As more details emerge in the case against Aaron Hernandez, more questions are being raised by Patriots fans:
• How much did the team know about Hernandez’s background?
• Will this case change how the Patriots balance character issues against pure talent when considering whether to draft or sign players?
• What are the on-field ramifications, and how much will his release hamper them financially when it comes to the salary cap?
We delve into each of these topics below ...
Q. I thought Mike Reiss’ article on how Hernandez fooled us all was well-written and insightful. The scrutiny the Patriots organization is sure to get is unwarranted. They check out each player completely, especially those with a checkered past, before they sign them. There is absolutely no way to foretell a person's future intentions. The Patriot machine will roll on and adapt, as it always has. Still, I'm shocked and stunned by the events surrounding this case. It truly is surreal. -- Al, Peterborough, N.H.
A. This is a debate that is likely to continue as Hernandez’s case proceeds: Did the Patriots err in both drafting and subsequently extending the contract of a player with a checkered history? Many have asked how much the Patriots knew about Hernandez’s past when they drafted him in 2010. While we don’t know for sure, we do know that NFL teams have innumerable resources to research a player’s past, something the Patriots have always done with every prospect.
The reality of the situation is this: They felt comfortable taking him at a low-risk draft slot in 2010 (113th overall). Two-plus years in the system was enough time to see a maturation in Hernandez, so much so that they felt secure in giving him a long-term extension for big money. The charges he faces are extreme and the situation was an unpredictable one. With hindsight on their side, some will fault the Patriots for committing to Hernandez, but let’s not forget the robust praise they received when the deal was agreed to. In the estimation of many, it was a forward-thinking, shrewd decision.
Q. Stunning turn of events recently. I have three questions. 1. How does the Hernandez situation affect the relationship between Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft? 2. Will this change the way that the Patriots draft and bring in free agents who have a checkered past? 3. What does this mean for the guys already on the roster who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law (Alfonzo Dennard/Aqib Talib)? -- John, Stoneham, Mass.
A. As it relates to the relationship between Belichick and Kraft, my sense is that the Hernandez situation will have no effect. At no point in the process of initially acquiring, subsequently extending and ultimately releasing Hernandez did it appear that the organization was not entirely on board. Belichick is responsible for making football decisions, but Kraft must sign off on them. The two work in tandem, and it was clear from Kraft’s remarks following Hernandez’s extension that the organization was thrilled to have a unique talent on board for several more years.
Procedurally, the Patriots will continue to examine college prospects and free agents as they always have: with a thorough background check and extensive research. It’s possible that the team will target more players who have clean rap sheets, but the bigger-picture approach remains the same: Each player will be evaluated individually.
Finally, the players on the roster who have already endured issues in the past don’t figure to be handled differently. Dennard will serve his punishment next offseason (he was sentenced to 30 days in jail next March), but both he and Talib have been good teammates since their respective arrivals in Foxborough. Talib, as a veteran, has been an important part of the Patriots’ secondary not only on the field, but also in the classroom.
Q. As we know, the Patriots will be without their top five receivers from last year for a host of reasons. That leaves them with their sixth-best target from last year, Julian Edelman, an injury-prone Danny Amendola, two unproven rookies in Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, and, dare I say, Tim Tebow? So, what bold move do the Patriots have up their sleeve? Going into the season with that crew simply isn't going to work. -- Neil, South Boston, Mass.
A. Even prior to the Hernandez release, there were questions surrounding the Patriots receiving corps. You laid out the circumstances above, and we’ll be closely monitoring the situation in training camp. The pads haven’t come on yet, so our evaluation must remain fluid, but always keep this in mind when it relates to the Patriots offense: The coaching staff is as schematically intelligent as any in the league, and Tom Brady remains under center. Regardless of who is available to play, the Patriots will find ways to cause a defense confusion, and there’s no better quarterback to execute the game plan than Brady. That’s not to entirely mitigate the concerns about the receiving corps, but we’ve also seen the team have success with modest talent at the receiving corps in years past.
Here’s a name that I think is worth keeping an eye on: Shane Vereen. While he has yet to produce the output his talent suggests he is capable of, he’s exactly the type of player who can be used in a number of ways. He’s a gifted receiver and a very good athlete who can make defenders miss in space. The Patriots didn’t run a lot of two running back sets in 2012, but that could be a wrinkle they tap into this season (with Vereen and Stevan Ridley on the field together).
Q. With the Hernandez departure, will the Pats go after some available free agents to bolster their weak receiving corps? Braylon Edwards, Brandon Lloyd, Visanthe Shiancoe and Dallas Clark are still available and they could provide a nice supplement. -- Owen, New York
A. Our first instinct is to look in-house when evaluating how the Patriots move forward without Hernandez, but you bring up a good point about available options in free agency. The pickings are slim, however, so there’s not an impact player available that comes to mind. We’d suspect that Shiancoe and Lloyd are off the Patriots' radar after being released by the team, and Edwards doesn’t have much left in the tank. Given that the Patriots were interested in Clark last offseason, he’s a name that could resurface, but that’s just speculation at this point. The Patriots could also pursue trade options for tight ends who are buried on other depth charts. With six tight ends still on the roster, the Patriots do have ways to try to partially replace Hernandez.
Q. With the release of Hernandez, can the Patriots recoup any of the signing bonus or recover any of the cap charge due to the reason he was released? How does that process work? Whatever happened with Jonathan Fanene's signing bonus? Did the Pats get relief from that as well? -- Jan, Auburn, N.H.
A. That’s another layer to this situation that has come into focus as the Patriots cut ties with one of the highest-paid players on the roster. The salary cap can be tricky in the NFL, and I spent time on the phone with a league contact Wednesday to dig deeper into the ramifications. Based on what we know, the Patriots’ decision to cut Hernandez yesterday prevents them from recouping any of the guaranteed money paid out to him already. They’re on the hook for a cap hit of more than $5 million for 2013 and $7.5 million in 2014.
What we don’t know is how much, if any, communication the team has had with the NFL since the investigation began. It is possible that conversations took place regarding the situation and my understanding is that there may be avenues for the team to take to get some of this money back. Salary cap matters are always complicated and often involve deliberate processes. That’s something we’ll be following up on in the coming weeks.
As a testament to the deliberate manner in which these processes take place, the Fanene situation remains ongoing, with the door still open to the team getting money back from his signing bonus.