brady than the paltry six that Ridley accumulated in 2012. Those occurred on just 14 targets, and that is a total that could easily climb. But even if that somehow does not transpire, Ridley's value as a rusher is enormous, and he will remain very active in that role. Plus, he did find the end zone 12 times as a rusher, and that total is likely to rise. All of this results in Ridley minimally performing as a proficient, high end RB2 for fantasy owners.

Yet, the biggest beneficiary of the depleted receiving options will be Vereen. His touches were inconsistent last season, but his most productive performance occurred in the postseason. He gouged the Texans for 124 yards and three TDs, which including 83 yards and two scores as a receiver. That was the second time that he had exceeded 80 yards in that category last year. Now, he will be allotted a sizable number of opportunities to be a dependable and frequently utilized backfield target for Brady, who should need to rely upon his third-year back extensively. Last season, Woodhead rushed 76 times, caught 40 passes, and was targeted 55 times. Vereen should adeptly fulfill the role that Woodhead executed so successfully, and could easily surpass his 2012 reception total. Belichick might decide to line Vereen up wide on some occasions, and could employ him in formations with Ridley. Regardless of the specifics, Vereen is destined to be the team's highly proficient third down back. And will be a high end RB3 or flex option for fantasy owners. Keep in mind that the Patriots acted quickly when Hernandez was arrested, and the possibility of sudden roster alteration remains. Fantasy Knuckleheads will continue to monitor every development, and adjust our analysis accordingly. But as of now, the collective stock of Ridley and Vereen is undergoing a dramatic rise.