There’s a logjam at wide receiver on the Patriots’ roster. Do you know how many are on the team right now? The correct answer is 11. Paring that down to six, or even seven, at this moment seems like a monumental task given the talent in the group. Most of the wideouts are quite decorated. Some are on their second tenure with the team. Some are looking to make a comeback. And some are just trying to get their careers going. Here’s a look at those 11, where they could possibly play in the Patriots’ plans, and our best guess at what the depth chart may eventually look like.
He is the alpha male of the group, central to the wide receiving corps plans. When Welker delayed signing his franchise tender, he caused this logjam at receiver as the Patriots responded by signing every Tom, Dick, and Harry who wasn’t bolted to a depth chart. With no serious threat of sitting out this season despite the lack of a long-term contract, he figures to cost at least one of the recently signed wideouts a job. Last season, he led the league with 122 catches for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns.
On his second tour with the Patriots, Branch has been reliable, albeit lacking any explosiveness. It was his lack of speed, and the departure of Randy Moss in 2010, that spurred the signing of Chad Ochocinco to fill the role of deep threat. At most, Branch was the fourth or fifth option behind and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (Ochocinco was fifth or sixth). Last year, he pulled down 51 catches for 702 yards and five touchdowns. But despite his consistent route running, his impeccable chemistry with Tom Brady, and a knack for having big games when the Patriots needed it, he still doesn’t instill fear in the opposition. His role could be diminished greatly if one or two of the newbies, like Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, supplant him at the X position (outside receiver). But as a veteran of the Patriots offense, he’ll have an advantage for a roster spot. How many snaps he’ll play is another matter entirely.
We’re going into the fourth year of Edelman’s career and despite the promise of a solid slot receiver, he’s firmly implanted as Welker’s backup. That could change given the relatively young receiving options on the team now and whether they show enough promise to merit some work in the slot. The veteran Gaffney will likely push Edelman aside, too. But with Edelman’s other skills, both as a returner and a makeshift defensive back, Bill Belichick could find him to still be useful on special teams. His status is in flux, but we consider him to be a core part of the Patriots receiving corps.
The final line on Ochocinco’s 2011 season is 15 catches, 276 yards and one touchdown. Let’s just say that one season of underachievement is enough. If Ochocinco hasn’t gotten the full grasp of the Patriots’ playbook by now and developed a rapport with Tom Brady, then he’ll likely be pushed aside. It’s a do-or-die offseason for an 11-year veteran who has struggled with the complexities of the offense. It’s because of his lack of impact that the team has brought in Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth, both members of the team at one point.
A special teams maven, Slater’s 2011 highlight is that he went to the Pro Bowl. He’s also got home run capability at wide receiver. But when given the opportunity, Slater failed to come up with a number of catches. (The other highlight of his last season was a 46-yard reception in Week 1 … his only catch of the season.) In a crowded room, Slater sticks out because of his special teams abilities. But that can only get you so far.
Call him a journeyman if you want, but where Lloyd has played, he’s played well. Over his nine-year career (despite injury-plagued seasons in 2007 and 2009), he’s tallied 311 receptions, 4,784 yards, and 31 touchdowns. In splitting time between Denver and St. Louis last season (he was a vocal proponent of Kyle Orton over Tim Tebow in Denver), he finished with 70 catches, 977 yards and five touchdowns. His familiarity with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense, as part of the Broncos in 2009-10 and part of the Rams in 2011, gives him a leg up on Ochocinco, who has struggled with its complexities. His signing will figure him to be Patriots’ X receiver. The Pats will utilize his play-making skills outside the hashmarks, where he is known for making circus catches through the years.
Stallworth is still trying to restart his career after being suspended for the entire 2009 season for hitting and killing a pedestrian. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and eight years of probation for the accident. In 2010, he came back to the NFL via the Baltimore Ravens and in eight games caught two passes for 82 yards. In 2011, he caught 22 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns for the Washington Redskins. A return to New England, where he played in 2007, could help him avoid permanent free agency. In his last stint with the team, he tallied 46 receptions, 697 yards, and three touchdowns, filling the role that Ochocinco and Branch had last season.
Is he an X (outside) or a Z (slot) receiver? That kind of versatility, plus a respectable resume, is going to cause a wedge. In Gaffney, coach Bill Belichick has a guy who can step in for Welker and a guy who can fill in for Lloyd/ Branch/Ochocinco. Last season, he had 68 catches for 947 yards and five touchdowns as the Washington Redskins’ leading receiver, a career year for him. He has familiarity with the Patriots offense from his three seasons here. Finally, if his 40-yard dash time resembles anything close to when he ran it in the combine 10 years ago (4.41), he’ll provide the much needed speed boost the Patriots have been lacking. Gaffney is sure to figure in the group. It’s just a matter of whose job will he be taking.
The seventh-round pick, No. 235 overall, has a long shot to make the roster. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have skills. In his senior season at Northwestern, he nabbed 75 passes for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns. At 5-feet-11 and 200 pounds, Ebert also fits the slot receiver mold. If he’s got enough game, he can make a run at being Welker’s backup and contribute on special teams. But he’ll have to show enough promise to warrant an extended look on the practice squad. Being a seventh round draft pick won’t save him.
A late addition to the Patriots’ practice squad last season, Davis has seen limited action in the NFL. He suited up for three games with the Denver Broncos last year but did not record any catches. The onus is on him to differentiate himself from a talented group – much like defensive back Ross Ventrone did last year – to garner playing time on special teams or elsewhere. He has practice squad eligibility.
A rookie free agent out of Kentucky, Roark is a lanky 6-5 receiver who can go up and get the ball. But we’re having a hard time figuring how Roark can work his way into this offense given the pedigree of veteran talent in front of him. He seems destined for the practice squad.
One might think Belichick is trying to recreate the 2007 season with this group of receivers. With Welker, Stallworth, and Gaffney currently on board, the team’s only missing piece of the 2007 equation is Randy Moss. But this isn’t 2007, and Moss isn’t coming back. Lloyd, envisioned as the field-stretching receiver in place of Moss, isn’t the burner one might hope (4.62 40-yard dash) but he can create separation from defenders and has a good history within McDaniels’ offense. With Lloyd and Gaffney signed, the older yet more accomplished Ochocinco and Branch are likely to become more and more irrelevant.
Projected roster and cut list (6 receivers):
Chad Ochocinco (on the bubble)
Jeremy Ebert (practice squad eligible)
Britt Davis (practice squad eligible)
Matt Roark (practice squad eligible)