Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez evades a tackle by Broncos free safety David Bruton during the first half of their AFC Divisional Playoff game last Saturday in Foxborough, Mass.

Aaron Hernandez. Rob Gronkowski. Jimmy Graham. Vernon Davis.

These four dynamic tight ends are changing the NFL forever. They were born from the seeds planted by Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, and more like them will populate the landscape of the league for years to come.

But of this revolutionary quartet of emerging tight ends, Hernandez may be the most versatile. In fact, one would have a difficult time finding any player who lines up at wide receiver, slot, tight end and fullback all in one game in the modern era of professional football. He did just that in the team’s Week 17 win over the Bills, and the ball was thrown his way in each of those positions.

Last week, Hernandez revisited his roots as a running back in high school. He rushed for a team-high 61 yards off of five carries to go with his four catches for 55 yards and a receiving touchdown in the Patriots’ 45-10 beatdown of the Broncos to advance to the AFC Championship Game.

He had an opportunity to add a rushing touchdown when he took a red-zone carry in the fourth quarter, but his collision with Denver linebacker Joe Mays forced him to come off the field to receive concussion tests. He told reporters after the game, “I’m good.”

The apparent head injury must not have measured up to the headaches Hernandez has given opposing defenses since he entered the pros. Many questioned New England’s decision to draft the former Gator in the fourth round in 2010 after already selecting Arizona’s Rob Gronkowski two rounds earlier. Now, in just their second years, the duo has become the league’s best ever tight end tandem.

Hernandez and Gronkowski finished the regular season with at least 900 yards apiece, which has never been done before in the NFL.

Gronkowski couldn’t praise his counterpart enough after Hernandez put together a season-best seven catches for 138 yards while adding 26 more yards on the ground in the Patriots’ 49-21 win over the Bills to finish the regular season.

“It just shows what he can do, his versatility,” Gronkowski said of Hernandez when speaking to The Boston Globe. “He’s unbelievable when he has the ball in his hands, he can make defenders miss at all times no matter what part of the field he’s on. You saw a couple of other times when he made the guys miss when he caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage. He’s an unbelievable player. I love playing next to him. It helps so much.”

Nonetheless, the two are faced with a dilemma at the moment: choosing a nickname. Plenty have been proposed, but the best ones I’ve seen are (in order of my favorite to least favorite):
1) Pain and Able
2) Clash of the Tight Ends (This would never stick, but it’s so clever)
3) Shake and Quake
4) Aar-Gronk
5) Flight 8781
6) Boston TE Party (This only makes sense in print I guess)

Don’t hesitate to give your opinion on these or come up with your own.

“Pain and Able” will have a much tougher time coming up with a way to make plays against the stingy Ravens linebacking corps that includes Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs.

On the other hand, even Baltimore may not have an answer for the creative schemes being devised by New England offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, especially when Hernandez, Gronkowski and Wes Welker line up in a trips formation.

The fact that O’Brien has trusted Hernandez in the playoffs this season is a testament to how hard the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Hernandez has worked on the weaknesses that limited his playing time in last year’s postseason.

As a rookie, Hernandez struggled to find the soft spots against zone defenses during the playoffs. He was also a liability as a blocker. He’s improved dramatically in both areas, and that’s a big reason Hernandez was such an integral part of the offense on Saturday.

For the season, Hernandez has 83 catches for 965 yards with about 500 of those yards coming after the catch. He also has 106 rushing yards on just 10 carries. His production this season has come despite missing three games after spraining the MCL in his left knee in Week 2 against the Chargers.

Hernandez, Gronkowski, Graham and Davis are all forcing scouts to re-examine the value of a versatile tight end. Any team would love to have a player who’s just as big and just as good a blocker as an offensive lineman, stronger than a linebacker, faster than a cornerback and more sure-handed than a receiver.

Those kind of tight ends seem to be making a huge impact in the pass-happy league the NFL is becoming, and they’ll certainly capture the attention of franchises for years to come.

And they’ll be out there, but finding one as versatile as Hernandez won’t be easy.

Photo by The Associated Press

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