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Aaron Hernandez is latest part of NFL’s tight end evolution

Aaron Hernandez often lines up as a receiver, fullback and running back in addition to a tight end for the Patriots.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Aaron Hernandez often lines up as a receiver, fullback and running back in addition to a tight end for the Patriots.

There is no doubt Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the Saints are outstanding talents at the tight end position, players who used their physical gifts to lay waste to the record books last season.

They are the next step in the evolution of the tight end, a sea change that began in earnest more than 30 years ago with Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow.

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And then there is the Patriots’ other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, who can’t be defined by a position: He’s a tight end/receiver/fullback/running back. Listed at 6 feet 1 inches and 245 pounds, Hernandez is a little small by elite tight end standards (Gronkowski, Graham and the Bengals’ Jermaine Gresham are all 6-5 or taller), but what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in versatility and athleticism, and he is poised to become the focal point of the Patriots’ offense.

Before Newsome and Winslow came into the NFL in 1978 and 1979, respectively, the standard-bearers were Mike Ditka, John Mackey and Charlie Sanders, players who became important parts of their teams’ offense, not just as blockers that most tight ends before them were.

Newsome and Winslow took things to a new level: legitimate threats who were big and athletic — and benefited from some rule changes.

“I think it goes back to the late ’70s when I was playing,” former Colts coach and current NBC broadcaster Tony Dungy said. “You’ve got the 5-yard bump rule and all the jamming rules that came into play and a lot of people saying ‘we’re going to play bump and run on the outside and get physical with the receivers,’ and then when they put in some of the rules to help [the offense], it actually helped the tight ends.

“You saw people like Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow become forces because No. 1 – there was so much emphasis on jamming the outside receivers and then No. 2 — some of these guys you can’t match up with. So if you can’t bang them around, if you can’t bump them, you can’t hit them after 5 yards, then the tight ends became a factor and everybody started looking for these guys.

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“I think Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome really revolutionized the game and now you’re seeing more and more of these guys, and they’re difficult to defend and I think you’re going to continue to see more tight ends become big-time playmakers.”

Winslow played just nine seasons because of injuries, but likely would have held the tight end records had he been able to play longer. Newsome retired in 1990 with the most receptions (662) and yards (7,980) for a player at the position, numbers that at the time were the fourth highest all time.

The year Newsome retired, Shannon Sharpe entered the league, and took the tight end position to yet another level. By the time he retired, Sharpe set position records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns.

And the year Sharpe retired, a different version of the tight end entered the NFL: Dallas Clark. Though Clark has had only one 1,000-yard season, the Colts used him as a tight end hybrid. He wasn’t a great blocker, but he could do it well enough, he could line up in the slot, and even be split out wide.

Clark is now with the Buccaneers after nine seasons with the Colts, but Dallas Clark 2.0 has arrived — in the form of Hernandez.

“I think they’re learning the best way to use him and you can see his role getting bigger and bigger each year,” Clark said of Hernandez. “That’s how things were with me with the Colts; each year they’re trying to find different ways to use the tight end and I think [the Patriots] are very similar in they have a veteran group and working together for that long, it’s [Hernandez’s] third year now, so each year that they get, they’ll have more things to go to. That type of relationship between him and [Tom] Brady and just getting that feel of what he’s looking at and things like that, that’s how that will take place and grow. But he can definitely handle the challenge; he’s a very athletic tight end.”

Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison played against Clark, but he sees Hernandez as even more gifted, even more dangerous.

“Obviously they’re both great players, but I think when you look at Aaron Hernandez, he’s a kid that they used in a lot of different roles last year — he played wide receiver, he played in the slot, he played tight end, he played some running back, and really showed his versatility,” Harrison said. “[There are] just so many different things he can do.

“Cris [Collinsworth] and I talked about him at the Super Bowl and his ability to shield people off because he’s so big, he’s so quick and athletic. One thing I’ve talked to Tony [Dungy] about is Dallas Clark’s ability to run at the same speed for four quarters, which really makes him special. Most guys wear down; Aaron Hernandez and Dallas Clark, they go the same full speed for all four quarters.”

Harrison said he would rather cover Clark. Even though Clark is bigger, if you jam him on the line of scrimmage, you have a chance of running with him. But with Hernandez, if you miss that jam, “he’s gone by you. He can run down the field. He’s extremely explosive and he is dynamic at the line of scrimmage.”

Clark is well aware that he came into the league at the right time. He acknowledges he isn’t a great blocker, and a couple of decades ago, tight ends had to block.

“The responsibilities and the duties have definitely changed for the tight end position, and I’m very thankful for that,” he said. “I’m not going to block and clear a hole for a running back or anything like that every play. It’s definitely exciting, it’s a fun challenge to not be an expert at blocking but just be good enough to get away with it, to kind of fake it, if you will, and just kind of try as hard as I can to move those big boys around.

“But just the dynamic and the versatility of the position is what I’m a big fan of.”

Dungy believes that like Clark, Hernandez benefits from not being the central figure on his team’s offense. Just as Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Joseph Addai were all formidable challenges for defenses facing the Colts, the Patriots have Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and of course Gronkowski.

Last year, in his second NFL season, Hernandez played in 14 games and had 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. He also had five carries. In three playoff games, he had an impressive 19 catches, but also had eight carries. Perhaps Josh McDaniels’s return during the postseason as a coaching assistant may have had an influence in getting Hernandez the ball out of the backfield a little more.

Now McDaniels is the offensive coordinator, and Hernandez is set to get an even bigger role.

Gronkowski is his own style of tight end: he has the ability to level tremendous blocks like old-school ends, and can also run down the seam and haul in a 20-yard reception. He’s a difficult cover for defenses because of his sheer size and huge catching radius.

His friend and teammate Hernandez is more of a receiver – and might be even tougher to cover.

When the Saints were in Foxborough in August for joint practices with the Patriots, New Orleans defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Gronkowski and Hernandez are very good, but acknowledged that his unit had a hard time covering Hernandez.

Spagnuolo isn’t the only one who feels Hernandez may be harder to contain. Greg Cosell, a senior producer at NFL Films who watches hundreds of hours of film every year, believes Hernandez is a better athlete than Gronkowski. The presence of both players, plus their talented teammates, is enough to give defensive coordinators fits.

“Hernandez is quite frankly a little bit tougher of a matchup problem for defenses than Gronk, even though Gronk might be a better player,” Cosell said. “Because Hernandez is a 245-pound hybrid tight end/wide receiver who can run. He’s a better athlete than Gronkowski, but he also weighs 30 pounds less. So how do you match up to Hernandez?

“And then, when you match up to Hernandez, then how do you match up to Gronkowski?”

Covering Newsome and Winslow was a puzzle that defenses had to solve years ago. But they never played on a team together. The Patriots have two players who are redefining the tight end position again, in their own way — and on the same team.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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