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What's next for the New England Patriots?

Aaron Hernandez's Wednesday arrest and subsequent murder charge creates a great deal of legal questions that will be answered in the coming months.

His release by the New England Patriots, meanwhile, creates questions about the football team. The Patriots' statement on Wednesday recognized that this move wasn't about football; the team focused on supporting the police and the victim in the case. But the Patriots will have a plan in place for how to adjust on the field.

Track record


Harken back to the days before Wes Welker and Randy Moss and the much ballyhooed undefeated regular season, before Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez shattered the NFL record for most combined receptions (169) yards (2,237) and touchdowns (24) by a tight-end duo in 2011.

The Patriots boasted a top-10 offense every year from 2004-2006 while posting a combined 36-10 regular-season record. The leading wide receivers on those teams were Deion Branch, David Givens, Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney.

Make no mistake, the Patriots' offense will undergo a major overhaul as Tom Brady potentially enters the season opener without his five leading receivers from last year.

Hernandez might be the best post-catch "tight end" in the NFL, but the numbers suggest his release is not cause for alarm in New England. The Patriots were 5-1 this past season without Hernandez, averaging an eye-popping 42.3 points per game. The offense was demonstrably less efficient with Hernandez on the field -- likely because his return from an ankle injury coincided with Rob Gronkowski's late-season absence.

The challenge isn't to replace Hernandez's production. It's to find another way to simulate the pre-snap dilemmas Hernandez forced on opposing defenses, which treated him as a wide receiver necessitating nickel packages.

In other words, don't expect a gimpy, slow-footed Jake Ballard to fill the vacancy. He doesn't even play the same position.

Forget about Tim Tebow, too. He doesn't have the quick-twitch athleticism to excel as a "move" tight end, a transition he would struggle to make at the NFL level in just a couple of months. The list of available tight ends contains little more than tumbleweeds.

So where does Brady turn?


Gronkowski will remain the second-most important player on the team once he's back on the field, but Danny Amendola and perhaps even Julian Edelman also will be thrust into go-to roles. Don't forget that Edelman was playing over Wes Welker at the beginning of last season. Contrary to conventional wisdom and lazy stereotyping, both players are capable of playing outside as well as the slot. Wild cards include rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.

Much as Brady and coach Bill Belichick leaned heavily on Corey Dillon from 2004 to 2006, the current personnel dictates a heavy reliance on the ground attack. The up-tempo offense finished No. 2 in rush attempts and No. 7 in rushing yards last season. The offensive line returns intact. Shane Vereen is poised for an increased role behind Stevan Ridley. LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden and Leon Washington provide quality depth and versatility at running back.

The rest of the AFC East teams shouldn't get their hopes up just yet.

The New York Jets and Buffalo Bills still are rebuilding and the Miami Dolphins have to prove the exception to the rule on free-agency shopping sprees. At the same time, the Patriots' defense figures to show substantial improvement while the offense treads water early in the season.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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