The decision to release him broke up the tight end tandem of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski that had been one of the most effective in history, a pairing of Pro Bowl players who combined for 16 touchdowns and 1,479 yards receiving last season — the most for any team at the position, according to STATS. Two years ago, with 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, the New England tight ends set NFL records in each category.
Gronkowski has had five operations this offseason on his back and broken left forearm, leaving his future uncertain and New England — at least temporarily — with five other tight ends expected to be ready for the start of training camp; together they caught a total of nine passes last season. Tim Tebow, a quarterback who may be better suited for tight end, is also an option.
With a single-minded focus on football that has made him one of the most successful coaches in NFL history, the taciturn Bill Belichick has long been willing to take a chance on talented but troubled players in hopes that a fresh start with New England and a winning environment would keep them in line.
In most cases, players are given short-term deals that make it easy for the team to purge them if the problems reappear.
But under the five-year, $41 million contract extension Hernandez signed last year, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, he will cost the Patriots about $4 million under the league’s salary cap in 2013. That would include the $1.323 million salary for 2013 plus a pro-rated portion of his signing bonus, according to an NFL agent familiar with the contract who spoke on the condition of anonymity because such details are not public.
Next year’s cap hit would be even worse — the $7.5 million left on his signing bonus plus his base salary of about $1.1 million, the agent said. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement allows teams to recoup bonus money when a player is incarcerated, but by releasing him the team probably lost the opportunity to take advantage of that provision, the agent said.