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Patriots 2011 Wide Receivers Preview: Ochocinco, Welker, Etc.

Patriots QB Tom Brady (12) will have Edelman (11), Branch (84), Welker (83) to work with in 2011. (Charles Krupa/AP)

After trading away Randy Moss in October last season, the Patriots committed to reshaping the look of their receiving corps. Soon thereafter they brought back Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch, and this offseason sent shock waves throughout the league by trading for one of the game’s most notably outlandish personalities in Chad Ochocinco.

See: Our 2011 Patriots Previews

While those two, along with Tom Brady’s favorite target Wes Welker, are guaranteed locks for the opening day roster and will top the depth chart, the Patriots are deep with young talent at receiver with the likes of Julian Edelman, Taylor Price and Brandon Tate, among others.

As the preseason dwindles down, the Pats are going to have to face some tough decisions. On one hand, they can keep seven receivers on the roster, as Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston has speculated, or cut some talent to make room at other positions.

Here’s a look at each wide receiver and where they figure to fit int Brady’s arsenal of weapons in 2011.

Chad Ochocinco

The outspoken six-time Pro Bowler is at a stage in his career where he can no longer match the production of his prime years lining up alongside T.J. Houshmandzadeh with Carson Palmer under center in Cincinnati (see 2005 stat line: 97 rec, 1,432 yards, nine TDs). We won’t see 90-plus catches or 1,200 yards, but the Patriots aren’t expecting that, nor do they need it in an offense in which Brady will benefit from spreading the wealth to a number of backs, receivers and tight ends with diverse skill sets.

That being said, the 33-year-old Ochocinco still has a lot left in the tank, and has much to bring to the passing game.

Last season with the Bengals, Ochocinco had his share of ups and downs, ending up with a respectable, but below career-average, 67 catches for 831 yards and only four touchdowns. A lot of this can be attributed to the Bengals’ offensive futility and the decline of Palmer. Ochocinco should benefit from a change of scenery in New England — or “heaven,” as he likes to call it on Twitter.

Ochocinco has the pass-catching ability and athleticism that the Patriots have lacked since  Moss’ departure, and he should prove to be a valuable complement to Welker and the tight ends underneath. He’s struggled a bit with drops in training camp thus far, but turned in a strong first outing in a Patriots’ uniform, hauling in a touchdown in last Thursday’s preseason demolition of the Bucs.

While Ochocinco’s unique personality has made him one of the most well known talkers in the league, never has it affected his performance or work ethic on the field. Even though he is in the latter stages of his career, Ochocinco has showed up in Foxborough ready to learn, play – and most importantly – win.

Wes Welker

After his first season back from season-ending surgery from a torn ACL and MCL in 2009, Welker has commented that he’s feeling the best he’s felt physically in his entire career, which is a scary sign for opposing defenses. The elusive pass catcher turned in a 2010 performance (86 catches for 848 yards and seven TDs) that would have been tremendous for most receivers, but was disappointing by Welker’s high standards.

Welker is what makes the Patriots offense go, and second only to No. 12, he is the offense’s most indispensable player, as evidenced by his 2007-2009 seasons. In each of those three years, Welker caught more than 110 passes for over 1,000 yards, and was Brady’s go-to receiver in pressure situations.

Conventional logic would say that Welker won’t be able to replicate that production at age 30 with major surgery in his recent past, but knowing the remarkable work ethic and drive of the fan favorite, there’s just something that tells you Welker isn’t done making his name as one of the league’s best receivers. Fans shouldn’t be surprised if Welker improves on last year’s production, and returns to being the key cog of the Patriots’ passing game.

Even if this isn’t the case, the chemistry between Welker and Brady isn’t going anywhere, and No. 83 will always be a factor.

Deion Branch

Branch was a valuable pickup for the Patriots in the wake of the Moss fallout last season, catching 48 passes for 706 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games. After his strong start to his career in New England, Branch’s production faltered in Seattle as he battled injuries and never seemed to find his rhythm.

In those 11 games in New England last year, Branch posted the most receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns since his first season in Seattle back in 2006.

Branch,32, is entering the closing stages of his career. Still, he is a veteran presence who knows the offense well and is a strong locker room guy. He’s not going to post 1,000 yards and may very well experience a drop off from last year, but he’s possess reliable hands and a good rapport with Brady.

Plus, he’s a link back to the days of the dynasty, and his presence on the field will always remind fans of his 11 catches for 133 yards to lead the Pats past the Eagles in the 2004 Super Bowl.

Julian Edelman

Edelman can still be considered a player on the bubble to make the team, but his talent on special teams, especially returning punts, should be enough to keep him around. Whether that translates to seeing bountiful playing time in the offense remains to be seen.

Edelman made the jump from collegiate quarterback to NFL wide receiver astoundingly in his rookie season. He quickly became a fan favorite as he did his best Welker impersonation, hauling in 37 catches for 359 yards. Last season, though, the sophomore slump hit hard. Despite strong play on the punt return team, Edelman was a complete non-factor offensively (seven catches for 86 yards).

Edelman is great insurance as a slot receiver in case Welker goes down, but it looks as if his primary contributions will come on special teams if he makes the Week 1 roster. Given his talent and football IQ look for Edelman to be more relevant in the passing game, but don’t expect him to surpass Ochocinco, Welker or Branch on the depth chart.

Taylor Price

Price is an electric deep threat that has Patriots fans buzzing after his five catch, 105-yard performance in the team’s opening preseason game against Jacksonville, which featured a smooth, toe-tapping touchdown reception on a Brian Hoyer pass.

Last season was essentially a redshirt season for Price, who was late to training camp because of regulations pertaining to the University of Ohio’s late graduation date.

But after a lost season, Price looks ready to contribute right from the start. At 6’0″, 205 lbs., Price has the combination of size and speed that make him a legitimate deep threat with the potential to stretch the field. In an offense like the Patriots’ that feasts on picking apart defenses with screen passes and slant routes underneath, the established presence of Price could potentially be lethal.

At the start of camp, he was on the bubble, but his performance against the Jaguars should ensure him of a roster spot. If he can build off his early successes at camp and harness his immense athleticism, he could be a pleasant surprise and become a dangerous deep threat for Brady.

Brandon Tate

If the Patriots cannot afford to carry seven wide receivers, Tate could be the odd man out. In his sophomore season after spending most of his rookie campaign on injured reserve, Tate started off strongly returning kickoffs, but his production tapered off. He failed to step up as a consistent option in the place of Moss and finished the year with a respectable, but unimpressive, 24 catches for 432 yards and three touchdowns.

Tate has all the speed and athleticism in the world, but hasn’t yet seemed able to put it all together. He’s done little this preseason to prove that his spot on the roster is secured, and the way in which his production dwindled over the course of 2010 does little to support his cause either.

With the emergence of Price, Tate could be on the outside looking in. If, on the other hand, he can prove his worth on special teams, he could very well still land a spot, and be a speedy and youthful target for Brady. One thing is for sure — if Tate makes the squad, it will be a make or break season in his young career.

Matthew Slater

Slater is the most likely candidate to sneak onto the roster if the Patriots decide to go with seven wideouts. In 2010, he led the team in special teams tackles, and he has carved out a role for himself in all facets of the special teams game. Belichick clearly has faith in the fourth year veteran, and has forgiven mistakes including a costly fumble on a kickoff in a 2008 loss to the Steelers, to keep him around.

If Slater makes the roster, he likely won’t add much to the passing game — he is yet to catch a pass in an NFL game.

Buddy Farnham

Farnham, who spent last season on the practice squad, is a likely cut given the team’s depth, but he is certainly an intriguing option. The Andover native and lifelong Patriots fan starred at Brown University, where he was three times All-Ivy first team and in 2009 was the Ivy League Player of the Year when he ranked fifth in the country in receiving.

While Farnham, a pass catcher in the Welker/Edelman mold, has potential as a receiver and a punt returner, it is his flexibility that may sneak him onto the roster.

The Patriots have been working Farnham out at safety, in addition to wideout, and in the Jacksonville win, he picked off a pass which elicited an enthusiastic response from Belichick the likes of which may have never before been seen in the fourth quarter of a preseason game. Everybody knows that the Pats love depth, and a player that can contribute on both sides of the ball à la Troy Brown could tickle Belichick’s fancy.

Jeremy Ross

Ross is an undrafted free agent who made his name at Cal primarily on special teams. He is an electric punt returner who is second in the school record books only to DeSean Jackson, but he has done little in camp or in the first two preseason games to showcase his speed and playmaking ability. Barring a sudden change of events, he will likely face the ax when the time for cuts come, but we could see him wind up on the practice squad if he clears waivers.

Darnell Jenkins

Like Ross, Jenkins’ only hope at this point seems to be a place on the practice squad. The 28-year old Miami alumnus has kicked around the league since being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Texans in 2008, and has had multiple stints with the Patriots, although he is yet to catch a pass in an NFL game. There’s something that Belichick and Caserio like about the guy, since they have three times given him a contract, but with the competition this year, there seems to be no plausible way that Jenkins finds a place on the active roster.

Tyree Barnes

Barnes won’t make the active roster, but he is a player with a fascinating story. The Patriots signed Barnes, an alumnus of the United States Naval Academy, after he went undrafted in 2009, and he spent that season on the Reserve/Military List along with fellow Navy player Eric Kettani. Both players spent the last two years completing their tour of active duty, and were on time to camp after finishing their required time in May.

Spending two years away from the game and with his mind obviously in another place, Barnes isn’t expected to contribute any time in near future, but look for the Patriots to clear space for him on the practice squad if he can successfully clear waivers.

Other Possibilites?

The Patriots have recently worked out NFL veterans T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Mark Clayton, but neither have yet been offered a contract. The workouts looked purely to be depth moves for the preseason as Edelman, Price and Tate are all battling minor injuries that have been enough to keep them out of practice. While neither visit led to anything, it leaves the door open for other free agent possibilities to keep an eye out for, although it appears unlikely that any move will have a serious impact on the receiving corps for the start of the 2011 season.

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