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Patriots’ offense in disarray without Aaron Hernandez

New England Patriots NFL team head coach Bill Belichick listens to a question from the media during an end of the season press conference at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. The Baltimore Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the AFC championship game on Sunday. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

New England Patriots NFL team head coach Bill Belichick listens to a question from the media during an end of the season press conference at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. The Baltimore Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the AFC championship game on Sunday. (AP Photo/Stew Milne) Purchase photo reprints »

Three years ago, coach Bill Belichick decided to build his offense around two rookie tight ends.

Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady would still have slot receiver Wes Welker as his primary target, but the Patriots made a conscious decision to feature their tight ends. Rob Gronkowski, a second-round draft pick out of Arizona, and Aaron Hernandez, a fourth-rounder out of Florida, were dropped into Brady’s offense as potential game-changers.

And in three seasons, the experiment was a rousing success. Gronkowski caught 187 passes and scored 38 touchdowns in 43 regular season games, establishing himself as the best at his position. Hernandez had 175 receptions and scored 18 touchdowns in 38 regular season games and was an emerging star.

The Patriots were 39-9 from 2010 to 2012, winning three playoff games and advancing to one Super Bowl on the shoulders of their tight end-centric offense.

Today, it’s unclear what Brady’s offense will look like when the 2013 season begins.

Hernandez, a Bristol, Conn., native, was swiftly released by the Patriots after he was led from his home in handcuffs last week. He was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Odin Lloyd, a Dorchester, Mass., man who was gunned down not far from Hernandez’s North Attleborough home.

At 23 and with a seemingly long NFL career before him, Hernandez is now facing a long legal road, and his football future is bleak. And the Patriots are left with a gaping hole on their roster, just as Gronkowski recovers from back surgery - his fifth surgical procedure since November - that might prevent him from being available at the start of the coming season.

Meanwhile, Brady has already lost his favorite receiver. Welker signed a free agent contract with the Denver Broncos and was replaced by free agent Danny Amendola.

From 2010 to 2012, Welker (326), Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 688 receptions. Brady (1,126) and other New England quarterbacks (9) completed 1,135 passes combined during those three seasons, so those three receivers caught 61 percent of the passes.

They also caught 78 of the 110 passing touchdowns in the past three seasons.

Now the Patriots are seemingly starting over. Hernandez, who lined up at H-back and was expected to fill the receiving void left by Welker, is gone. The Patriots wasted no time, issuing a statement within hours of his arrest:

“A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”

The NFL later issued its own statement: “The involvement of an NFL player in a case of this nature is deeply troubling. The Patriots have released Aaron Hernandez, who will have his day in court. At the same time, we should not forget the young man who was the victim in this case and take this opportunity to extend our deepest sympathy to Odin Lloyd’s family and friends.”

With Gronkowski’s health an issue and Hernandez gone, the Patriots’ biggest strength is now a concern. Gronkowski had multiple forearm surgeries, and in June he had back surgery and could miss several games early in the season. Former Giants tight end Jake Ballard is on the roster after missing all of last season with a knee injury. If healthy, Ballard figures to play a significant role.

The Patriots also have holdovers Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells at tight end. Amendola, who had 63 receptions for the Rams last season, is expected to replace Welker, and Julian Edelman is back as the understudy at slot. But beyond Amendola, there’s not much experience at receiver.

The Patriots also signed quarterback Tim Tebow, a college teammate of Hernandez’s at Florida. Tebow, a Heisman Trophy winner, has been unable to establish himself as an NFL quarterback, but he could play other positions in a revamped Patriots offense.

Hernandez signed a seven-year, $40 million contract with the Patriots last summer. Between the signing bonus and 2012 salary, he has been paid about $10.5 million, according to The Boston Globe. The Globe reported that the team is due to pay Hernandez $3.5 million of his signing bonus by March 31, 2014, and he has a guaranteed base salary of $2.5 million for 2013 and 2014.

The Patriots will absorb salary cap hits in 2013 ($4.073 million) and 2014 ($9 million) based on Hernandez’s salary. But the Globe and other media outlets reported that the Patriots might seek salary cap relief or seek to recoup some of the signing bonus previously paid.

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