Of course the biggest story in the NFL last week was the news surrounding New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, and his potential involvement in the homicide of Odin Lloyd.
Lloyd was found dead last Monday afternoon after confirmation that he was with Hernandez the preceding evening. As of Sunday night, a warrant had been issued for Hernandez on obstruction of justice charges, stemming from reports that he destroyed his cell phone, security system, and had his home cleaned by maids. Certainly raises suspicions about Hernandez’s guilt.
But I won’t really comment on the legal side of things. I am neither a policeman nor a lawyer. We have a justice system in this country, and as far as I am concerned it says that a man is innocent until proven guilty. So I won’t speculate on whether Hernandez is guilty of anything besides probably picking a bad day to destroy items that would be very helpful in a murder investigation.
But I suspect regardless of how Hernandez’s legal situation plays out, we won’t be seeing him suit up for the Patriots in 2013. Given Roger Goodell’s penchant for slamming down the hammer regardless of whether a player is guilty of anything, makes me believe that before Patriots training camp starts at the end of July, we’ll see him receive an indefinite suspension until his legal situation is resolved. This happened with Michael Vick back in 2007 after he was indicted following federal dogfighting charges. We also saw the same with Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent following his indictment on manslaughter charges following his December car accident that resulted in the death of teammate Jerry Brown. Now in both cases, the common denominator is indictment. We’ll see what happens with Hernandez, but I suspect even if an indictment is not reached before July 25, when the Patriots open up camp, Goodell will ask him to simply stay away from the team as was the case with both Vick and Brent.
Well that’s about as far as I care to venture down the legal hole in terms of Hernandez’s situation, and now I’d like to switch gears to how it affects the football side of things. We already know that Rob Gronkowski’s recent back surgery puts his start to the 2013 season in jeopardy. It wouldn’t be that shocking if he too doesn’t play for the Patriots this year due to this injury. Gronkowski had an unrelated back ailment coming out of Arizona in 2010, and has had a number of injuries since joining the team. If Gronk does wind up playing this year, I don’t expect he’ll be at his previous level. And if he does return to form, it probably won’t be until the latter half of the season. Regardless, at best Gronk probably only gives the Patriots 50% of what he did in previous seasons.
That leaves the Patriots without the top three weapons from last year’s team going into 2013. They lost Wes Welker via free agency, replacing him with Danny Amendola. But their offensive identity was really built around the pair of tight ends in Hernandez and Gronkowski, that created such matchup problems with opposing defenses. It really is the equivalent if the Falcons lost Julio, Roddy, and Tony all the span of a five months.
It likely means that the Patriots offensive identity might have to switch more towards being a run-first team. Opposing defenses won’t be put in the quandary of trying to figure out how to match up with their passing attack if Hernandez and Gronkowski aren’t on the field. Gronk was the inline tight end, but was without question the best in the league the past two seasons. You couldn’t cover him with a safety or linebacker, as he was too fast, and he was too physical for a corner. Hernandez was a jack of all trades type of player that would be used like a wide receiver, tight end, H-back, and fullback at times. His role was reminiscent to Reggie Bush’s in New Orleans, where he wasn’t the best player on the field, but you always had to account for him. And because of the different alignments he could appear in, it made it very difficult to game plan against them.
While Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Daniel Fells are all capable tight ends, none of them create those type of matchup issues. All are decent receivers, but better blockers. While Amendola can be a very productive player in the slot, he’s not a guy that is going to scare teams from a matchup standpoint because like Welker, he’s not going to really be a guy that makes plays downfield. He’ll catch a bunch of passes, but most of them will be very short, making the Patriots offense much more conservative and easier to defend. Last year, the average distance in which Welker caught a pass was 5.77 yards downfield (per Pro Football Focus). For Amendola as a Ram, last year that figure was 6.48. For the sake of comparison, here is how the Falcons top four receivers stacked up in that measure: Roddy White (11.04); Julio Jones (8.95); Tony Gonzalez (7.31); and Harry Douglas (6.28). The Patriots other receivers include Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins, Julian Edelman, and a pair of rookies in Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. None of those players really create matchup issues, with the rookies being the possible exceptions. But the Patriots offense is notoriously complex and not easy to pick up. So barring either Dobson or Boyce having standout rookie seasons, there is nothing scary about the Patriots passing attack.
Really the Patriots offensive success in 2013 is going to be built on the back, shoulders, and legs of Stevan Ridley and the rest of the running backs. The Patriots certainly are an underrated rushing team, finishing 7th in the league last year with 2,184 total yards on the ground. Last year, they ran the ball on about 44% of their league-leading 1,191 plays thanks due to their up-tempo no huddle attack allowing them to run more. But that run percentage might need to jump into the upper 40s if this team is going to have a chance at competing for a title.
I don’t think this news means the Patriots won’t be out of the mix for a winning season and a playoff spot. After all, they play in the AFC East, and really do you think Miami, Buffalo, or the New York Jets are going to leapfrog past them? I don’t. They have seven games against teams that I consider bonafide playoff-caliber, with four coming on the road (Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, and Baltimore) and three at home (New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Denver). Is it possible they lose all seven games and one or two within the division? Sure. But I think much more has to go wrong with the Patriots 2013 season for that worst-case scenario to come to fruition. More than likely, they probably lose four or five against those seven opponents, and drop one or two in the division and probably finish with a 10-6 record in 2013.
One of the interesting fallouts from Hernandez’s situation and how it relates to the Falcons is the fact that the Falcons took Hernandez off their 2010 draft board due to character concerns. Hernandez failed the “intelligence test” as it is often referred to when players are drug tested prior to the Combine. It’s considered that because players know when and where exactly they’ll be tested (unlike most drug testing in college and pros), and thus it’s very easy to avoid testing positive. Therefore the results of that pre-Combine test are indicative of a players’ smarts rather than whether he is legitimately clean of substances.
But not only the drug tests, but other character issues are coming to light that plagued Hernandez in his day at Florida and early in his NFL career that likely gave the Falcons more reason to “black dot” him. Those issues ultimately led to enough teams docking him that he wound up being a fourth round pick when many believed him to be of first round caliber.
And probably in many people’s eyes, this latest incident with Odin Lloyd likely means the Falcons made the right decision in regards to passing on Hernandez. But I wouldn’t immediately jump to that conclusion.
Even if Hernandez doesn’t suit up for the Patriots or any NFL team ever again, he still has three years of solid production. While injuries limited his effectiveness somewhat, Hernandez was still highly productive for the 44 games he played the past three seasons in New England (including the postseason). In that span, he caught 210 passes for 2,316 yards (11.0 avg) and 20 touchdowns. For the sake of comparison, in his first 44 games in a Falcons uniform (including the postseason), Tony Gonzalez caught 213 passes for 2,160 yards (10.1 avg) and 19 touchdowns.
Let’s say that if Tony Gonzalez had went down with an injury after the Falcons win over the Vikings in 2011 and decided to hang it up after that year for good, would people be saying that trading for him was a mistake? I doubt there would be many that would come to that conclusion. And think the Falcons gave up a second round pick for Gonzalez, while the Patriots only gave up a fourth rounder for Hernandez.
If there was a mistake with Hernandez, it was giving him the seven-year extension a year ago. According to reports, Hernandez became “more brazen” following his extension. Sound familiar? I think that was the same issue with the Falcons after they gave Vick his record-breaking contract in December 2004.
Even someone such as myself, as one of Vick’s harshest critics, doesn’t consider drafting him to be a mistake by the team. If the Falcons had to redo it all over again, I think drafting Vick was the right call to make. The mistake came when the Falcons rewarded Vick’s lack of work ethic with $130 million, only cementing things for him. But unlike the Patriots, the Falcons were sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to paying Vick. Rich McKay had just been hired as the team’s GM a year before Vick got his deal. Vick was probably the most popular player this city had ever seen, was in the midst of his best season with the team (based off record), and about to hit free agency within a few months. And he happened to play the game’s most important position and also was beloved by the owner. Had McKay come in and played hard ball with Vick given those circumstances, he may have found himself the victim in a homicide investigation.
Okay that was inappropriate, but the point is that it wasn’t realistic to think the Falcons could have opted not to pay Vick. The only real issue that is debatable is whether the Falcons needed to pay him as much. But again, protracted contract negotiations that would have lingered several months after the season really wouldn’t have netted much positive for the Falcons.
In the case of the Patriots, having given Gronkowski a big extension in June 2012, one could argue that giving one to Hernandez wasn’t a priority last August. But it’s hard to be too critical of them. While Hernandez was no choir boy during his early days in New England, his on-field production by far overshadowed any off-field issues that may have been raised up to that point. The Patriots had opted to build their offense around Gronkowski and Hernandez, and replacing either would not have been an easy task.
In the end, there’s really no reason to play the “what if” game in regards to Hernandez. The Patriots got three good years from him, one of which helped them get to a Super Bowl. And in reality, it wasn’t the Patriots’ actions that ended Hernandez’s career, if it ultimately results that way. If Hernandez gets thrown out of the league, it’ll be due to his own actions. Just like with Vick, he got kicked out of Atlanta because he chose to fund an illegal dogfighting operation. If you could travel through time, you wouldn’t go back to the day the Falcons drafted Vick or paid him, you’d just have to travel to some time in between those points and convince Vick that his off-field business ventures would ultimately ruin his life along with the lives of all those canines.
Speaking of protracted contract negotiations, we’re still waiting to hear the announcement that the Falcons have signed Matt Ryan to a new deal. I’m optimistic something will get done before training camp opens on July 25. I just don’t see anybody within the Falcons organization wanting that hanging over their head. Although I have to mention it’s not quite all up to them. It takes two to tango.
And most of the leverage is in Tom Condon’s court. He doesn’t have to do a deal sooner because Ryan is still going to make $10 million this year (fifth highest base salary among quarterbacks in 2013). If Ryan’s contract is allowed to expire at the end of this year, any franchise tag the Falcons place on him will likely number between $15-20 million depending on whether they place the “exclusive” tag or not (indicating his inability to accept offers from other teams). Regardless of what sort of season Ryan has, his price tag isn’t likely to change drastically six months from now. Could Ryan suffer a career-threatening injury that could lower his price tag? God forbid, but it’s a possibility. But are their career-threatening injuries anymore? Drew Brees had a career-threatening shoulder injury before he left San Diego in 2006, but that worked out fine. Don’t you think a team would be willing to roll the dice on an injured Ryan hoping he turns into the next Brees? If Jerry Jones is willing to pay Tony Romo $100 million, don’t you think Shahid Khan or Mark Davis would be more than willing to pony up for even a damaged Ryan?
So when all is said and done, I suspect Ryan could be in the running for highest-paid player in the NFL. It wouldn’t surprise me if he is. But I don’t think it’s the guaranteed money or annual average that really matters. Those figures can be manipulated and inconsequential. I think it really boils down to the three-year payout, which is the real meat of the contract. Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers both got $62 million over the first three years of their deal. That’s the “real” money that those quarterbacks will make. In their cases, after the third year deals would be re-negotiated. Look at Tom Brady’s contract history. After signing his first big deal in August 2002, he got a brand new deal in May 2005. His next deal wouldn’t come until September 2010, but remember that ’05 deal was a six-year $60 million deal. With Flacco, Rodgers, and presumably Ryan’s deal likely going to double that figure, there’s no way it’s going to take five years before a new deal gets done.
Good or bad, Ryan’s performance over the next three years will lead to his contract being reworked sometime before the 2016 season. Another point of potential contention with the contract negotations is overall structure. More than likely, the Falcons will want to agree on a deal that is relatively cap friendly. That will likely involve years with a relatively high base salary that could be re-worked and lowered and turned into signing bonus. That is a way that the Patriots often re-worked Brady’s deal during that five-year gap to lower his cap figure in a given year. It’s easy cap relief. But the higher the base salaries, potentially the lower the bonuses. And in Condon’s eyes, the more bonus money the better for his client. He’ll likely want to maximize the guaranteed signing bonus. The Falcons would probably prefer to package some of that guaranteed bonus money into incentives in the contract.
Obviously, there are a lot of issues that need to be settled. And while I’m optimistic that it’ll be done by the end of July, I don’t expect that next week’s takeaway column will be spent breaking it down.