With Aaron Hernandez likely going to jail in connection to the murder of Odin Lloyd, it's hard to focus on the football ramifications of this. But they are important, and for the Patriots, could be rather dire.
Here are the New England Patriots five leading receivers from last season:
- Wes Welker (118 receptions, 1354 yards., 6 TDs)
- Brandon Lloyd (74 receptions, 911 yards, 4 TDs)
- Rob Gronkowski (55 receptions, 790 yards, 11 TDs)
- Aaron Hernandez (51 receptions, 483 yards, 5 TDs)
- Danny Woodhead (40 receptions, 446 yards, 3 TDs)
Welker signed with the Denver Broncos this offseason. Lloyd, who was due $4.9 million this year, was released by the Patriots in March and is currently a free agent. Gronkowski had back surgery last week, and there is no timetable for his return, which will certainly not be by the start of the season. Hernandez was released Wednesday morning for obvious reasons, and Woodhead signed with the San Diego Chargers as a free agent.
Barring a miracle in the recovery of Gronkowski, the top-two leading receivers on the Patriots roster come week one will be wideout Julian Edelman (21 catches, 235 yards, 3 TDs) and running back Shane Vareen (8 catches, 146 yards, 1 TD).
However, straights are not quite that dire. New England signed wideout Danny Amendola - who had an effective but injury-shortened season with the Rams - to a five-year contract this offseason, as well as veteran Michael Jenkins from the Vikings. However, those sound a lot more like second and third receivers than primary options.
Without Hernandez or Gronkowski at tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, he of 5 catches for 109 yards last year, slides up to the top of the depth chart. But he won't stay there for long. Jake Ballard, who had a very nice rookie season with the Giants before tearing his ACL, was snatched by the Pats on waivers when New York tried to sneak him onto their injured reserve. He spent all of last season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and is probably the best tight end (besides Gronk) currently on the Patriots roster. Undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld has been a pleasant surprise in minicamp, but it's still tough to stomach going from a Gronk-Hernandez one-two punch to a pair of undrafted guys as the top two tight ends.
But then again, this is Tom Brady we're talking about. No other quarterback in the league, save for Peyton Manning, even comes close to Brady when it comes to turning totally unknown wide receivers into Pro Bowlers. When he led the 2006 Patriots to the AFC Championship Game, his top-three receivers were Reche Caldwell, Ben Watson, and Kevin Faulk.
So yeah, the Pats offense has taken some pretty big-time hits. But this is still the New England Patriots we're talking about, and you know Bill Belichick already has a plan or seven to deal with this. It might be ugly while Gronks out, but when he comes back, don't expect it to be that different than last year.