With news that Aaron Hernandez was finally arrested today in conjunction with the murder of Odin Lloyd, the outlook changes for both our fantasy football tight end rankings and for the offense of the New England Patriots.
Yes, Wes Welker is in Denver, Rob Gronkowski is living out of the local operating room and Hernandez is facing the possibility that his next several years will be spent in a prison camp rather than training camp.
But the Patriots still have Tom Brady and a plethora of weapons that will allow the team to stretch its run of finishing no worse than tied for first place to 13 years. To those predicting doom in the northeast, remember, Brady has played with mediocre to bad wide receivers before. Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, David Givens and David Patten are just a few of the journeymen who were among the leading receivers for Brady and crew before the likes of Randy Moss, Gronk and Hernandez came along.
Even the semi-highly thought of Deion Branch has never had a 1,000 yard season nor caught more than six touchdowns in a season. Yet Brady seemed to love him.
I think Brady will see the lack of star power surrounding him at the receiver and tight end positions this year as a challenge that will motivate him. His numbers will not be what they have been in his most stellar statistical seasons, but his legendary leadership skills and ability to make those better around him will come through clearly.
AND it isn’t like the cupboard is entirely bare, either.
This year’s Patriots offense will look different, but it will still be effective. Stevan Ridley ran for 1260 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012 as the main beneficiary being the top running back in a pass first offense. Expect him to again be the featured runner in an attack designed more around the ground game.
Shane Vereen has disappointed in his first two years with the team, but he has some skills in the passing game and an opportunity, as the 2012 pass receiving portion of the backfield tandem, Danny Woodhead, high-tailed it to San Diego this offseason. Expect Vereen to answer the call with at least 50 catches and perhaps many more as he gets his first real chance to claim the role previously held by Woodhead and Kevin Faulk.
And don’t forget about Brandon Bolden, who averaged nearly five yards per carry early in his rookie season of 2012 before injuries and a four-game performance-enhancing-drug-policy-issue derailed his promising start.
Then there is Jake Ballard, a sneaky acquisition from the New York Giants following the 2011 season. Ballard spent 2012 recovering from a knee injury he sustained helping the Giants defeat New England in the Super Bowl XLVI. Giants coach Tom Coughlin was disappointed to lose Ballard to the Patriots but Belichick now looks like a genius for stealing him away. Ballard in 2011 averaged nearly 16 yards per catch on 38 grabs in an offense where the tight end is a ways down the food chain on the target-meter.
Add to the equation the returning Julian Edelman, the acquisition of Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins in free agency, the selection of Aaron Dobson in the draft and the presence of Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui and two rookies and, while it won’t be as pretty and flawless as it has in some recent years, this will not be a team that struggles to score.
Yes, football fans, the Patriots will still be able to move the football. It’ll be a more balanced attack. It’ll be ugly, hard-nosed, smash-mouth football at times. But the weapons that remain in Foxboro, coupled with the lack of readiness among division foes in New York, Buffalo and Miami, mean we’ll still be watching the Patriots in the postseason.