National Football League

Patriots’ Vertical Horizon Dimmer Without Hernandez, Gronkowski

On the eve of the 2010 NFL season, Randy Moss publicly expressed frustration that the Patriots failed to extend his contract. He was set to become a free agent at the end of the year and told reporters, “When you have done so much and put so much work in, it kind of feels like I am not wanted.”

In the weeks to follow, Moss told reporters that he felt “smacked in the face” because the Patriots hadn’t offered him an extension. In mid0September he vowed not to talk about his contract situation, but by early October that had all changed. CSN New England reported that Moss and coach Bill Belichick “had words” following a Monday night game against the Dolphins in which the receiver was held without a catch. A day later, Belichick shipped Moss to the Vikings in exchange for a third-round pick in the 2011 draft.

A few days later came the trade acquisition of Deion Branch, whom the Patriots acquired from the Seahawks in exchange for a fourth-round selection. But little did anyone know that Belichick’s plan for life after Randy involved changing the direction of his entire offense. Instead of attacking teams deep with Moss, he would shred defenses down the seam with rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Ironically, Belichick may yet again have to change the direction of his offense due to those same tight ends.

According to’s Ian Rapoport, Gronkowski will open camp on the active/PUP list due to multiple surgeries involving his back and arm. While the Patriots haven’t given up hope that he will be ready by Week 1, “Gronk” doesn’t exactly have Adrian Peterson-like healing powers. If nothing else, Gronkowski will be limited this season until he’s fully healthy. And when he’ll be 100-percent again is anyone’s guess.

Hernandez, meanwhile, has made the off-field actions of Gronkowski look like a child’s birthday party. Earlier this week it was reported that Hernandez was involved in a murder investigation in Attleboro, Massachusetts. Since then, the story has predictably grown legs and the latest reports have Hernandez destroying his home security system, smashing his phone into pieces before handing it over to authorities and hiring a house-cleaning service to scrub the inside of his million-dollar mansion. As of this writing he has yet to be arrested or charged with any crime, but the dark clouds that have appeared over his head are starting to form into a life-alternating twister.

If Gronkowski is limited and Hernandez is, uh, preoccupied for the entire season, former Ram Danny Amendola will become the focal point of New England’s passing game. Assuming he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to believe Amendola couldn’t catch 100 passes from Tom Brady in that offense. But as Rams fans know, assuming anything in regards to Amendola’s health is a foolish proposition.

The one thing the Patriots do have is quantity at tight end, but the quality at the position is up for debate. Jake Ballard, rookies Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld, as well as former Rams Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui are the other five tight ends that New England currently has on its roster. With all due respect to those players, none of them bring the same skill set as Gronkowski or Hernandez.

Thus, it’ll be interesting to see how Belichick re-arranges his offense in light of what’s happened this offseason. He does have the best offensive line in football protecting his three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, so Belichick is certainly better off than most head coaches.

But if Amendola can’t stay healthy, neither Michael Jenkins nor Julian Edelman will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night. Best-case scenario is that second-round pick Aaron Dobson stars as a rookie, but the Patriots’ scheme is complicated and he’ll need time to develop after playing in the MAC. Plus, for as good as Belichick is as a schemer, he’s equally brutal finding receivers through the draft. (My apologies to Chad Jackson, Bethel Johnson and Taylor Price.)

If it weren’t for their quarterback situation and Belichick’s ability to stay one step ahead, one could insinuate that the Patriots are in murky waters when it comes to their offense. But Brady will keep this team afloat and unless Ryan Tannehill is ready to take a sizable leap in his development, the Pats don’t have much competition in the AFC East. Hernandez or no Hernandez, we’ll likely see New England back in the postseason again next year.

That said, Belichick has to overcome a much bigger hurdle than he did back in 2010 when he traded Moss and re-built his offense. Even if he accounted for Gronkowski’s health issues, chances are Belichick didn’t foresee Hernandez being wrapped up in a murder investigation. Without those two players in the mix, the Patriots’ offense takes on an entirely different look.

And we thought Amendola’s biggest challenge would be replacing Wes Welker.