FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Before reaching the NFL, Aaron Hernandez watched Antonio Gates to pick up tips on playing tight end in the pros.
On Sunday, Hernandez will get a much closer look when New England opens its home season against Gates and the San Diego Chargers. And the Patriots have two productive players — both in only their second season — at that position.
Hernandez caught seven passes for 103 yards, Rob Gronkowski grabbed six for 86 and each scored a touchdown in a 38-24 win over the Miami Dolphins in which the Patriots gained a franchise-high 622 yards Monday.
“The skill set of both those players really allows us to be flexible,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. “Not only are they good blockers, but they can catch the ball, too. You can run it behind them, you can play-action pass and then they’ve become pretty efficient in the passing game also, just to spread them out and be able to run them on different run combinations. They’re very good players.”
Gronkowski, at 6-feet-6 and 265 pounds, is the better blocker. Hernandez, 6-1 and 245 pounds, sometimes looks like a wide receiver speeding downfield before and after the catch.
“I was more of a receiver growing up and running back through my whole life,” Hernandez said, “but when I went to college and came here, you had to start blocking a little bit, so that’s what I’m improving on.”
His learning wasn’t confined to the classroom and the practice field. He’d watch tight ends like Gates and Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts in some of their games.
“I watched them before I got to the league, and try to take some things from them,” Hernandez said. “They’re great players. If I see them playing, I’ll definitely watch their games and see what they can do and what can help me.”
Gates wasn’t drafted coming out of college in 2003, but in his first eight seasons, he caught 537 passes for 69 touchdowns. He had at least 50 receptions in each of his last seven.
Last year, the Patriots drafted Gronkowski in the second round out of Arizona and Hernandez in the fourth out of Florida.
“Hernandez is really athletic and fast. He’s kind of a wide receiver,” Patriots cornerback Leigh Bodden said. “Gronk is fast, but he’s not as fast as Hernandez. And he’s big. He can body you.
“And Gates is a bodier. He’s not overly fast, he’s not quick, but he just finds ways to get open. You give him a small window, he’ll catch it.”
As rookie, Hernandez had 45 receptions for six touchdowns, while Gronkowski had 42 for 10. A position of weakness for the Patriots became a strength that could continue for a long time.
Like Gates, who has Philip Rivers throwing to him, Hernandez and Gronkowski haul in passes from one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, reigning MVP Brady.
“Tom’s definitely going to find the mismatch,” Hernandez said. “When he gets to the line of scrimmage and he sees the biggest mismatch, you know he’s coming” to that receiver.
Hernandez considers himself a tight end. After all, how many wide receivers weigh as much as he does?
But he also can line up in the slot or the backfield.
“What they’re doing with that personnel group is awfully impressive,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said, “They’ve always been a great passing team, but to add the number of explosive plays really jumped out at you. When (Hernandez) starts moving around and is in the slot like that … he’s capable of being an explosive wide receiver.
“He’s a matchup problem for defensive teams.”
With two versatile tight ends, the Patriots can be more diverse on offense, lining players up in spots that can confuse the defense and running complex patterns into open areas.
“You can move them around and give them different assignments and they’re able to handle that,” New England coach Bill Belichick said, “but that’s part of the nature of the tight end position, I think. Whether you’re talking about Gates or (Miami’s Anthony) Fasano or whoever we play next. That’s what most teams do.
“Maneuvering those guys around, putting them in different positions, having them do different things, that’s what creates problems for the defense.”
Opponents also must concentrate on wide receivers Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco, and running back Danny Woodhead on pass patterns. That also helps Gronkowski and Hernandez get free.
“It opens a lot for me because they’ll forget about me or forget about Gronkowski,” Hernandez said. “I’d say Gronk can really do everything. He could block any type of (defensive) end. He could get open versus anybody. He’s very dynamic and can do so much.
“I’m limited in the blocking game but I’m improving. I’m more of a receiving-type tight end. We work off each other. Because we’re both so different, it gets us both open a lot.”
So far, so good.