Pats' X factor: a healthy Hernandez

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was approached Friday and asked about the player who could be the X factor Sunday against the New York Jets -- tight end Aaron Hernandez.

The question was whether he could think of any Patriots tight end over the past 11 seasons who reminded him of Hernandez. Brady came up blank.

"He's not anything like [Rob Gronkowski], not anything like Christian Fauria was. Nothing like [Daniel] Graham or [Benjamin] Watson," said Brady, who could have added Jermaine Wiggins, Rod Rutledge, Cam Cleeland, David Thomas and Kyle Brady into the mix for good measure. "He's pretty unique."

The answer confirmed the obvious, that the Patriots have not had a skill-position player with Hernandez's skill set since Brady took over the starting job in 2001. Maybe the closest they've come is when Larry Centers, who technically was listed as a fullback but was utilized as an on-the-move option in the passing game, was on the club in 2003.

"Larry was great, explosive in the pass game, a phenomenal player with great hands, smart," Brady said.

At that point, though, Centers was at the end of his 14-year career and far from the dynamic player who once caught 101 passes with the Arizona Cardinals in the mid-1990s. He also was different in the sense that the Patriots wouldn't put him next to the offensive tackle like they do at times with Hernandez, an area in which Brady views Hernandez as capable.

Hernandez's uniqueness is reflected in how the Patriots' offense has changed since he's been sidelined with a sprained left medial collateral ligament the past two weeks.

Over the first two games of the season, with Hernandez in the lineup, the Patriots ran 83 percent of their offensive snaps with multiple tight ends on the field. Over the past two games, that number was down to 20 percent.

So it's no wonder Hernandez's status is one of the big storylines leading into Sunday; his presence changes the way the Patriots, who prefer to be a two-tight end offense, attack the opposition. If he's not on the field and the Patriots replace him with a third receiver, it makes it easier to match up against their offense.

"He's obviously very good. A tight end who can catch passes is huge for any offense," Brady said. "There are so many guys who are very one-dimensional -- some guys are able to catch it better than others, some guys are able to run block better than others. The guys who can do both, those are the ones that are great to have out there.

"Between Aaron and Gronk, that's a good combination of tight ends. They're both very smart. They both catch the ball well. Having them out there is a helluva lot better than not having them out there."

Hernandez's status for Sunday remains in question, with coach Bill Belichick calling Friday a key checkpoint. Hernandez returned to practice for the first time Thursday (a full-pad session) and was back on the field again Friday.

"The question really is the second day -- was that too much [on Day 1]?" Belichick said when asked whether Hernandez would be a game-time decision. "If that second day goes good, that's probably a good indication that the player is ready to move up. You don't know how the player is going to respond to that type of workload, which is more than what he's been doing in his rehab."

Surely, Belichick has some idea of how realistic it might be to expect Hernandez on the field Sunday. It's just not something he's about to share publicly.

Hernandez probably knows, too, which explains why he tiptoed around questions this week. Asked whether he liked his chances if Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis covered him Sunday, Hernandez was cautious choosing his words.

"You could change that into a story now, so ..." he said, his answer trailing off before he offered up a loud groan.

That often is the toughest question for opponents when it comes to Hernandez -- who covers him? At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, he's frequently too physical for a cornerback. But put a safety or linebacker on him, and he's fast enough to run by them.

Hernandez said he saw a little of everything from defenses the first two weeks of the season as Brady found him 14 times for 165 yards and two touchdowns.

"It's hard to say," Brady said when asked whether he's noticed anything consistently from defenses against Hernandez. "A lot of defenses do what they do, some game plan [week to week]. But, I mean, you game plan for Wes [Welker], you game plan for Gronk, you game plan for Deion [Branch] and Aaron ... you can't double-cover everybody.

"If Aaron gets matchups, he gets the ball. If Wes gets matchups, he gets the ball. It's part of the role of the quarterback, to try to understand when you're getting the matchup so you can take advantage of it."

With Hernandez on the field, it's another matchup nightmare for the opposition.

There simply aren't many tight ends like him. In fact, when it comes to the Patriots, Brady can't think of any.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.