Could Julian Edelman step up if Wes Welker decides to walk? (Steve Balestrieri photo)

The New England Patriots had a very successful season considering the holes they had in their roster due to injuries and poor play at times from the defense. We’re taking a look at the 2011 season by going through each position and identifying weak points, strong points and positions that may get addressed this off-season by Bill Belichick.

Offense:

Overall- The Patriots offense scored 513 points good for 3rd in the NFL. The offense also racked up 6848 yards which was second in the league. The team was 2nd in terms of passing yardage and 20th in running the ball. We looked at the QB position a few days ago and today we’ll look at the Wide Receiver/TE situation.

WR/TE-
On the roster at the end of the season Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Chad Ochocinco, Tiquan Underwood, Matthew Slater, Shun White (reserve/military list) and Britt Davis, Carson Butler, Dorin Dickerson (Practice Squad)

The Patriots remain primarily a passing team and were extremely successful during 2011 with a net passing yardage figure of 5084 yards through the air. With a pair of TEs that regularly provide matchup nightmares for opposing defenses, the Patriots passing attack is probably more different than any other of the top units in the league.

But many questions linger this off-season for the crew as Welker, Branch and Slater are all free agents and Ocho is not a certainty to return either. The one thing the Patriots lack is a big WR target that can reliably stretch the field. Welker and Branch are both undersized and Branch no longer has the legs to do that. Ocho was brought in to provide that and the attempt failed. Ocho never could get on the same page as Tom Brady

As a result, he finished with just 15 catches for 276 yards and 1 TD. While no one was expecting huge numbers from him, those are far below what was hoped for. Worse, was the fact that Ocho struggled with his routes in the two-minute or hurry up offense and was relegated to the bench during those pivotal times.

Welker had another fantastic season, 122 receptions for 1569 yards and nine TDs. He is the only player in NFL history with four seasons with at least 110 receptions. Nobody in the league since 2007 has as many receptions as Welker and he and Brady remain on the same page as they rarely have to exchange a word, just a look is required and they seem to know what the other is thinking.

Gronkowski rewrote the record book in terms of tight end receiving yardage and touchdowns in 2011. His 90 receptions for 1327 yards and 17 touchdowns don’t even begin to describe the dominance he brought to the position this season. Aaron Hernandez had 79 receptions for 910 yards and 7 touchdowns himself, but one thing to remember, Hernandez started slowly this season as he struggled with rounding into form after off-season hip surgery. Once he was completely healthy, he was just as difficult to stop. Together the Patriots TEs caught 169 passes for 2237 yards and 24 yards.

Branch is on the decline, he can no longer do the things he once did but remains a wily veteran, and like Welker, he and Brady remain on the same page. Branch is rarely out of position and is still good at finding seams. He chipped in with 51 catches for 702 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011.

Moving Forward-
The most conventional thinking around New England is that the Patriots will lock up Welker with either a long term deal or at a minimum place a franchise tag on him for 2012. I disagree with the notion that he needs the Patriots more than they need him. It’s a situation where they both need each other. After that?

I think the Patriots retain Slater who is more of special team’s player than a WR. It makes sense for them to bring back both Welker and Branch. I also see them trying to sign one FA WR and try to draft one as well.

There are a lot of names being bandied about for the Patriots on the free agent list, top among them is Brandon Lloyd followed by Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston and lately Randy Moss.

Lloyd has a great relationship with Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and has said publicly that he wants to follow him wherever he goes. But his agent Tom Condon has a contentious relationship with New England. I think Garcon returns to the Colts.

Vincent Jackson’s asking price is much too rich for the Patriots blood although I think he’d flourish here with Brady. I doubt Moss returns, he slipped badly in 2010 and didn’t play at all in 2011. Age waits for no one. The Patriots had the opportunity to sign him last season and instead signed Tiquan Underwood.

Colston would be another great fit, he played in an offense where the ball is spread around so no one would be worried about him ever complaining about getting his share. Wayne may be the guy who gets the call as the Patriots go to a short term contract with him, the only question is, is there enough left in the tank?

There is a lot of depth at WR in the draft this year, and the Patriots may once again dip into the pool to draft one. Their track record for drafting WRs has taken a hit in the past few years but this would be the time to strike.

At tight end, the team picked up two last year, Will Yeatman and Lee Smith but both were snatched off the roster at the end of training camp. With Hernandez coming off an injury last year, and Gronkowski having surgery after the Super Bowl, look for them to address this and add either a veteran or draft another tight end in the draft.

Overall Grade-
A- Great seasons by Welker and the tight ends were offset by disappointing efforts from Chad Ochocinco and Branch to a lesser degree. As successful as the passing game was, it remained a “piece at a time” game without the quick strike capability.

The team lacks a big, physical wide receiver who can break man coverage and run the intermediate routes that keeps the field stretched. If they find that guy, there’s no limit on how good this offense can become.

Next up we’ll look at the offensive line. After that we will take a look at Special Teams and the defense.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com for all the news about the Patriots as they get set to go through the Free Agency period as well as the NFL Combine and the NFL Draft. I’m sure there will be plenty of mock drafts to scan over. At PatsFans don’t forget to check out Ian Logue’s excellent stat sheets that are accessed by most of the main stream media in Boston. Also check out PatsFans on Facebook

Also stay tuned to Patriots4thand 2, our PatsFans blog talk Radio Show as host Russ Goldman, Derek Havens, Damien Jarrett and I bring some insight into the games and off-season as the Patriots enter free agency and the draft.

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