After suffering a relatively serious ankle injury, tight end Aaron Hernandez has been lost to the New England Patriots for the foreseeable future. In response to Hernandez' loss, the Patriots have made two roster moves bringing in former Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks tight end Kellen Winslow as well as former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch.
The Winslow signing is a peculiar one despite him being a very reputable tight end. In fact, that is why it is peculiar.
Winslow was deemed surplus to requirements by new Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano this off-season. Even though Winslow had 75 receptions for 763 yards and two touchdowns last season, the Buccaneers brought in veteran Dallas Clark to take his starting spot. Winslow was subsequently traded to the Seattle Seahawks where he never played a game. Winslow was cut before the beginning of the season and not signed to any roster.
At this point of the season, Winslow's level of talent means that he shouldn't have been a free agent. However question marks over his healthy saw him go unclaimed on waivers. Winslow is essentially a completely unknown quantity. Had he been fully healthy, he likely would have been signed over Michael Hoomanawanui earlier this year. Now that he is on the roster, he will need to pickup the playbook very quickly and prove his healthy at the same time.
Winslow is only 29 years of age and has been a relatively consistent performer throughout his career. He cannot adequately replace Aaron Hernandez, but does offer a matchup problem that none of the team's other tight ends, outside of Rob Gronkowski, can offer.
For this week at least, Winslow likely won't be heavily involved in the offense. Because Hoomanawanui doesn't offer the same receiving threat as Hernandez, that means the Patriots will be more likely to make use of their depth at receiver.
Wes Welker's fall from grace in New England has been as steep as it was sudden, but he should see more time on the field without Hernandez. The addition of Deion Branch gives the offense a player who can be plugged in instantly and offer a level of consistency on the outside that may not have been there with Greg Salas or even Julian Edelman.
Edelman will likely remain a prominent part of the offense, but both he and Brandon Lloyd should also receive more exposure without Hernandez. While Hernandez was listed as a tight end, he was essentially a glorified receiver.
Where the Patriots will really be hurt is on the offensive line. Without the combination of Hernandez and Gronkowski on the field together, teams face less matchup headaches on the back end. That will allow them to blitz Tom Brady more often and try to confuse him with different looks, just like the Cardinals did.
The Patriots' offensive line has already struggled this year. The team's best way of off-setting that weakness was to surround Brady with playmakers to allow him to dictate defenses. Now that Hernandez has been lost, they must look to use Wes Welker more along with Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd to try and expose defense's weaknesses. That will require some alterations in philosophy however as they will no longer be able to flip from two tight end sets to four receiver sets with the same personnel.
Josh McDaniels needs to really start earning his pay check without Hernandez.