In connection with separate criminal cases, the Cleveland Browns released defensive lineman Ausar Walcott and the New England Patriots released Aaron Hernandez on Wednesday. Walcott has been charged with attempted murder in connection with a fight outside a bar in Passaic, N.J. last weekend. Hernandez has been charged with murder in the death of Odin Lloyd, whose body was found near Hernandez’s home in North Attleborough, Mass., earlier this month. According to the prosecution, Lloyd and Hernandez knew each other:

The charges are the result of an investigation that began when Lloyd’s bullet-riddled body was found in an industrial park near Hernandez’s home June 17. Prosecutors contend that the two men were friends and, according to Lloyd’s family, his girlfriend and Hernandez’s fiancee are sisters.

In his description of the charges, the prosecutor pointed to evidence that includes surveillance video, shell casings, fingerprints and text messages and calls the homicide “an execution.” They say the shooting stems from a nightclub dispute several days before. “The defendant orchestrated the execution,” Bill McCauley, an assistant district attorney, said. Lloyd, according to McCauley, was shot five times.

The charges Hernandez faces: first-degree murder, carrying a firearm without a license, possession of a large-capacity firearm, possession of a firearm without a firearm owner’s identification card and two other firearm charges.

Cindy Boren

Hernandez is being held without bail. The Patriots released him before his arraignment after they learned of his arrest Wednesday morning:

The Patriots announced their decision to part with Hernandez, a talented tight end who fell to the fourth round in the draft because of character issues at Florida, at 10:20 a.m. They wasted no time in cutting a player they’d given a $40 million contract 10 months ago.

“A young man was murdered last week,” the team said in statement. “We extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law-enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing, we support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”

The NFL echoed the Patriots’ statement. “The involvement of an NFL player in a case of this nature is deeply troubling,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. “The Patriots have released Aaron Hernandez, who will have his day in court. At the same time, we should not forget the young man who was the victim in this case and take this opportunity to extend our deepest sympathy to Odin Lloyd’s family and friends.”

Cindy Boren

This is not the first case in which Walcott, who played his final season at Virginia in the fall, has faced criminal charges:

Walcott, 23, allegedly punched a man in the head during a fight at the Palace Gentleman’s Club and turned himself in to police Tuesday night. He is also facing charges of second-degree aggravated assault and third-degree endangering an injured victim. His bail has been set at $500,000 cash.

Walcott, who signed with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in May but was released Wednesday, also had legal troubles while at Virginia. He was one of three Cavaliers players arrested on assault-and-battery and burglary charges stemming from a fight at a party at James Madison University in January 2011.

Coach Mike London indefinitely suspended Walcott from the football program at the time, although all the charges against him were eventually dropped.

Given a second chance, Walcott appeared to have turned a corner by his senior season in Charlottesville. The Hackensack, N.J., native started six games at defensive end and finished with 30 tackles in 2012. London consistently raved about how much Walcott had grown from the experience.

“He’s had issues here, but I’m so proud of him that he’s kind of turned his life around in terms of being that model . . . of doing well in class, of doing the things he’s supposed to do, wanting to learn how to play football, being accountable to his teammates. He’s made tremendous strides in that area,” London said in September.

Mark Giannotto

The charges against Hernandez and Walcott are the latest in a disturbing series of criminal cases against professional football players:

[Hernandez’s arrest] comes the same week NFL rookies are gathering at the Browns’ facilities for lectures and workshops designed to help them avoid the pitfalls of professional sports.

From Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring to the murder-suicide involving Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher, the league has struggled to keep pace with its players’ off-field problems, some of them violent. . .

An All-American at Florida, Hernandez’s behavior in college led him to be red-flagged entering the NFL, when several teams reportedly took him off their draft boards — refusing to pick him under any circumstances — and enough had questions about his character to let him slide all the way to New England in the fourth round.

Afterward, Hernandez said he had failed a single drug test in college, reportedly for marijuana, and was honest with teams about it.

And the Patriots seemed like the perfect fit.

Even before Belichick became the coach, the organization tried to maintain a delicate balance — publicly stressing good character while signing players with questions in their past.

In 1996, New England drafted defensive lineman Christian Peter from Nebraska in the fifth round even though he had been arrested eight times, accused of grabbing one woman around the throat and of sexually assaulting a former Miss Nebraska. “They’re not all choir boys in this league,” then-coach Bill Parcells said, but the team — spurred by the wife of owner Bob Kraft — soon relinquished its draft rights to him.

Nor has Belichick shied away from players with troubled pasts more recently, though none faced charges as serious as Hernandez. Among the players signed by the Patriots were receivers Randy Moss and the one known at the time as Chad Ochocinco; defensive backs Alfonzo Dennard, Aqib Talib and Brandon Meriweather; running back Corey Dillon, and offensive lineman Nick Kaczur.

Most had questions about their personal lives before coming to New England, already wearing out their welcome with one or more other NFL teams. Some ran into legal trouble only after signing with New England. Others, like Moss and Dillon, produced on the field for a while before the Patriots grew tired of them, too.

Associated Press

Watch Hernandez’s first appearance in court Wednesday below:

Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez made his first appearance in court shortly after he was arrested. (Associated Press)