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AARON HERNANDEZ IS FAR FROM THE FIRST ATHLETE TO HAVE CELEBRATED A SCORE BY EXPLODING HIS OPEN HANDS OUT FROM HIS WAIST, UP INTO THE AIR, PRETENDING TO MAKE IT RAIN CASH ALL OVER THE FIELD, BUT he may be the first to have scored so many times—and made it rain so many times—that the celebration has become synonymous with his name. Now he's flush with real money after being rewarded last August for all those touchdowns with the second-most-lucrative tight end contract in NFL history. (Teammate Rob Gronkowski signed the other.)
In 2011, before he even turned 22, Hernandez established himself as one of the NFL's most fearsome receiving threats. But what followed in 2012 was punishing for fantasy owners who had invested in his bright future: Hobbled by a sprained right foot, he made only five appearances through the first 12 weeks and was limited to 19 catches and 179 receiving yards. (He had had three 100 yard games in '11.)
And then redemption. Hernandez quieted his critics in weeks 13, 14 and 15, hauling in a combined 26 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns, including two scores in a crucial win over Houston. Then, over two playoff games, he added 15 catches for another 168 yards.
Injury chatter still surrounds Hernandez, as he had off-season shoulder surgery, but the Pats expect him to be ready well before Week 1. And even if he were to miss a little time, his game-changing upside on the stat sheet makes him worth having. As that strong finish in '12 confirmed: He is one of the best pass-catching ends in the league.
In 2013, with serious questions remaining about Gronkowski's own injury (a left forearm break, which has been complicated by infection), and with Wes Welker gone to Denver, Hernandez could be Tom Brady's most vital resource for an offense that ranked first in total yards in '12. The Patriots remain thin at receiver; Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are currently the best options.
How to differentiate Hernandez from the current crop of tight ends that might one day be regarded as the best ever? He isn't gargantuan (he's 6' 1"), like the Saints' Jimmy Graham (6' 7"), or even like his teammate Gronkowski (6' 6"). But his speed and hand-eye coordination make him a target that Brady loves to exploit. Questions have lingered about Hernandez's blocking abilities since he was drafted out of Florida in 2010, but that has hardly mattered since he seldom blocks at the line of scrimmage. His athleticism and his strength in short-yardage situations are unparalleled at the position, and that's part of what makes Hernandez such a glorious fantasy tight end: He's usually assigned to run routes when opposing defenses blitz, and not asked to block edge rushers.
Hernandez is the type of player who can vault any fantasy team into the playoffs. Most leagues saw a run on tight ends early in last year's draft—Graham, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Vernon Davis—but in 2013 Hernandez could have a higher ceiling than any of them. In any case, he deserves to be one of the first three ends off the board.
In a perfect world Hernandez becomes Brady's top receiving target, and you, with your fantasy winnings, can make it rain too.