Aaron Hernandez just caught a big deal. (AP)
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick prides himself on staying a step (or three) ahead of the pack when it comes to offensive trends. The 2007 Pats were the first known team to run more than half of their plays from the shotgun; since then, teams like the Detroit Lions have all but eliminated the idea of having their quarterbacks under center. In 2010, Belichick took two tight ends in his draft: Arizona's Rob Gronkowski in the second round, and Florida's Aaron Hernandez in the fourth. And so, just as seemingly everyone was lining up to snap in with the shotgun/spread template, Belichick built his new offense by going back to the future.
The Patriots had already locked Gronk up with a long-term contract extension; and on Monday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the team agreed to terms on a contract extension with Hernandez as well. It is a six-year deal that extends Hernandez's contract five more seasons through 2018. Per Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe, Hernandez celebrated the deal by donating $50,000 to the Myra Kraft Foundation, the charity named after the late wife of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, "out of respect for Robert drafting him, [and] for doing his deal two years early."
The deal is a clear indicator that Belichick will go through the rest of the decade with the two-tight end set as the lead concept of his offense, and it's hardly the old paradigm of the receiving tight end and the blocking tight end.
Per Football Outsiders, New England lined up in offensive formations of two or more tight ends and/or six or more offensive linemen on 74 percent of their offensive snaps, and the Gronkowski/Hernandez duo combined for 42.7 percent of Tom Brady's 5,235 passing yards.
In 2011, Gronkowski had perhaps the single greatest season ever enjoyed by an NFL tight end -- 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns -- and his eight-year, $55.23 million extension, signed in June, ostensibly locks him into the Foxboro offense through the 2019 season. But Hernandez was right behind in productivity, and far ahead in formation diversity.
Hernandez caught 79 passes for 910 yards and 7 touchdowns, which would make him a franchise-defining player on most teams, but his real value to the Pats has been (and will continue to be) his ability to line up all over the field. Hernandez is what Jon Gruden loves to call a "Joker," and he drove defenses nuts trying to keep up with him. Especially in the playoffs, when he broke off huge chunks of yardage lined up as a true fullback.
In early July, Bedard assembled stats given to him by Football Outsiders which revealed that if Hernandez had gone the franchise tag route, he would have had a legitimate case for receiver money, based on his usage. Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley recently sought to do the same, and the Packers extended his contract two years to avoid the possibility. Hernandez lined up 123 times as a pure receiver -- away from the formation, and not even in the flex or slot position. Finley led the league with 152 snaps away from the formation. More and more, tight ends will be able to argue the point that their responsibilities allow them to blur the receiver line.
"When we broke it down every single snap, Jermichael was close," said Blake Baratz, Finley's agent. "It was maybe 53 percent off the line in a two-point stance vs. like 47 percent on the line. If Aaron's hardly ever in a two-point stance, I think he has a very sound argument."
And with the extensions given to Hernandez and Gronkowski, Belichick has once again proven his knack for defining market forces, just as he establishes new ones.
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