The question: Who will step up at receiver - after Wes Welker and Deion Branch?
Three factors: Can Brandon Tate be consistent?; Will the Patriots pick up a veteran in free agency?; How Taylor Price developed in his "redshirt" season
Finding the answer: The question here is who steps up after Welker and Branch because we know they'll come through for Tom Brady when the quarterback looks their way. Welker is well over a year past his ACL surgery, and playing last season likely helped him get past the mental hurdles of trusting his knee again that he alluded to last fall.Branch came back after four years and quickly showed that he and Brady still had their on-field chemistry. Branch isn't the speedy player he once was - lingering knee issues have taken their toll - but he is crafty enough and has a way of knowing just where he should be.
Brady also has Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who showed a great deal of promise as rookies last year, to catch the ball, but they technically are tight ends and for the purposes of this exercise we're discussing the WR spot.
Before the 2010 season, Robert Kraft and Brady both sang the praises of Brandon Tate, which raised expectations for the then-second year player. But Tate was inconsistent; he had a strong game against Minnesota, including a pretty touchdown, and four-reception games in the opener against the Bengals and a few weeks later in Miami. In those three games, he totaled 11 catches; in the other 13 games, he averaged one per. Tate can be the speed threat New England has been lacking, but consistency is key to gaining and keeping Brady's trust.
Julian Edelman was an enigma last year when it came to his play with the offense. He had just seven catches - after 37 in his rookie season - and was a non-factor for much of the season. Edelman can make things happen with the ball in his hands and he's a ferocious competitor, so it would be surprising to see him not bounce back from his sophomore slump.
Price is the unknown here, and perhaps he is the reason why the Patriots didn't draft a receiver this year. A third-round pick in 2010, he played in just the regular-season finale.
As for who could be brought in, Cincinnati's Chad Ochocinco has long been tied to the Pats - he and Bill Belichick have a mutual respect for one another, and Ochocinco has made no secret of being unhappy with the Bengals and coach Marvin Lewis. Ochocinco would have to be released, however, as he is under contract for one more year with the Bengals.
After spending last season with the Ravens, speedy Donte' Stallworth could come back - he was released after the 2007 season (when he averaged 15.2 yards on 46 catches) primarily because of a massive bonus the team would have had to pay had he stayed and because of that it was clear when he signed that he'd be here for just one season. Always a free thinker, Stallworth's twitter feed indicates that he's changed after the 2009 accident in which he stuck and killed a pedestrian in Miami; he pled guilty to DUI manslaughter.
The Jets' Brad Smith (versatile, four-down performer) and the Vikings' Sidney Rice are top options, though both could be re-signed by their clubs when the league commences operations and teams have a 72-hour window to lock up their own free agents.
Just don't ask about Randy Moss returning. I've heard on good authority that's not going to happen.