FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- To those outside of New England, he is almost an afterthought when it comes to the Patriots offense.
Quarterback Tom Brady is a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player. Receiver Wes Welker led the league in receptions and yards this season. Deion Branch has a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award, and even though he has just 15 catches this year, the name Chad Ochocinco still resonates.
Heck, even at his position, Rob Gronkowski set the all-time records for yards and touchdowns for a tight end in a season and was voted first-team All-Pro.
Yet when the Patriots face the Broncos on Saturday night in an AFC divisional game, it will be tight end Aaron Hernandez who will key New England's offense and be on the minds of the Broncos.
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While the Broncos limited to Welker and Gronkowski to a combined 94 yards and zero touchdowns on eight receptions in the Patriots' 41-23 victory on Dec. 18 -- normally a plan that points to a victory for the opponent -- Hernandez carried New England's offense with a then-career high 129 yards and one touchdown on nine catches.
Hernandez topped that performance two weeks later with 138 yards and a touchdown on seven catches in the season-ending win over Buffalo.
"Aaron has been huge here," Brady said.
That he has. And having just turned 22 in November, Hernandez is just now realizing some of his vast potential.
Hernandez entered the draft after his junior season at the University of Florida -- where he was the favored target of Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow –- and at the age of 20 was the youngest player on an active roster after the Patriots selected him in the fourth round.
Hernandez's stock fell because teams thought he lacked maturity after he reportedly tested positive multiple times for marijuana while with the Gators.
With the Patriots, he and Gronkowski quickly assimilated themselves into the complicated scheme, which can be difficult for veterans to pick up. Brady himself has a fondness for Hernandez, whom he refers to as his little brother.
Hernandez put up impressive statistics as a rookie (45 catches, 563 yards, six touchdowns) but was slowed late in the year with a hip injury that required offseason surgery.
Hernandez got off to a hot start this season with 14 catches, 165 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games but sprained an MCL in the second game against the Chargers.
He sat out the next two games but wasn't really fully healthy until the Week 12 victory at Philadelphia. In the final six games, he had 38 catches for 492 yards to finish third on the team with 79 catches, 910 yards and seven touchdowns.
|Aaron Hernandez gives the Pats two dangerous tight ends who can do major damage after the catch. (Getty Images)|
The growth of his overall game has been immense. Once only featured against man-to-man because the Patriots weren't confident in his ability to find the soft spots in zone coverage, Hernandez has the tools to beat any scheme. And his blocking has even become an asset.
"He's a smart guy, he picks things up quickly," coach Bill Belichick said. "I think it just really gets down to timing and seeing the same -– on different routes seeing the location of the linebacker, the safety, [where] the corner is, how quickly to come out of it, when to throttle it down, when to keep going, when to pull up, when to drift, all those kind of little things that quarterbacks and receivers, tight ends, backs, whoever they are -- that's the timing and the relationship between a quarterback and the guy he's throwing it to is that they both sort of see the same thing. They anticipate where each one needs to go."
Hernandez's emergence has made the Patriots tight end duo tough to spot. They're almost always on the field together, and Hernandez has become the De facto second or third receiver. At 6-3, 250 pounds with 4.6 speed, he can run by linebackers and muscle up smaller defensive backs.
"It just shows what he can do, his versatility," Gronkowski said. "He's unbelievable when he has the ball in his hands. He can make defenders miss at all times no matter what part of the field he's on. You saw a couple of other times when he made the guys miss when he caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage. He's an unbelievable player. I love playing next to him. It helps so much."
The Broncos will be much better prepared for Hernandez this time around. During a conference call, a reporter rattled off all the weapons in the Patriots offense.
"You forgot about Hernandez," coach John Fox said.
They Broncos haven't forgotten what Hernandez did to them the first time around.
"You've seen all year the Patriots' success with Hernandez and Gronkowski going up against linebackers and safeties in double coverages and be able to be successful," said Broncos end Robert Ayers. "It's a tough challenge."