FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Aaron Hernandez confuses defenses by lining up at various positions in the New England offense. They won’t have to worry about that for a while.
There’s no firm timetable for his return so soon after he suffered a right ankle injury on Sunday, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn’t saying how long he expects one of his most valuable players to be sidelined.
“No,” was all he said Monday when asked if he had any preliminary idea of how long Hernandez would be out.
Asked if Hernandez had broken any bones, Belichick said, “I don’t really have any update on his status. I think they’re still looking at him.”
One thing is certain: losing the lesser heralded part of the Patriots’ outstanding tight-end tandem with Rob Gronkowski allows defenses to devote more attention to other players — Gronkowski and wide receivers Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman.
It will be up to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to make changes to get his players ready for Sunday night’s game against the stingy Baltimore Ravens (1-1).
“That’s his job. My job as a player is to do what I’m asked to do,” Edelman said Monday. Hernandez “is a great player, but I’ve got to focus on what I have to do to help contribute to this team.”
Hernandez was hurt just past the midpoint of the first quarter of the Patriots’ 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. He was blocking for Edelman, who landed on Hernandez’s right ankle while being tackled after catching a short pass on the left side. After spending several minutes on the ground, Hernandez was helped off the field to be examined. After the game, he left Gillette Stadium wearing a protective boot and carrying crutches.
ESPN.com reported that Hernandez would not play Sunday night and that, while there is no exact timetable, he likely will not return until October at the earliest. Other reports said X-rays showed no broken bones. The Patriots (1-1) provided no update on his condition.
“It’s terrible to see one of your better players go down, one of your best players,” Edelman said. “It’s unfortunate, but we’re going to have to move on and hopefully he gets back quick.”
Hernandez caught 79 passes last season, seven for touchdowns. He also rushed five times for 45 yards. Gronkowski had better numbers — 90 receptions for 17 touchdowns and an NFL-record for tight ends of 1,327 yards receiving. He’s also a better blocker.
Each caught six passes and scored a touchdown in the season-opening 34-13 win over the Tennessee Titans.
But Hernandez is more versatile. At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, he can line up at tight end, in the slot, at wide receiver and in the backfield. He’s very quick with good moves after making catches. So, defenses have a lot more to think about when he’s on the field, which is on nearly every play.
“They are a very potent offense, especially with him in the lineup,” said former Patriots safety James Sanders, now a backup with the Cardinals. “When he went down, it took away a lot of things they are able to do. It’s unfortunate for them, but it helped us out.”
With Hernandez sidelined, Welker could see his diminished playing time increase. He caught only three passes in the opener at Tennessee, then Edelman started in his place against the Cardinals and played 75 of the 81 offensive snaps. Welker played on 64 of the 81, but likely would have played less had Hernandez not been injured on the Patriots’ third offensive play.
“We have different combinations of personnel groups out there in every game, all the time, pretty much every week,” Belichick said. “Whatever is out there is what we feel is best for our team for that time, for that play, for that situation.”
The offense certainly didn’t play its best, being held without a touchdown until Tom Brady connected with Gronkowski for a 5-yarder with 2:06 left in the game.
Losing Hernandez doesn’t help.
“Aaron is a very valuable piece to this team,” wide receiver and special teams captain Matthew Slater said, “but there are 53 guys on this team and all that means is the rest of us are going to have to pick up the slack and do our jobs a little bit better. Aaron’s a great kid and you hate to see anyone get injured.
“But that’s the nature of football.”