Hernandez Released, Gronkowski A Question Mark For Rival Patriots

By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

Tasteless as it sounds, a memorabilia collector paid $1,000 on eBay the other day for an Aaron Hernandez jersey. Another doled out $289 to a guy who figured he’d do well to get $15 for his old Hernandez jersey.

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Certainly, some people who want to divest themselves of any and all things relating to the alleged murderer and now former Patriots tight end are benefiting. It may not be a pleasant subject to talk about, but it’s a fact of life. People are willing to spend real money on the infamous.

Here’s another fact. One of the main beneficiaries of the Hernandez aftermath is the Jets. And it didn’t cost them a cent.

Because Hernandez allegedly decided that the gangster life was far more attractive than the $40 million extension he’d just signed, the Jets became better the moment the cops clapped the cuffs on the great tight end. Actually, for purposes of keeping the timeline accurate, their fortunes rose about 90 minutes later when the Pats excised him from their roster.

Out of respect for the departed and the horrific nature of Hernandez’s alleged part in his demise, a respectful amount of time needed to pass before addressing football matters. But now that the beginning of training camp lies less than a month away, it seems appropriate to analyze Hernandez in football terms germane to the local scene.

It is entirely possible that New England will be a lot easier to defend this year, simply because throwing to the tight end was so much a part of their offense. Hernandez and the great Rob Gronkowski opened up so many possibilities downfield for Tom Brady that he almost couldn’t live without them. Now, they’re both gone — Hernandez permanently as he wends his way through the legal system, Gronkowski to back surgery. And no one can truly predict how effective the big, physical, and freakishly fast Gronkowski will be once he returns.

That leaves tight end collector Bill Belichick with one proven player at that position — former Giant Jake Ballard. Belichick picked him up injured, off waivers, in June of 2012. At the time, it was believed a cheap move made solely to tweak a team that had beaten Belichick in two Super Bowls. But now, the kid who looked so good while catching 38 passes for 604 yards and four TDs in 2011 could be the Patriots’ best hope for that short and middle passing game. Of course, he didn’t play in 2012 as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered in that Super Bowl, so he goes in as another question mark.

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Belichick has four other tight ends on the roster, but none with any significant credentials. Daniel Fells’ best pass-catching days are behind him, having grabbed just four in 15 games last season and 19 the year before that. Brandon Ford is an undrafted rookie, as is Zach Sudfeld. Michael Hoomanawanui has caught just 25 passes over three years with St. Louis and New England, and hasn’t scored a touchdown since 2010.

No combination of those guys is going to come close to the 106 catches, 1,273 yards, or 16 touchdowns Gronkowski and Hernandez afforded Brady last year. Though he will never admit it, it has to be a load of Rex Ryan’s mind that he won’t have to worry about defending either threat. That’s assuming Gronkowski doesn’t come back as good as before.

There always looms the Belichick factor, however. He always comes up with something. And heaven knows, Ryan has plenty of problems to straighten out with his own team, including how long to stick with Mark Sanchez. He’ll need to figure out just how long a leash he’ll give the butt-fumbling, eventual winner of the training competition with second-round pick Geno Smith. Whether Belichick has tight ends or not, the Jets are still going to have to produce points to have any shot at respectability.

But defensively, at least for the two games against the Patriots, the Hernandez affair made the Jets a smidge better.

It’s sad that it had to come in such a macabre manner, but it’s a fact. Just like it’s a fact that people are drawn to the possessions of the infamous.

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