Hernandez, not Welker, could be Patriots’ biggest receiver contract challenge

The contract standoff between Wes Welker and the New England Patriots has gone on for months now. The Pats franchised their all-time slot receiver, who led the NFL in receptions three of the last five seasons, guaranteeing him $9.515 million for the 2012 season. But as it is with every player saddled with a one-year guarantee, Welker wants more years and more security. Whether he's earned it or not is up for debate -- some would say that Welker should enjoy the benefits of catching passes from Tom Brady and shine it on, while others might say that New England's offense (and Brady by proxy) didn't really blow up until Welker came on board before the 2007 season. And both sides have a legitimate point. One thing's for sure -- Welker has been the only bastion of security for Brady in a half-decade of receiver roulette.

Less established is third-year tight end Aaron Hernandez, taken in the fourth round of a 2010 NFL draft that proved to be a historic haul at the position for Bill Belichick's Pats. Not only did they get the athletic and productive Hernandez for a relative pittance in retrospect, but they also took Rob Gronkowski in the second round that season -- and Gronkowski is putting together an early career that may have him talked about as one of the NFL's best ever when all is said and done. The Patriots responded appropriately after Gronk's legendary 2011 season, in which he set a single-season touchdown record for tight ends and proved to be just about uncoverable in every game. Throw in his Pro Bowl-level blocking, and the six-year, $54 million extension (the biggest contract ever given to a tight end) could be an absolute steal over the next few years.

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Hernandez is a bit more of a wild card. Like Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham, Dallas Clark and Kellen Winslow, he's much more likely to line up in the flex position or in the slot and act in a schematic sense like the new wave of "big receivers" than any sort of traditional tight end. His numbers haven't matched Gronk's, but if you include Hernandez's outstanding postseason, he caught 98 passes for 1,098 yards and nine touchdowns in the Patriots' full 19-game season. In many offenses, Hernandez wouldn't just be the best tight end - he'd be his quarterback's primary target.

And as Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe reports, that could make things very interesting when the 2013 season is over and it's time to decide what to do with Hernandez and his future with the team. Finley's agent, Blake Baratz, told Bedard that his recent go-round with the Green Bay Packers about Finley's future with that team was heavily informed by his client's receiver-ish tendencies. The Packers signed Finley to a two-year, $15 million contract before things accelerated to arbitration.

"I could see an arbitrator looking at it a lot of different ways," Baratz told Bedard. "The team is going to argue it doesn't matter where the guy lines up and what he does, he's a tight end. Our argument was, when you make an argument on where they are lining up, what kind of stance they're in, whether they're running routes and the percentages that Jermichael was doing that. To me, that's no different than if Wes Welker is in the slot or [Packers receiver] James Jones is in the slot [...]

"The team's going to say he was a tight end in college, he sits in the tight end meeting room, and he's a tight end in the media guide, and on websites he's a tight end. That's all great, but our argument was what's the definition of a tight end? To us, [that] says he plays tight to the end, which is the traditional definition. I think the Packers believed enough that there was going to be a sound argument there. I think that's part of the reason they were going to do a deal, otherwise they would have franchised him and been done with it."

The Patriots and Packers won't be the only teams affected by this. The New Orleans Saints don't want to hear this right now, given everything else they have going on, but whoever's throwing passes for them a couple of years from now will very much want Jimmy Graham on board when his deal runs out after the 2013 season, and Graham is that same kind of hybrid player.

According to stats gathered by Bedard from Football Outsiders, Graham had the third-highest number of snaps last season in which he lined up as a wide receiver (not even in the slot.) Finley led the NFL with 152 snaps, Hernandez was next with 123, and Graham finished third with 78.  More and more, as offenses develop and diversify, you're going to have tight ends playing out of their positions as much as they embrace the traditional roles -- potentially pushing them into new financial brackets.

"When we broke it down every single snap, Jermichael was close," Baratz said. "It was maybe 53 percent off the line in a two-point stance vs. like 47 percent on the line. If Aaron's hardly ever in a two-point stance, I think he has a very sound argument."

And he won't be the last.

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