Expect more of this next season. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
You know what there haven't been enough of this offseason? Articles about the number of wide receivers on the Patriots roster. And you know what else I'd like to see a little more of? Articles predicting who will make it through the last round of cuts and who won't.
The NFL offseason is nothing if not long and repetitive. Once the dust from Free Agency and the Draft settles, all we can really do is sit around waiting for training camp to start while making a series of boneheaded predictions as to how the next few months are going to unfold. How many sacks for Chandler Jones? Who will be stepping in at Left Tackle now that Matt Light has retired? Will Devin McCourty regain the star power he flashed during his rookie year? Is this the year where Tom Brady finally decides to come to my birthday party?
While these are all legitimate questions, no other Patriots-related issue has gotten more attention than the apparent logjam at the wide receiver position. Between Welker's contract status and the plethora of names, new and old, currently on the roster at that position, it seems that there is at least one Patriots receiver receiving media attention almost every day.
Well, time to do my part. There were only two receiver-related links in Marima's post today, and only a dozen or so internet-wide over the weekend. I'm a little worried that unless we are absolutely bombarded nonstop with "who's it gonna be?" style articles, we'll all start to forget that New England has eleventy billion receivers on the roster and not enough places for them all.
Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Matthew Slater, and Jabar Gaffney all seem to be entrenched on the depth chart (unless, of course, Bill Belichick has no intention of keeping Gaffney and only signed him to a 2 year deal just to mess with the rest of the receivers' heads. I wouldn't put it by the man for a second). That only leaves seven receivers competing for what is likely three spots. There is definitely a chance that the Patriots will keep eight receivers, choosing instead to make their cuts elsewhere, but I honestly don't see it. And while we can never be 100% certain who is going to end up making the final roster (see Milloy, Lawyer), I figure that I may as well throw my hat in the ring and try to predict who the lucky fellas are who will be catching passes from Tommy B this season. Each of the receivers competing for a roster spot has unique strengths and weaknesses that will be assessed by the coaching staff over the next few months leading up to what is undoubtedly going to be one of the best training camp battles you'll find anywhere in the league. Here are the strengths and weaknesses of each player, followed by what I think their fate will be come September.
STRENGTHS: Has Brady's trust. Deep understanding of New England's offensive system. Precise route runner with reliable hands. Phenomenal blocking receiver. Has a wide variety of humorous end zone dances and loves to flash his pearly whites.
WEAKNESSES: Age is starting to catch up with him. Not that fast and struggles at times creating separation. Not overly effective in traffic. Too short to go on many of Disneyland's best rides.
This is a tough one, to be honest, and most people are much more sold on Branch making the final roster than I am. From a sheer talent perspective, I can't say with confidence that Branch stands head and shoulders above Stallworth or a healthy Gonzalez. He also doesn't represent any definitive strides forward in terms of improving the offense; he's more a bastion of stability and consistency more than anything else, and if the offense is looking to transition into more of a 3 TE, power base offense that thrives off the intermediate routes and has a legit deep threat to keep defenses honest, Branch may not find a comfortable home within that scheme. That said, however, if there's one thing I've learned from
sifting through Tommy B's garbage watching Tommy B play, it's that he's at his absolute best when he trusts everyone on the field. There probably isn't another receiver in the NFL that Brady trusts more than Branch, and that is definitely going to count for something when it's time to make final cuts. While I won't be incredibly surprised if Branch is cut in favor of a resurgent Stallworth, at the end of the day his history with Brady and his understanding of the offense should be enough to keep him around.
STRENGTHS: Decent size and speed. Adept at mimicking other larger, quicker receivers on the scout team. Generated respectable YACs while in college and was able to line up all over the field. Familiar with the Patriots system.
Davis's shot to make the team as anything other than a practice squad player are slim; it will likely be down to Davis vs. Ebert for the WR slot on the scout team. Of the two, Ebert seems to have the edge, as he has the speed advantage and the Patriots saw enough in him to invest a draft pick in him. Plus, I don't see Davis garnering too much interest elsewhere, and New England will likely be able to sign him mid-season if the need arises. Davis will likely be one of the early training camp cuts.
STRENGTHS: Good size. Was a big play threat in college. Ran a 4.38 40 at his pro day. Able to contribute on special teams. Boyish good looks means New England will continue to dominate as the sexiest team in the NFL.
WEAKNESSES: Not an exceptional athlete. Needs room to operate. Fairly mundane skillset, particularly compared to Welker and Edelman.
I don't know anything about Ebert; I cut and pasted those strengths and weaknesses - well, most of them - from a trusted sports blog I follow. All I do know is that at some point New England is going to have to start developing a young receiver to take over the reins once this rapidly aging receiving corps hits the ol' dusty trail. Later round draft picks are never a lock to make the roster, but the Patriots clearly saw enough in Ebert to take a flier on him. I can see Ebert getting a lot of looks in the preseason before landing a spot on the practice squad, where he will hopefully make the necessary strides to be a 2nd or 3rd year contributor to the active roster.
STRENGTHS: Fearless. Great at generating YACs. Shifty with a great ability to explode into space. Able to motion in and out of the backfield. Swiss Army knife and key cog in gadget plays.
WEAKNESSES: Still raw as a receiver. Not a great route runner. Adequate, but not great, hands. Welker's superior skillset makes Edelman extraneous. Can't be trusted when surrounded by scantily clad women.
While I do think Edelman will make the squad as a receiver, he's going to be a special teamer first and foremost. I can't imagine Edelman will see much - if any - action as a receiver in 2012; if he finishes the season with 6 catches for 75 yards, I'd say that's a successful campaign. However, his versatility and skill as a punt returner should be enough to keep him on the roster. We all know how Belichick feels about versatility and having depth at every position, and Edelman can play pretty much anywhere in a pinch. Plus, I'm still 100% convinced that Edelman is going to throw an NFL pass at some point in his career - ideally to Nate Solder after receiving a double reverse from Danny Woodhead in what would be a trick play trifecta. McDaniels is known to throw the occasional gadget play in the playbook, and I can see him having a lot of fun with Edelman.
STRENGTHS: Phenomenal slot receiver. Understands complex offenses and has proven effective running the no huddle. Great first step. Excellent hands and very shifty in traffic.
WEAKNESSES: I had to base all of those strengths on what I remember of Gonzalez from a few seasons ago because the guy just can't stay healthy. Plus, he's a former Colt, which means the stink of Manning is still on him.
I would absolutely love it if Gonzalez could return to form. A healthy Gonzalez, Welker, Gronk, Hernandez, and Lloyd on the field would be absolutely uncoverable. However, I think too much time has passed since Gonzalez was an effective receiver and this position is just too crowded for the Pats to risk giving him and his glass knees a roster spot. You just know that at some point he is going to get hurt again, and when that does happen, whoever the Patriots cut to keep him around will undoubtedly already be playing for another team. Unless they start him out on the PUP list, I think Gonzo is gonzo.
STRENGTHS: Surgical route runner with excellent cutting ability. Has great hands (in spite of last season's drops). Clearly wants to be a Patriot and has done everything asked of him without a word of complaint. Surprisingly effective blocker.
WEAKNESSES: Struggled in adjusting to a new offense. Has lost a step with age. Easy to tackle and doesn't rack up the YACs. Definite risk of being ineffective for a 2nd straight year.
Many may disagree, but I honestly think that the job is Ocho's to lose at this point. The rapport between him and Bill Belichick is well-documented, and while Ocho only scored one more NFL touchdown than I did last year, nobody can question his effort and his willingness to embrace the Patriot Way. Plus, the fact that he restructured his contract for less money leads me to believe that there is a mutual interest from both sides to keep him on the team. Unless one of the other bubble receivers blows the coaching staff away, or unless Ocho simply can't get a handle for the playbook after having the full offseason to learn it, I'd be surprised if he didn't make the final roster. If he does get cut, though, I think he will be replaced by:
STRENGTHS: Understands New England's offense. Can be highly effective over the middle and on mid-range passing routes. Still runs a 4.4 40 and can be dangerous in space. Difficult to bring down and not afraid to lower his shoulder.
WEAKNESSES: Limited field vision. Much more effective in space than he is in traffic. Has been injury prone as of late. Ineffective as a blocking receiver. Hasn't started a full season since 2007. Hasn't been effective since his 1 year suspension.
While 2007 was clearly The Year of Randy here in New England, Stallworth very quietly amassed a 700 yard season while averaging a respectable 15.2 yards per catch during his one season with the Patriots. Since then, Stallworth hasn't quite been able to get his career back on track, as he has been largely ineffective with the Ravens and Redskins. However, he's still a talented receiver, and has the perfect combination of speed and size for a team that likes to work the middle of the field and relies more on the short to intermediate routes. Like I said above, I think that Stallworth vs. Branch will be the most exciting training camp battle to watch, and of the two receivers, I still think Stallworth has the most to offer talent-wise. But, when the chips are down, Branch is still Tommy B's go-to guy, and I just don't see the Pats keeping 8 receivers. Add that to his recent injury history, and Stallworth is out.
So there is my two cents: Branch, Ochocinco, and Edelman take the last three spots, with Ebert finding a home on the practice squad. Of course, now that I've said that none of those three are going to end up making the team, but that's OK. It's unpredictable things like that that keeps things interesting.
Plus, if push comes to shove, I can always just write another article about the Patriots wide receivers. You just can't have too many of these things.