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As the start of the 2012 regular season quickly approaches, one of the most interesting positions on this team is that of the wide receivers.
In the 2011 season the Patriots finished out with a receiving corps consisting of Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, and Chad
Ochocinco Johnson. We all know how Chad turned out, and the rest of the receivers lacked the abilities to stretch the field. Branch and Welker provided some stability, but they were hardly the focal point of the offense. Tom Brady threw for 39 touchdowns last season. Only 15 of those were caught by the entire receiver cast. 17 were caught by tight end Rob Gronkowski alone, and Aaron Hernandez caught seven, which was two more than Branch (5) and two less than Welker (9).
Needless to say the Patriots needed to make some changes to the wide receiver position. Bill Belichick’s idea was to bring in some new and familiar faces to make the preseason position battle the most intriguing on the roster.Throughout the offseason, the Patriots signed Brandon Lloyd, brought back Jabar Gaffney, Donte’ Stallworth, and re-signed Branch to a one-year deal. Anthony Gonzalez was brought in as well, but he didn’t last too long. Former villain Plaxico Burress was even brought in for a workout but that didn’t pan out either. Bill is known for throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.
A lot of talk surrounded Welker this offseason as the Patriots placed the franchise tag on him. There were attempts to work out a new deal, but nothing was completed. In the end Welker signed the tender and he has a little over nine million reasons to play well this season. Welker wants to earn a long time deal, and a lucrative one. He has shown how durable and reliabe he is in his tenure in New England. In five seasons with the team he has only missed four games (3 regular season, 1 postseason), and he has had over 100 receptions and at least 1,000 receiving yards in all but one season (2010).
However, with that impressive track record and even with a great season this year, there is no guarantee he returns a Patriot next season. The Patriots could very well place the franchise tag on him again, but that put him in the 12-14 million-dollar range. They will already be committing over $20 million to Tom Brady next season, so it is unlikely they will want to place the tag on Welker. Unless they can agree on a long term deal, Welker may be catching passes elsewhere in 2013. With Aaron Hernandez emerging as an impressive option who can play the slot position, we could be looking at a situation similar to the Colts. When Brandon Stokley’s contract ran out, they replaced his production with tight end Dallas Clark. While I would much rather Welker stay in New England for a long time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hernandez serve as his replacement.
With all that being said, Welker is obviously going to be a huge part of the offense as always. He continues to attempt to make himself better and has earned a lot of well-deserved trust from Brady. This push for competition at the receiver position could be directly related to finding the most capable players to open up the field for Welker. Welker may not be directly in competition, but he serves as someone who will benefit the most from it.
The biggest splash this offseason was the signing of Brandon Lloyd. The signing of Lloyd gives the offense the down field threat the offense has been lacking since the trade of Randy Moss. Lloyd played under returning offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in Denver and St. Louis. He has a strong grasp of the Patriots’ offense, which was the biggest flaw with Chad Johnson last season. He and Brady have already formed a good relationship throughout the preseason which means the extra weapon will make an already great Tom Brady even better.
Lloyd provides a taller target than Branch and Welker, and has shown in camp why he is considered to have some of the best hands in the league. He is sure to have a starting spot on the roster along with Welker.
With Welker and Lloyd, barring any unforeseen injuries, locked into the starting wide receiver spots, it will be interesting to see who makes it out of the rest of the group. Edelman appears to have a spot on the roster due to his versatility. On offense he can play out of the backfield or at the receiver position. Keep in mind he was a quarterback in college, so passing isn’t even out of the question. He has been a valuable member of the special teams returning punts and kicks. Last season he also played some defense and showed no fear as he lowered the shoulder on tackles. With a skill set like that, I find it hard to believe Bill can’t find something to do for him. Matthew Slater also appears to have a roster spot as he too provides depth at multiple positions.
That leaves Gaffney, Stallworth, and Branch basically competing for one spot. While Stallworth has a lot of talent, and Belichick himself even commented on how he still has speed, Brady has professed his admiration for Branch and Gaffney in the past. At the end of the day it’s going to be who Brady is most comfortable with that will get the nod.
Gaffney and Stallworth were both on the team during the historical 2007 season. Stallworth was just one of the big offseason moves the Patriots made, but it was Gaffney who was getting more playing time and had more touchdowns when all was said and done. Brady has even gone as far as saying Gaffney was his favorite receiver to throw to, which doesn’t bode well for Stallworth’s chances.
Deion Branch is a fan favorite, as well as a Brady favorite. When he was traded here in 2010, it was like he never left. He has had just over 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns during his second term in New England. The Patriots only gave him a one year deal, similar to Stallworth and Gaffney, which means nothing is guaranteed for any of them. Throughout camp it has looked as if Gaffney will get the final nod. I don’t think Stallworth will make the final cut. That leaves it down to Gaffney and Branch. My heart tells me they keep Branch, but my gut is telling me Gaffney will once again be catching touchdowns from #12.
However it all falls into place, the offense appears to be in prime position to somehow better the numbers posted last season. Scary thought for opposing defenses.
Tags: Aaron Hernandez, Anthony Gonzalez, Bill Belichick, Brandon Lloyd, Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark, Deion Branch, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, New England Patriots, Plaxico Burress, Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, Wes Welker