By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots are entering this year’s training camp with some very interesting positional competitions going on this year, among them, WR, DB, RB, LB and DL. We’ll take a look at the wide receivers and give some thoughts on the players that they will keep and those others they may.
The Patriots WRs as of the July 1 are: Deion Branch, Britt Davis, Jeremy Ebert, Julian Edelman, Jabar Gaffney, Jesse Holley, Brandon Lloyd, Matt Roark, Donte Stallworth, Matthew Slater, Wes Welker
The Patriots have a plethora of receivers in camp this summer and I think that they will keep at least six and possibly seven going into Week 1. There were issues with the position last season, surprising considering how good the offense performed. But issues did persist all season. The team recognized this and brought in plenty of help, where the position was thought upon as needing help in the spring, now it’s loaded.
Tom Brady’s go-to guys last year were the tight ends and Wes Welker in the slot. Welker is (as of July 1) playing under the franchise tag and is looking for a big pay day. He remains the lifeline for Brady and as much as people talk about Gronkowski, the Patriots offense still goes through Welker.
Deion Branch still has the chemistry with Brady who has his trust, something not to be overlooked at all. But Branch seemed to fade a bit down the stretch; it could be that age may be catching up with him. Bringing back Jabar Gaffney was a perfect move, not only was he comfortable in this offense, Gaffney has the versatility to fill in anywhere. He can spell Branch for a few snaps; play the slot or the third WR position. The Patriots also brought back Donte Stallworth who was very productive in 2007.
The Third WR position-
No place was the Patriots offense more lacking the past few years than the third wideout. The team has gotten very little out of that position despite taking chances with some big names. Joey Galloway…nope, Torry Holt…no again. The team tried college speedster Brandon Tate and Taylor Price in there before bringing in Chad Ochocinco last year, all to no avail.
Interesting stat from Jeff Howe from the Herald has the third WR position the past two years (Tate and Ocho) averaging 19.5 receptions, 354 yards and 2 TDs. Very pedestrian numbers for the WR position.
The Patriots addressed this by bringing in Brandon Lloyd as a free agent. Lloyd knows the offense having played for Josh McDaniels in Denver and St. Louis and led the NFL in receiving yardage two years ago in Denver. Lloyd made it clear during free agency that he wanted to follow McDaniels to New England and he has. Lloyd will bring the field stretching capability (horizontally more so than vertically) that the team is looking for.
Lloyd has already made a splash during mini-camps, having impressed everyone including Brady and the coaches with his route running and knowledge of the offense. Of course doing it in shorts and pads are two different things, but Lloyd already has a good grasp of the offense which is half the battle and rapidly earning trust of Brady. They’re working closely together, finding the chemistry that will serve them well this season. Having a full off-season of workouts will pay dividends come September when the games start for real.
Lloyd will fill the gaps between Gronkowski and Welker (at least for this season) as they remain the go-to guys. Branch is the move the chains type of guy, but Gaffney can spell him, allowing fresh legs all season long without missing a beat. So the Patriots have to replace Ocho’s 15 catches last year. Is it considered a reach in thinking the Lloyd should easily be able to catch at least 60 passes this year?
Think about it, 60 catches would hardly register a blip on radar screen in the big picture but that would add at least 45 receptions to the third spot, or just 3 passes a game, but consider what those three passes would mean to the offense. If teams attempt to stack the box and double Welker and Gronkowski, Lloyd could easily make them pay for that. He may get even more than that as they Patriots tweak the offense again and take so much of the onus off of Welker.
After Welker, Lloyd, Branch and Gaffney, who then are the final pieces of the WR puzzle? Donte Stallworth never wanted to leave New England after a solid 2007 and is now getting a second chance. He’ll have to battle to make the roster but the Patriots have given him a chance to compete by offering him a shot at special teams. Stallworth was running back kicks in pre-season, something he hasn’t done since 2003 but an area the team is severely lacking. That shows at least that the coaching staff knows his worth and will give him a chance to stick.
Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman are more special teams players than offensive players at this point, but something may have to give. Roarke and Holley face long odds of sticking right now. Britt Davis, is a big, athletic WR, and he supposedly had a great spring, so he will be given the chance to show what he’s got. He may land on the practice squad.
Player To Watch-
Jeremy Ebert whom the Patriots selected in the 7th round of the NFL Draft from Northwestern was a slot receiver who caught 137 passes, good for 2013 yards and 19 TDs over his last two seasons. It is a stretch but perhaps with an eye towards replacing Welker in 2013 or beyond, the team drafted Ebert and brought in Anthony Gonzalez who was released in minicamp.
The chances of Ebert making the roster are pretty slim barring major injury out of training camp but he’ll see some work in practices to see what he can do. I just think that the Patriots may use him pretty sparingly in pre-season games or else he will not slip through waivers so that they can place him on the practice squad for this season. Even so, the team has to be aware that the chances of him clearing waivers are slim. If he does show he can play at a high level on special teams, he and Edelman may be locked in a positional battle. It is a situation that will bear watching, while I don’t think he’ll be the backup slot receiver in a loaded position this summer, one can never say never since we’ve seen crazy things before at Foxboro.
Who Stays and Who Goes?-
I think Welker, Lloyd, Slater (Special Teams) and Gaffney should be locks for the roster. Branch, Edelman, Stallworth, Ebert and Davis will fight it out for the final two or three slots.
What the Patriots did in the spring was to make moves to fill holes, and fill them they did. Now the Patriots passing attack is as balanced as they’ve ever had with wide receivers that can all produce at a high level. Add in the two world class tight ends, and this is a passing offense that will be very difficult to stop. Tom Brady will have too many options for opponents to double anyone, which leads to players getting open often. Many a defensive coordinator will have a sleepless week, preparing to face this offense.
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