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Patriot Games: Replacing Aaron Hernandez

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Will the Aaron Hernandez' release lead to Julian Edelman's breakout? Photo by Jim Rogash/Stringer/Getty Images
Will the Aaron Hernandez' release lead to Julian Edelman's breakout? Photo by Jim Rogash/Stringer/Getty Images

So two weeks ago, I wrote this.

And then this happened.

Before I get into the meat of this article, I would like to say that I fully realize that we’re talking about some very real stuff here. A man has unfortunately lost his life. A child has lost a father. And a family has lost a son. Within that context, it feels a tad crass to be writing about the fantasy football ripple effects of an NFL player being charged with murder, but I also fully realize that we’re in the fantasy football section of Football.com right now and don’t want to lose sight of why you visit us. Again, fully cognizant of the real-word implications of the last two weeks’ events, there are some major fantasy football implications of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest and concurrent release from the Patriots.

With the loss of Hernandez, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and potentially Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady will likely start the 2013 season without his top five receivers from last season. That’s 338 receptions (out of a team total of 402), 3,984 receiving yards (out of a team total of 4,844), and 29 receiving touchdowns (out of a team total of 34). I will say that I’m not all that worried about Tom Brady (this is a guy who still did pretty well as a fifth-year QB with Reche Caldwell as his best receiver in 2006), but who steps in to replace those numbers – especially with the loss of Hernandez? Well, as you may have noticed, I’m not Bill Belichick, but I do follow this team more closely than any other, so I shall do my best to try to answer the million dollar question.

One of the first places to look is the Patriots influx of rookies who they just drafted two months ago. I wrote about that situation last month, however, so I’m just going to focus on Flying Elvi’s veteran receiving options for today. Let’s take a look at who that includes:

Danny Amendola

The Patriots biggest offseason free agent acquisition is the no-brainer option to benefit from the loss of Hernandez. Amendola will primarily line up in the slot and operate underneath (which is primarily where Hernandez did most of his damage), so he should get even more looks from Brady now. I don’t want to belabor this Captain Obvious point here, so I’ll just end this with saying that Amendola should launch an assault on Wes Welker’s numbers of the past six seasons, and that I’m probably going to come out on the losing end of this argument.

Julian Edelman

There could have been some contractual games going on with Wes Welker to start the 2012 season, but a lot of people are forgetting that Edelman actually had more receptions than Welker through the first two and a half games last season (which is when Edelman broke his hand and missed the next three games). The biggest concerns with Edelman rest with his durability (he’s never played a full 16-game season in his four career years and is still recuperating from a broken foot), but he’s also the only receiver on the Patriots current roster who has caught a regular season pass from Tom Brady. I’m not going to sit here and say (type?) that Edelman is going to be a major fantasy asset in 2013, but I also think he’s been flying under the radar a bit more than he should be.

Michael Jenkins/Donald Jones/Lavelle Hawkins

I’m not 100 percent sure that either Jenkins or Jones (formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, respectively) will even be on the Patriots Week 1 roster, but like Edelman, they all bring a veteran presence that the Patriots now lack. Jenkins brings an element the Patriots have been missing since Randy Moss left town (a receiver who is taller than 5’2”) so he could provide a few blips of usefulness if you’re lucky enough to guess those games correctly. Jones is a player who has burned the Patriots of the past couple seasons (two of his four touchdowns came against New England last year), so Belichick may have seen something he liked there. Hawkins was only targeted 11 times by the Titans last season, so he’s most likely going to end up as a warm camp body for the Patriots. I’d venture to guess that both Jenkins and Jones will make the roster, but I’m not sure any of these three will have much fantasy relevance – even without Hernandez around. If I had to plant a flag with any of these receivers fantasy-wise, I’d probably take a flier on Jones.

Shane Vereen

I’m not really buying into the theories that the Patriots will use Vereen as a wide receiver, but the Patriots drafted Vereen ahead of Stevan Ridley for a reason – he’s a really good (and versatile) player. Vereen only had eight catches on 13 targets all season in 2012, but with Danny Woodhead leaving for San Diego, Vereen should have more games like Weeks 7 and 8 last year (15 receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown). The Patriots just lost their most versatile player in Hernandez, and their newest versatile player will finally get an opportunity to be more than Ridley’s backup.

Jake Ballard

It has become commonplace on Twitter to make fun of the Patriots for stockpiling tight ends over the past couple years, but their move to claim Ballard last offseason is proving to be quite shrewd in light of what has happened this offseason. While Ballard isn’t even close to the talent-level of Gronkowski and Hernandez, he will most likely be the Patriots top tight end when they open the 2013 season. In 14 games with the Giants in 2011, Ballard caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four TDs (which would’ve made him the 15th-ranked tight end last season), so there is at least some potential here. I have a feeling Ballard will be over-drafted due to his situation and quarterback, but I also won’t make fun of anyone who takes him as a Top 12 tight end.

Tim Tebow

Nope. Not going there.

Zach Sudfeld/Daniel Fells/Michael Hoomanawanui

Fells and Hoomanawanui should only be drafted in 32-team leagues (so let’s gloss over them), but Sudfeld could provide some fantasy value if A) he actually makes the team and B) Rob Gronkowski misses more than a few games. Signed as a priority undrafted rookie free agent out of Nevada this offseason, the 6’7” Sudfeld ran a 4.70 40-yard dash at the combine and 45 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012. Like Michael Jenkins, he could provide a taller receiving option that Tom Brady could find very useful in the red zone in 2013. I wouldn’t go drafting him until the latest rounds of your draft (if at all), but Sudfeld is a name to remember if all the pieces fall correctly into place for him this season.

Other

There is a large part of me that thinks that the player who will most benefit from Hernandez’s release isn’t even on the Patriots roster right now. Dallas Clark is floating out there, Austin Collie has been in for a tryout, and there are numerous other scrap heap-type players who I’m sure Bill Belichick will kick the tires on. He’s never been shy to take a shot on discarded players, and I have a feeling we’ll see some more names added to the mix over the next few month. Who knows, we may even see a 2007-style reunion with Randy Moss if things really get desperate. Straight cash, homey!