Once a strength, TE now question mark for Pats

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FOXBOROUGH, MASS. (AP) - The New England Patriots seemed set for years at tight end with their young, record-breaking combination.

Aaron Hernandez ran around defenders after catching the ball. Rob Gronkowski ran over them.

Tight end was one position coach Bill Belichick could rely on.

Not anymore.

The Patriots cut Hernandez a few hours after he was arrested Wednesday. Later that day, he pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in connection with the death of an acquaintance, Odin Lloyd, who, prosecutors said, was shot to death on June 17.

On June 18, Gronkowski underwent back surgery. He already had four operations on the left forearm he broke last November and may not be ready for the start of the season.

Tim Tebow might be.

There’s a widespread feeling that the polarizing quarterback signed by the Patriots on June 11 can’t play that position in the NFL. Tight end might be a different story.

“I thought if he was going to play in the National Football League, his position was going to be that of a tight end, H-back-type,” NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt said.

At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, Tebow has the size for the position, although he played only quarterback during the Patriots three-day minicamp, which began the day he signed. A strong, shifty runner, he could be successful catching quick-out passes from Tom Brady and taking off downfield. The speed and vertical jump he showed at the NFL combine before being drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2010 also are impressive, Brandt said.

“I’d like to have Tebow waiting in the wings to do something because past history says he can do it,” Brandt said. “Coming out of Florida, I thought he was a quarterback. I don’t think he is now.”

Belichick was his usual uninformative self when Tebow signed when he was asked where the newcomer fits in.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Brady already was working with a revamped group of wide receivers after losing his top two pass catchers. Wes Welker had 118 receptions last season, then signed with Denver. Brandon Lloyd had 74, then was released.

The turnover is so thorough that the Patriots may open the season without Brady’s top seven targets from last season. Five are no longer with the team and two _ Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman _ may not be healthy enough. Of the 402 passes caught by the Patriots last season, the recipients of only 101 remain. And that includes Gronkowski’s 55.

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