FOXBOROUGH — Aaron Hernandez, who is designated as a tight end on the Patriots’ roster, lined up all over the field last season: out wide, in the slot, in the backfield.
Not all traditional spots for a traditional tight end.
But Hernandez, at 6 feet 1 inches and 245 pounds, is anything but a traditional tight end, even in a time when the position has become known more for pass catching than blocking.
The Connecticut native actually lined up as a receiver on more than half of his snaps last season, and after a practice Friday in which he made two impressive catches in seven-on-seven work, both over Marquice Cole, he was asked whether he sees himself as a tight end or a receiver.
“I consider myself a tight end that can do a few things,” Hernandez said.
He might want to start thinking of himself as a little more than that, particularly where his wallet is concerned. Hernandez’s rookie deal runs out in 2014, and if the Patriots use the franchise tag on him, he could argue that he should be tagged as a receiver, not a tight end.
That distinction means a difference of more than $4 million, as the tag for tight ends is expected to be $5.8 million and receivers more than $10 million in 2014.
When the Patriots have split into positional groups for drills, Hernandez has spent time with the wide receivers.
And Hernandez could be adding another duty: on Friday he fielded a couple of punts, though assistant coach Ivan Fears had to speak to him after he nearly muffed a fair catch.
“I just love being able to have the ball in my hand and make plays. Hopefully I get an opportunity to be back there,” Hernandez said. “Julian Edelman does a great job, and we have other people like Wes [Welker] to step in, but I just love football and I love making plays, and if they put me back there, hopefully I can do something.”
As for the fair catch, Hernandez said, “I kind of misjudged it. I’m not a fan of fair-catching.”
While fellow 2010 draft pick Rob Gronkowski spent the offseason living it up from coast to coast, Hernandez, as he put it, just chilled.
He had some fun, but his was “more private.”
Anything you want to share?
“That’s still private . . . next question,” he said, laughing.
Hernandez and Gronkowski were the only tight ends in their meeting room for stretches last season, but this season they’re joined by free agent signees Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe, waiver wire acquisition Jake Ballard (who is injured), and rookie Tyler Urban.
Fells could be considered a backup for Gronkowski, while Shiancoe is similar to Hernandez. Coach Bill Belichick was asked if those two players were brought in to be backups in case of injuries.
“I think you could look at it that way,” Belichick said. “It would depend on what you’re trying to do — what that person’s role is. If their role is strictly to be a backup player and you’re never going to play the guy until the person in front of him gets hurt, then that would probably be good. But if you were going to use that player in other ways and other combinations with other assignments or utilize his skills, you wouldn’t necessarily want that.’’
There was a lot of talk about how Gronkowski has looked in camp — he did not participate in the on-field organized team activities or minicamp in the offseason because of left ankle surgery — and he looks like the same player to Hernandez.
“He’s still a beast; he’s Gronk,” Hernandez said. “He’s a freak of nature.”
“He’s going to make plays and especially when you have a good quarterback like Tom [Brady] throwing you the ball and Tom’s going to put it in the right place, and when you’re 6-7 with a 7-something arm reach, not many people are going to be able to get their hand there to stop you.”
Where Gronkowski uses his size and athleticism to beat defenders, Hernandez uses his size and elusiveness. Just like Gronkowski, when Hernandez is at his best, he is a unique weapon regardless of his position.