The New England Patriots have been dealt debilitating injuries to key players throughout this season. One of those injuries is to star tight end Aaron Hernandez. On Saturday the Patriots made a surprising move releasing wide receiver Deion Branch and promoting practice squad receiver Greg Salas. These moves will force tight end Visanthe Shiancoe to play an important role in the team’s offense for the remainder of the season.
In week two Hernandez left the game against the Arizona Cardinals with an ankle injury. After missing three weeks he returned but played sparingly over the following two weeks. He has not played since and looks to be out again Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. Seemingly unable to recover from the injury, there are serious questions as to whether Hernandez can be productive for the Patriots at all this season.
The Patriots have had injury problems to wide receivers too. The week after Hernandez was injured Julian Edelman suffered a hand injury which kept him out for three weeks. Over the past two weeks he’s played a very small role for the team. Another receiver injury recently was to Wes Welker. After contract negotiations went south over the offseason, Welker was used as the team’s third receiver despite being selected to each of the last four Pro Bowls. But with Edelman absent, Welker went back to being a primary target for Tom Brady. In last week’s win over the Buffalo Bills, Welker injured his ankle and is questionable for Sunday.
While Branch wasn’t the most productive receiver on the Patriots, he is experienced and has proven that he can produce when called upon. Branch was listed on the team’s injury report this week with a hamstring injury but it is unknown whether that is a legitimate injury or excuse for his release.
As for Salas, this is the second time he has replaced Branch on the active roster. He was acquired on September 1 from the St. Louis Rams but was released seventeen days later in favor of Branch. In his second season, it is unknown how much Salas can provide the Patriots offense but if Welker can’t go Sunday, he may be thrown into the fray as the team’s second receiver behind Brandon Lloyd.
The tight end position has changed in the NFL over the past year. Once mainly a blocking position and occasionally a receiver, the duel tight end formation adopted by the Patriots last season has been copied by many teams throughout the league. With the injuries and inexperience that plagues the Patriots wide receivers Shiancoe will now be forced to play a critical role in the Patriots offense.
The star tight end will still be All-Pro Rob Gronkowski but Shiancoe will be used to attempt to deflect attention away from his record setting teammate. Shiancoe also has a track record of being used as a key component in an NFL passing attack. After being thrown to sparingly by the New York Giants early in his career, he became a key target for the Minnesota Vikings. In his five seasons in Minnesota he gained over 500 reception yards three times and scored 18 touchdowns in 2008 and 2009 combined.
The release of Branch Saturday and addition of Salas will give little confidence to Brady in his wide receivers especially if Welker doesn’t play. That will likely mean that Brady will focus in on his tight ends Gronkowski and Shiancoe. Assuming that Hernandez doesn’t return to full health which is likely, Shiancoe will be forced into the role of a key receiver. With the Patriots depending on the passing game so much this season that will have him playing an important role in the offense from this point forward.