Everyone knew the New England Patriots took a risk when they selected Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft. Hernandez had first-round talent, but slipped to the fourth because of questions about his character.
It's not uncommon to see a team take a mid-to-late-round risk on such a player and hope he, given a clean slate and a strong support system, can turn things around. It can be viewed as a stroke of genius if that's the way it unfolds. The Patriots in particular have had a lot of success in this area, both in the draft and free agency, during the tenures of Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick.
But it is also a gamble, as the Patriots are finding out in the case of Hernandez. The Massachusetts State Police are preparing an arrest warrant for him for obstruction of justice in connection with a homicide investigation, according to an ABC News report.
Hernandez's past is now under heavy scrutiny. It's easy to say the Patriots should have seen this coming, but that's a little too convenient, because we surely can find other players who had similar character questions but haven't found themselves at the center of a homicide investigation.
Using a late-round pick on a talented player with a questionable background is a roll of the dice, for sure. Looking back, the Patriots' bigger risk came Aug. 27, 2012, when they extended Hernandez's contract, rewarding him with a $12.5 million signing bonus and a total financial package that could exceed just more than $40 million.
The deal at the time looked brilliant and drew near universal praise, including from ESPNBoston.com. On the surface, it appeared the Patriots had locked in a young star for the long term and for reasonable money. Part of the team's approach at the time was based on the flat salary cap. The Patriots, who for years absorbed criticism for waiting too long to extend the contracts of key players, were aggressive in locking up key up-and-coming assets while planning for future years in which the salary cap wasn't expected to rise. By finalizing deals for Hernandez and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski early, they allowed themselves to spread their money out over a longer term and keep salary cap charges reasonable in the years the cap wasn't expected to rise.
The strategy was sound and still is. The Patriots, however, might have miscalculated one key point specific to Hernandez: A team still needs to invest in the right type of people.
It is one thing to draft a player with "issues" in the fourth round in a limited-risk situation. But after working with Hernandez for two seasons and determining he was worthy of such an investment two years before his modest rookie contract was set to expire, the Patriots had to be pretty confident in both the player and the person, even while acknowledging that every team operates with some level of a blind spot when it comes to players' off-field behavior.
"I just think he's a super player and really a first-class guy," Kraft said at the time of the extension, when Hernandez made a $50,000 donation to the Myra Kraft Giving Back Fund.
"Some people might see all the tattoos on him and think ... maybe 10 years ago I was in that class. [Now] I think 'Wow, this guy's a good guy.' And we made a big commitment to him."
Said Hernandez: "He didn't need to give me the amount that he gave me, and knowing that he thinks I deserve that, he trusts me to make the right decisions; it means a lot. It means he trusts my character, and the person I am. I just feel a lot of respect and I owe it back to him. … I have a lot more to give back, and all I can do is play my heart out for them, make the right decisions, and live life as a Patriot."
Those words were spoken just 10 months ago.
How did Hernandez get himself involved in such a serious situation and put his career at risk? And what might the Patriots be thinking about their decision now?
There remain more questions than answers, but one thing is certain: Kraft and Belichick were comfortable assuming greater risk with Hernandez just 10 months ago, and it's a decision they could come to regret.