New England Patriots  

 

Aaron Hernandez fallout: Patriots pay price for risky draft class

The concept of the New England Patriots buying low on players, young or old, is hardly new.

But to those inside the NFL, there was something different about New England's 2010 draft class. It wasn't that the group, which included the now-incarcerated Aaron Hernandez, had potential to commit the kind of crime that Hernandez has been charged with. Or that this was a wholly new idea, Bill Belichick rolling the dice on troubled players.

It was the number of risks the team took in one fell swoop -- after playing it safe with solid citizen Devin McCourty in Round 1 -- that raised some eyebrows over that April weekend.

"That was the first time I'd seen them do that," one veteran NFC personnel executive said. "It was unique for them. Half the guys were screw-ups, so I was surprised to see it. (Brandon) Spikes had his issues, (Rob Gronkowski) had the injury, you had Hernandez. It stuck out to me."

Three seasons in, the on-field production of the class has been off the charts -- and the trouble associated with the group has come to roost, as well. Aside from Hernandez, two of the team's top four picks from that draft (Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham) have been suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, and Gronkowski's injury problems have resurfaced. On top of that, another player from the 2010 draft who earned a significant role in New England after coming in with off-field concerns, Brandon Deaderick, was jettisoned in May.

The Patriots aren't alone here. The Detroit Lions inherited major risk taking Nick Fairley, Titus Young and Mikel Leshoure with their first three picks of the 2011 draft, and paid in a big way: All three have been arrested multiple times since their drafting, though the Lions actually released Young for insubordination prior to his week-long crime spree in May. Likewise, the St. Louis Rams' 2012 class was loaded with talent, but also gambles -- and the organization has already encountered issues with Janoris Jenkins (one-game suspension for a team violation), Trumaine Johnson (DUI charge, reduced to reckless driving) and Isaiah Pead (one-game suspension for substance abuse).

There are far more important matters in play than football with the Hernandez affair. Still, this particular moment of moving on from a troubled player, more so than ones involving guys like Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco and Randy Moss, has the potential to hit the Patriots hard between the white lines.

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"This one's a bigger blow for them," one NFC personnel director said, "because no one knows the availability of Gronk. Gronk's a big-time weapon, and Aaron was the guy they moved all around the formation. At receiver, they got rid of just about all their top guys, Danny (Amendola) is the only proven commodity. (Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) is brilliant, and he can maneuver them, but this will hurt them."

Four of the Patriots' top five receivers from 2012 -- and five of their top seven -- are no longer on the roster. Beyond Gronkowski, Julian Edelman is the club's top returning pass catcher, logging a grand total of 21 receptions for 235 yards and three touchdowns in nine games last year. Truthfully, he has been used mostly as a gadget player and return man during his first four NFL seasons.

Indeed, part of the problem for Belichick and Co. wasn't the risk they took in 2010, but how invested in Hernandez the Patriots had become, having doubled down with a five-year, $37.5 million extension last summer.

Now, New England was 5-1 without Hernandez last year, averaging 42.3 points in those games, so it's not like the offense revolved around him. But the problem his absence creates is magnified by attrition elsewhere.

"It's a significant concern, but the Patriots won games before those tight ends got there," an AFC personnel executive said. "If Amendola stays healthy, it could be an even exchange with Welker there, and outside receivers have come and gone and it hasn't affected the quarterback. The key element is Gronk. You get him back in Week 1, you have that presence in the middle of the field for the quarterback. That's a considerable factor.

"But what made the Patriots so hard to defend is they had two players in the middle that were huge matchup problems at tight end, and no one had the components on defense to deal with both of them at once. You just didn't find defenses with the resources to deal with both of them. They only have one now."

The key for the 2013 Patriots, according to these evaluators, will be twofold. First, there's the aforementioned need to get (and maintain) a clean bill of health for the one matchup nightmare at Tom Brady's disposal, Gronkowski. Second, the same goes for Amendola, whose workload likely will be heavier without Hernandez taking reps in the slot, which will in turn test his durability.

Add it up, and the challenge here is clear.

"Where they had wiggle room in the past, it's not there," the AFC exec said. "If either of those guys aren't available, that's a significant blow."

"It's gonna really hurt them," the NFC exec added. "Three of the quarterback's four best weapons are gone, if you throw (Brandon) Lloyd in there. The run game is solid, but how much of that was because of how well they throw it? The defense is just OK. ... I think they're average, depending on when Gronk gets back. Teams are gonna be biting at the bit to play them early on."

Outside of just keeping Gronkowski and Amendola on the field, there are other elements at play. The development of rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce at receiver -- a position at which the club has struggled to bring along young guys -- would help. So too could the running game, behind Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, taking on a more prominent role in the offense's structure. That, plus improvement from a young defense, could lead to the team's makeup reverting closer to what it was in the Patriots' championship years a decade ago.

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For now, though, there are plenty of variables for the 2013 Patriots, even with all-time greats at coach and quarterback.

To be sure, the heaviest hit the franchise has taken during the past few weeks has come off the field.

But that doesn't mean there won't be a price to pay on it.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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