FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots seemed set for years at tight end with their young, record-breaking combination.
Aaron Hernandez ran around defenders after catching the ball. Rob Gronkowski ran over them.
Tight end was one position coach Bill Belichick could rely on.
The Patriots cut Hernandez a few hours after he was arrested Wednesday. Later that day, he pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in connection with the death of an acquaintance, Odin Lloyd, who, prosecutors said, was shot to death on June 17.
On June 18, Gronkowski underwent back surgery. He already had four operations on the left forearm he broke last November and may not be ready for the start of the season.
Tim Tebow might be.
There's a widespread feeling that the polarizing quarterback signed by the Patriots on June 11 can't play that position in the NFL. Tight end might be a different story.
"I thought if he was going to play in the National Football League, his position was going to be that of a tight end, H-back-type," NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt said.
At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, Tebow has the size for the position, although he played only quarterback during the Patriots three-day minicamp, which began the day he signed. A strong, shifty runner, he could be successful catching quick-out passes from Tom Brady and taking off downfield. The speed and vertical jump he showed at the NFL combine before being drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2010 also are impressive, Brandt said.
"I'd like to have Tebow waiting in the wings to do something because past history says he can do it," Brandt said. "Coming out of Florida, I thought he was a quarterback. I don't think he is now."
Belichick was his usual uninformative self when Tebow signed when he was asked where the newcomer fits in.
"I don't know," he said. "We'll see."
Brady already was working with a revamped group of wide receivers after losing his top two pass catchers. Wes Welker had 118 receptions last season, then signed with Denver. Brandon Lloyd had 74, then was released.
The turnover is so thorough that the Patriots may open the season without Brady's top seven targets from last season. Five are no longer with the team and two — Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman — may not be healthy enough. Of the 402 passes caught by the Patriots last season, the recipients of only 101 remain. And that includes Gronkowski's 55.
In the offseason, the Patriots signed free agent wide receivers Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins and drafted Aaron Dobson from Marshall and Josh Boyce from TCU to compete at that position.
"It takes a lot of time" to develop chemistry between a quarterback and his receivers, Brady said after the last minicamp practice on June 12. "Guys have been working pretty hard. We've been here the whole offseason to try to get up to speed."
Now he has to do that with his tight ends.
In 2011, Hernandez and Gronkowski set NFL records for tight ends on one team with 169 catches, 2,237 yards receiving and 24 touchdown receptions. The old record for touchdown catches? Hernandez, Gronkowski and Alge Crumpler set that in 2010 with 18 for New England.
Now the Patriots have just two healthy tight ends who caught passes for them last season — Michael Hoomanawanui with five and Daniel Fells with four. Jake Ballard, the former New York Giant who spent all last season on injured reserve with the Patriots, could play a bigger role than either of them if he's healthy. They also have rookie free agents Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford.
The crop of free agent tight ends is meager — Dallas Clark, Chris Cooley, Kevin Boss, Randy McMichael and former Patriots David Thomas and Visanthe Shiancoe.
"I don't think Clark can stay healthy anymore. He's 34," Brandt said. "The guy Shiancoe, they cut him last year so there really doesn't, on the surface, seem like there's any tight ends out there."
He likes Ballard — "not the fastest guy in the world, but he knows how to catch the ball and he's a pretty good blocker."
Still, that's a steep drop from Hernandez, who had 175 catches for 1,956 and 18 touchdowns in the three seasons since the Patriots drafted him in 2010 in the fourth round, where he dropped because of character issues. They chose Gronkowski in the second round that year and he has 187 receptions for 2,663 yards and 38 touchdowns, plus one touchdown on the ground.
They played together in just five games last year. Hernandez missed six of the first 10 with a sprained right ankle, but still had 51 receptions. Then, Gronkowski sat out the next five with a broken left forearm before returning for limited action in the regular-season finale.
"The reason they were so successful is because it was such a matchup problem" when both were on the field, Brandt said.
Hernandez won't be there when the Patriots start the season in Buffalo on Sept. 8. Gronkowski might not, either.
But Tebow could be.
When he joined the Patriots this month, he was greeted by the tight end he threw to at Florida.
"How you doing, Tim?" Hernandez recalled saying.
He didn't know how Tebow would be used. That would be up to Belichick.
"I'm just worried about doing my job," Hernandez said, "and keep playing football."