Moss and Welker were obviously the stars of the receiving corps in 2007. Welker set a club record with 112 catches and Moss snagged 98 for a 15.2 ypc average and an NFL record 23 TDs. But Stallworth caught 46 passes, matched Moss with a 15.2 ypc average, and scored 3 TDs including the Pats longest pass plays of both the regular season and post-season. What New England recognized was that Stallworth really wasn't a number-one receiver but was ideally suited for the number three role. In '07 Stallworth gave Tom Brady another deep threat and his numbers showed that he had pretty good production for a third receiver. But even more, Stallworth provided a tremendous decoy, forcing defenses to cover him and, by drawing attention away from Moss and Welker, freeing them (especially Moss) to get open and make plays. Stallworth's speed and his deep-ball potential would have made it suicidal for defenses to have double-covered both Moss and Welker.
No, I don't really mean THE Donte Stallworth, the actual player. We know where he went, how things fell apart for him after his one-and-done season in New England in 2007: a disappointing, injury riddled season in Cleveland and then the horrible incident in Florida where, after a night of drinking, he struck and killed a pedestrian with his car, leading to a jail sentence, a suspension from the NFL commissioner, and the possible end of his football career. What I mean is Donte Stallworth, the type: stretch-the-field, gamebreaking 3rd receiver threat who I always thought was an unsung star who helped make the 2007 Patriots passing attack soar. The Pats have never quite replaced him and the absence of a Stallworth-type this year has been especially noticeable, even moreso now that the Saints figured out that double covering both Randy Moss and Wes Welker left the Patriots handcuffed in the passing game.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, they haven't found a way to replace Stallworth's ability to stretch the field and draw defensive attention. Jabar Gaffney tried the number three role in 2008 but he lacked Stallworth's explosiveness and was really more of a possession receiver, a great number four on that '07 team. And for 2009 the plan was for Joey Galloway to come in and handle the number three position. It looked great on paper as he seemed, even at the end of his career, to have great speed and release and was likely to offer, at the very least, a great decoy to draw defenders. But the Galloway experiment failed badly and now the Patriots are left without a true number three, and certainly without anyone who could offer a viable deep threat to make defenses pay for doubling Moss and Welker.
The Patriots may see more of what the Saints did to them Monday night the rest of the year as this corps of receivers lacks a Stallworth type. Sam Aiken is having a nice season but he's still mostly a special teams ace playing receiver. And even if he switched exclusively to receiver he's not the stretch-the-field type. Julian Edelman was a steal in the 7th round and has a great future--but as a slot receiver. Isaiah Stanback is a great and versatile athlete who provides excellent depth but is not really the type they need at this position.
But for next year the guy to watch is Brandon Tate, the 3rd round draft pick who played oh-so-briefly this year before going on IR. Tate has size (6-1 195), speed, acceleration, and big-play production. At North Carolina in 2008 where he was also an explosive, record-setting kick returner, Tate averaged a whopping 23.5 per catch and for his career his average was 20.2. He sounds like exactly the Stallworth-type we've been missing. But of course there are a couple of worrisome things. In 41 collegiate games he only caught 46 passes, so the sample size is pretty small and his role was primarily as a returner. Also, he tore up a knee in his last year, missed half the season and half of his NFL rookie year this season before getting hurt again. We'll have to see where he is physically next year. Still, he was an excellent 3rd receiver at North Carolina on a team featuring current Giants rookie Hakeem Nicks who played the Randy Moss role to Tate's Stallworth. Can Tate reprise that role next season for the Patriots playing with the real Randy Moss? We'll see, but it's an intriguiging possibility.
But that's next year when, in addition to Tate, there might be another rookie or free-agent wideout to challenge for playing time as well. For the rest of 2009--and let's not forget, there's still a lot of football left to play--I'm not sure the Patriots can find that Stallworth-type 3rd receiver with what they have on this roster. So, there may not be much that can be done this year and, lacking a true number three receiver, the Pats will have to make some schematic adjustments to try to get Moss and Welker open more consistently and try to find some way to make opponents pay for doubling both #81 and #83.
Just as the actual Donte Stallworth was a bigger loss than we knew at the time (compounded by the total, complete bust that Chad Jackson turned out to be), the failure to find an adequate Stallworth-type receiver to replace him made it possible for the Saints to do what they did to the Pats Monday night. Let's hope other teams won't be able to follow that model as successfully as New Orleans did.