Happy Training Camp week, everyone! Over the next few days leading into and throughout training camp, I'll be highlighting and previewing a particular position each day. Right now, we'll look at the wide receiver position. Later, we'll take a look at the tight end position
In 2011, the New England Patriots had one of the most prolific passing attacks in the NFL. While many give credit to quarterback Tom Brady for being the leader of the charge, what's an army without any troops?
While all of the buzz around the NFL was surrounding the Patriots' tight ends, their wide receivers were still pretty darn good last season. The receivers were once again led by Wes Welker, who caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards for nine touchdowns on the season. Veteran Deion Branch paid his dues too, catching 51 passes for 702 yards for five touchdowns.
Due to injuries on defense, veteran receiver Julian Edelman was forced to play more defensive back towards the end of the season. Matthew Slater spent some time on offense, but was more of a special teams ace than anything.
Even though the Chad Johnson (then Ochocinco) experience failed miserably in New England, the Patriots were able to get very solid numbers out of their receivers in 2011. But apparently, Bill Belichick thought the position could be improved upon, and boy did he do it.
Lacking a deep threat even since the departure of Randy Moss, Belichick was able to finally add one--signing Pro-Bowl wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to a three-year deal. He also brought back a pair familiar faces in Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth, who both had flashes of their old selves in Washington last season.
Belichick was also able to add rookie Jeremy Ebert through his seventh round selection, sign a former reality TV-show game winner in Jesse Holley, add a Patriots practice squad standout in Britt Davis, and a former Indianapolis Colt in Anthony Gonzalez. Gonzalez's tenure didn't last long, as he was released in May.
After the clearing of the smoke, the Patriots would be bringing nine receivers to Training Camp. Let's check out where each guy stands in what should be one of the most exciting battles in Training Camp:
Projected Starters/Locks: Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Matthew Slater
The first two are no brainers for me. Wes Welker is the best slot receiver in the NFL, and he's been the team's leading wide receiver since 2007. Lloyd, meanwhile is a lock given his contract length and the new dimension he provides for this offense. Paired with Josh McDaniels yet again, Lloyd should be poised for a big debut season in New England in 2012.
Gaffney is where I fought myself. I ultimately decided to put him here for really two reasons: One, he signed a two-year contract with the Patriots, and is coming off a strong campaign with the Redskins. The second is the success he had with the team back in 2006-2008. The chemistry between he and Tom Brady was simply masterful when he was here. It's just too hard to even put Gaffney as a bubble player, in my eyes.
Slater is a roster lock for me, because of his special teams play. You really can't even consider him a wide receiver, but he plays at a Pro Bowl level at an area where the Patriots seem to stress pretty heavily. I don't see anyway he gets cut.
Most To Prove/Bubble: Deion Branch, Donte Stallworth, Julian Edelman
Even after having a very solid 2011 season with the Patriots, the former Super Bowl MVP Branch is a bubble player for me. When the Patriots signed Brandon Lloyd, it seemed that Branch's workload would be significantly less. But when the Pats also brought in a familiar face in Gaffney, it almost reduces Branch's role to almost nothing.
I have Stallworth as a bubble player, but I really like the upside here. When he was with the Patriots in 2007, Stallworth showcased his ability to get down field as another deep threat. Now that he's back in a McDaniels run offense with Brandon Lloyd serving in Randy Moss' old role, I think he could find a fit here again in New England.
Because I'm not quite sure how many receivers the Patriots may take, I view Edelman as a question mark. But like with Stallworth, I really like his upside. Because of his prominent role as a kick and punt returner and his ability to play defense--Edelman could be a versatile guy that Belichick would keep around as a "utility" player. Heck, he could be a fourth-string quarterback!
Most To Learn/Possible Cut Or Practice Squad Member: Britt Davis, Jesse Holley, Jeremy Ebert
After hearing good things about him all last season on the team's practice squad, Britt Davis really has a tough hill to climb if he wants to make this roster. He's a tall receiver at 6-3, but he's never played an NFL game.
Holley, meanwhile is an NFL veteran, having played for the Dallas Cowboys for two years. He's not had a lot of success just yet, but he someone that could potentially catch on to the system. He got into the NFL because he won a reality show/contest called "Fourth and Long", where the winner was given the final slot on the Cowboys' Training Camp roster. While he could potentially sneak in as a special teams player, he's got a lot of stiff competition that he may not be able to handle.
As for Ebert, the obvious thing to do here is to place him on the practice squad. After sustaining an injury, he was placed on the PUP, which makes his fight for a spot even harder. Belichick will likely put his seventh-round pick out of Northwestern on the Practice Squad, where he could groom him for later.