Just a few weeks ago, Aaron Hernandez was expected to take on the brunt of the workload in the Patriots' offense with Rob Gronkowski currently dealing with rehab from recent back surgery. But with all that has gone down regarding the homicide of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, the Patriots could be without both of their star tight ends to start the season.
There is really no need to go into the semantics of all that has gone down recently regarding Hernandez. With an arrest warrant issued because of Hernandez's alleged obstruction of justice regarding the murder, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 7 years in jail with it, the Patriots could miss the one guy who would have made the loss of Gronk a bit easier. Gronkowski could miss the first 6 weeks of the season while on the PUP list. For more on Gronkowski, make sure to check out Phil's analysis. Now that Hernandez is dealing with potential jail time, plus a case involving a shooting back in February, the Patriots are sure to be working the wheels on how they will fill the void at tight end.
But how the Patriots will deal with the loss is the big question? There is a plausible chance both Gronkowski and Hernandez could be on the field come Week One. An outside shot, but still something that could happen. A better chance would see at least one of them on the field. If both are out for a good chunk of the first 8 weeks of the year, here are two scenarios that I see happening:
In-House Substitutes, Including Tim Tebow
As of this writing, there has been no mention of the Patriots even considering turning Tim Tebow into a tight end, a scenario many have called for since Tebow left Denver. Bill Belichick has said time and again that Tebow will compete for the third-string quarterback job. Now that the tight end situation has collapsed, for now at least, Belichick could dip his hand in his magic bag and convert yet another player to a position he didn't play at before. He has done it in the past with some success. He was able to convert receiver Troy Brown into a cornerback, and a competent one. Also at times, he would use linebacker Mike Vrabel as a passing option near the end zone. While this scenario with Tebow looks doubtful, it's still possible.
Jake Ballard is another option to look at. Ballard has gone under the radar due to missing all of 2012 because of an ACL injury in the 2012 Super Bowl when he was with the Giants. Ballard was a pretty decent pass-catching option for Eli Manning in 2011, catching 38 passes for 604 and 4 touchdowns. While Ballard was never going to compete with the likes of Tony Gonzales or Jimmy Graham in name recognition, he could still be someone the Patriots will lean on if he's 100 percent by training camp. Although, it would be hard seeing Ballard as a consistent option, even if Tom Brady is throwing to him.
If Belichick is known for anything it's giving guys left on the free agent heap another chance at success. He signed Kellen Winslow at the beginning of the 2012 season, only to cut him in late September. Winslow, given his past antics, was not a Belichick guy from the start. So his release was no surprise. As for other options this time around: There is belief that if the Pats were to sign someone, Dallas Clark and David Thomas would be at the top of the list. Clark spent a year in Tampa Bay in 2012 after being a mainstay in the Colts offense for years while Peyton Manning was leading Indy. Clark's time in Tampa was poor to say the least, having averaged 27 receiving yards a game. Thomas spent time in New England before signing with New Orleans, but was never anything more than a bit player. Neither of these signings would excite me if I was a Patriots fan.
The Patriots need to do something and fast. Whether it be integrating Ballard and Tebow in the mix at tight end in training camp, or signing someone off the scrap heap to help them get by, the team will have to start planning now on getting one of the above scenarios in motion. Letting Hernandez's legal situation play out doesn't look like something they are going to go through with. It showed when they booted him from Gillette Stadium last week. Tebow was enough of a circus. New England doesn't need another one.
Tom Brady has made duds look like studs in this offense before. If he can do it for someone not named Gronkowski or Hernandez, it will be a miracle.