USA TODAY Sports
With free agency right around the corner, it's a good time to start a series looking back on each position group's performance in 2012 and what may hold true for each one come 2013.
2012 marked another stellar, record-setting campaign for the Patriots on offense in the regular season. They were a machine that was rarely slowed down until the fateful night of the AFC Championship loss to the Ravens. No team scored more points, made more first downs, hit for more plays of 10 or more yards, or performed more efficiently in the red zone than the Pats.
And all of this without their two-headed tight end monster at 100 percent playing together after Week 1 and an overall disappointing season from the collection of wideouts who don't wear No. 83. The Pats' receiving corps was better in 2012 than at any point since the departure of Randy Moss but still felt like it could have been better. Welker, playing on a one-year, franchise tag deal, submitted a typically tremendous season (118 catches, 1,354 yards, six TDs, league-leading 619 yards after catch) but the pickings got slimmer as the team went deeper down the depth chart.
Brandon Lloyd, signed to a three-year contract last March after achieving a great deal of success with Pats' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in both Denver and St. Louis, was a disappointment, failing to consistently provide the Pats with the kind of speedy, deep threat they thought they were getting when they signed him.
Lloyd, who caught 77 passes for a whopping 1,448 yards and 11 TDs on a bad Broncos' team in 2010, may have suffered from a production standpoint by being one of many weapons at QB Tom Brady's disposal. But Brady having several options for which to look didn't have anything to do with Lloyd's lack of yards after the catch (180, 115th in the league). Lloyd had seven games with three or fewer catches and four with two or fewer and in all but one of those, he was targeted by Brady at least five times.
The bottom line with Lloyd, who mastered the art of hitting the deck the minute the ball hit his hands, was that even though he had a flair for the spectacular, making multiple grabs of either the diving, tip-toeing or one-handed variety, a seeming lack of toughness or willingness to mix it up along with communication issues with Brady that lasted far longer than they should have, overshadowed his season. Of course, it's difficult not to notice that sort of thing when a guy like Welker, who gets the living crap beaten out of him on a weekly basis yet remains as tough, pound for pound, as anyone in the league, plays the same position on the same team. It just felt more often than not that Lloyd, whose numbers (74 catches, 911 yards, four TDs) were nothing to sneeze at, could have been better and more impactful.
Elsewhere, the veteran Deion Branch handled himself nicely despite being waived then brought back on two separate occasions. Branch was a serviceable No. 3, pressed into that role due to the ongoing injury problems of Julian Edelman who played in just nine games and found himself on injured reserve just as he was starting to really look like the impact guy everyone on the team's offensive staff seems to always have thought he is. Edelman's productivity on offense was finally beginning to close in on matching his productivity on special teams when he went down with a foot injury suffered against the Dolphins in Week 12. Provided he can stay healthy, Edelman, still developing as a receiver (remember, he was a QB in college) would appear to be an important asset for the Pats going forward.
As pointed out on Sunday by Boston Herald columnist Ron Borges and elaborated upon by our own Adam Fox, the Pats won't tag Welker again, especially when that number ($11.4 million) is as high as it is and 35 percent of the team's 2013 salary cap will be taken up by three players (Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork and Brady). Whether or not this means Welker's days as a Patriot are over remains to be seen. But the money and the fact that folks always seem to remember best what they last saw and that was Welker making another massive drop at a key point in a huge game, could very well work against him.
This may seem unfair when considering a guy who has missed three games in six years despite suffering a torn ACL during that stretch and registering well over 100 catches in five of those six seasons (leading the league in three of them). Again, Welker's toughness is pretty much unparalleled, he's as close to automatic on third and long as anyone and did we mention he's the all-time franchise leader in receptions?
But that doesn't mean the Pats will bring him back on anything more than their own terms. 32-year old slot receivers aren't exactly an expensive commodity in this day and age in the NFL and that's before we even get to the fact that wide receiver is not, never has been and never will be a position that the Pats "value" as long as Bill Belichick is calling the shots.
Welker could very well be gone. And if you believe Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston and Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe, Lloyd, who will also be 32 when the 2013 season begins and is due a $3 million option bonus on top of his $1.9 base salary, could be gone as well.
It's tough to imagine such a scenario, but the Pats are anything but predictable when it comes to roster decisions and free agency. There are a few traditional deep threat, outside-the-numbers, "X" receivers on the market (Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings) but it would be borderline shocking to see the Pats spend on a name like any of those.
What would appear to make more sense from the team's standpoint when considering the way Belichick has done business throughout his time in Foxboro, involves letting Welker and Lloyd walk, promoting Edelman to Welker's role, signing a couple of cheap veterans to incentive-laden deals and revolving the passing game around tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both of whom recently signed giant contract extensions. Furthermore, with another tight end in Jake Ballard progressing nicely from knee surgery and due relatively short money ($630,000 base salary) in '13, Hernandez could be made the new Welker, providing a bigger target in the slot, while the Pats are still able to operate their two-tight end driven offense without a lot of change.
Regardless of what decisions get made, this is probably the most fascinating aspect of the Pats' off-season. Welker may be one of the most important, valuable players in franchise history, but if the past 12 years of following this team have taught us anything, it's that this is a business first and foremost and sometimes, loyalty, sentimentality and past greatness hardly matter.