“Who won the draft?”
“Who had the best draft?”
“Who got the best players?”
Fans ask, and analysts answer these questions every year, starting about ten picks into the first round and slowing down when the season commences, but never quite stopping all together. And we, as analysts, we do our part to contribute to the problem, because we pretend we can answer these questions. We tell you who is the best fit, where you might see them, what their history is, and what we think their future might be. Scouts do the same for their teams, and sometimes teams listen, yet others don’t. This off-season in New England, we’re finding out two things: why teams should listen to those scouts and analysts, and why you always hear people say that in order to really see who did well in a draft you must wait at least three seasons, then look at it. Anything else is mere speculation.
Prior to being taken in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft by the New England Patriots, Ron Gronkowski was considered a big, athletic tight end prospect with soft hands and a potential big upside. He was also considered a durability concern, having just sat out the entire 2009 season after undergoing a back surgery very similar to the one he had done this week. Since being drafted, “Gronk” has become one of the best tight ends in the league, setting records for touchdown catches by a rookie tight end and by a tight end in a season, and overall proving himself one of the most talented young players in the league at any position, let alone just the tight end position. However, he has also proven to be one of the most oft-injured players.
When he got through his rookie season unscathed, many of us breathed a small sigh of relief, hoping that the injury bug had done it’s damage to him and moved on. However in the second game of the 2011 postseason he suffered a high ankle sprain after a hit from Baltimore Ravens’ safety Bernard Pollard, and while he tried to play the following week in the Superbowl he just wasn’t the same guy. In the waning seconds of the game he missed a key catch, and a few days after the game had an MRI that revealed damage requiring surgery. This past season he was able to return, but spent almost the entire season injured in some form or fashion, limiting his game at times and ultimately breaking his forearm, taking him off the field for 5 games. He tried to come back in the playoffs, only to re-break that forearm. It has since required multiple surgeries and became infected at one point in time. And this week, he underwent the same surgery that cost him the entire 2009 season in college.
Aaron Hernandez was taken in the same 2010 draft as his teammate and fellow tight end Gronk. Prior to the draft, it was widely known that Hernandez had failed multiple drug tests while at the University of Florida, and he had admitted to marijuana use. According to Sports Illustrated, suspected gang activity of some of Hernandez’s associates in his hometown of Bristol, Conn. concerned some teams, causing them to drop him on their board, and some to take him off entirely. Coaches and ex-teammates all speak highly of his character however, and this lead a team like the Patriots to take a chance on him. Despite waiting until the 4th round to draft him and giving him about half the bonus one would expect a player at his position, drafted in the 4th round to get, the Patriots gave him a contract laden with incentives that gave him the chance to earn 3rd round money if he stayed on the straight and narrow. And he has. Until now.
This week we’ve learned that Hernandez is part of a homicide investigation, and exactly how involved he is we don’t really know. A few things are for sure: someone is dead, Hernandez seemed to have known them, and the Massachusetts State Police seem very interested in Hernandez and his home. My update today reported that the police took something from his home, and that while he’s not considered a suspect, he hasn’t been ruled out as one yet either. As if that weren’t enough, the story broke today that Hernandez is in the process of being sued in a Florida court for shooting a man in the face.
While Gronkowski and Hernandez quickly became known as the best pair of tight ends in the league, setting multiple records as teammates and taking the league’s defensive backs by storm, they have both also fulfilled the prophecies of NFL draft scouts and analysts around the country. The legal troubles of Hernandez are still in the beginning stages, and it’s certainly too early to tell where they will lead, and if they’ll cost him any time but they’re still a concern, and they’re exactly what scouts worried about in 2010. As far as Gronkowski is concerned, sure he’s one of the great talents in the league but what good does that do the team from the bench or an operating table? I worry that he’s just made of glass, and at the end of the day he’ll be a guy that had a few good years but saw his career end sooner than it should have.
At the end of the day it’s funny how draft analysis works. I wrote the day after the 2010 draft that I was a bit confused by the Patriots’ focus on the tight end position. Sure it was a need, but they had greater needs at the time I thought they’d address. As the pair were wrapping up their second season together about to head into the playoffs, anyone would have been tempted to write that the Patriots had the two greatest steals of the draft, ready to take the league through the air and lead every team into a new, two tight end era. Today, you could easily look back on the 2010 draft and say they got exactly what we expected. Two talented but troubled players, one physically and the other environmentally who could boom or bust. Or both.