The Patriots have all their top receivers and tight ends still under contract for next season. This is the same unit (along with Randy Moss) that helped New England score the most points in the league, and caught the passes that propelled Tom Brady to a league MVP award.
As a group, the Patriots receivers are very talented and clearly can put up points. Wes Welker is one of the best slot receivers in the game, and Deion Branch is a reliable veteran who excels at short and medium routes. Brandon Tate is very fast and can occasionally get open deep, but needs to eliminate the crucial drops that marred his season. He is 6'-1" but somewhat slight, and not overly physical. Julian Edelman is a similar player to Welker, and provided a spark at times, but was further down the depth chart and did not see a lot of game action. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez showed tremendous promise. They are very young, and should continue to improve. Taylor Price was drafted in the third round last year and did not see the field in 2010 until the season finale. He is one to watch, but has not yet been given the opportunity to show what he can do.
I feel New England could use a larger receiver opposite Branch who can outmuscle defenders and beat quality conerbacks. New England likes to exploit match-ups they see as advantageous such as a slower linebacker on a speedy running back, or a smaller corner covering a big tight end. This is a sound strategy, but as we saw in the playoff loss to the Jets, it is not foolproof. A big player who can fight off attempts to jam him at the line, and can shield defenders with his body to make catches while covered would be a nice compliment. Randy Moss was this player for a time. When Moss was at his best, defenses were forced to double-team him and play further from the line of scrimmage, making it easier to complete the quick underneath passes on which the New England offense thrives. On deep routes, Moss was able to get up and pluck the ball out of the air even with defenders around him. There are few who compare to Moss circa 2007, but a similar player would give the Patriots attack a fearsome bite, and make them very difficult to stop.
There are a few free agents who could play this role, but they would not come cheap. Vincent Jackson of the Chargers is a big receiver who knows how to get open deep. His talents would be a welcome addition to the team, but he is looking to be paid a massive contract of $10m per year or more. He has also dealt with off-field problems, namely two separate DUIs. The most recent arrest earned him a three game suspension to start the 2010 season. Based solely on his play I would gladly welcome Jackson to New England, but when spending that kind of money you want to make a sound investment, and the risk there may be too great.
The most appealing option to me is Minnesota’s Sidney Rice. He missed a good portion of last season with a hip injury, but was excellent in 2009 when he caught 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight TDs. In the playoffs that year he had 10 receptions for 184 yards and four scores over two games. Rice is capable of making spectacular catches. Unlike Moss he can run a variety of routes and is willing to go over the middle. He has the size and skills necessary to be a number-one receiver, and wants to be paid like one. Assuming he is healthy, Rice would be a a fantastic addition and come at less of a risk than Jackson. Acquiring Rice would take some work since Minnesota will not want to let him leave, and could use the franchise or transition tag to keep him.
Another Charger, Malcolm Floyd would be a cheaper option. He is 6’-5" and can stretch the field, but is not in the same class as Jackson or Rice. The Chargers will probably re-sign him, especially if Jackson leaves. I think he would be a good fit for the Patriots due to his size, but it would take a lot to entice him away from San Diego. I like Floyd, but more as a complimentary player than a number-one option.
James Jones of the Packers is a fast player who can line up in a number of spots, including on the outside. He is a little stronger than Brandon Tate, but like Tate had some significant drops this season. He would be an interesting player who could add depth, but his signing would also hinder the development of Price and Tate.
New York Jets, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes are both free agents. Holmes knows how to get open for the long bombs, and has a knack for coming through in the clutch. Despite his problems adhering to the league’s banned substances policy, I highly doubt the Jets will let him get away, especially if they knew the Patriots were interested.
Edwards would be a good fit from a physical standpoint, but I’m not sure his attitude would mesh well in the Patriots locker room. Edwards will be looking for a huge contract as well. He has a tendency to drop the ball sometimes, and also was arrested for a DWI during the season. I don’t think Edwards is a player the Patriots will target.
Lance Moore of the Saints is a great receiver, but may be too similar to Welker and Edelman. Moore put up impressive numbers in New Orleans multifaceted passing attack, including eight TD receptions. He can return kicks, and is excellent after the catch, but at only 5'-9" is too small to be an outside receiver.
Arizona’s Steve Breaston is also available. He showed some potential when part of a three-headed attack with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but is a number-two option at best. While younger, I don’t think he would be an upgrade over Branch, or necessarily a good compliment.
Mike Sims-Walker had a breakout season for the Jaguars in 2009, but failed to replicate that performance this year. He has had some big games, but is inconsistent, getting shut of games too frequently for a number-one receiver. He has decent size, and is somebody the Patriots might look into, but I don’t see them offering him any serious money.
Randy Moss is seeking a new contract himself, but based on his dismal season and abrupt exit from the team, I don't see him being welcomed back.
New England has all three tight ends returning, and probably will not look to sign a player at that position unless it is to spark some competition during training camp. Matt Spaeth of Pittsburgh could be a long-term replacement for Alge Crumpler as the blocking tight end, but Alge played at a high level last season. The Patriots will likely keep him this year and try to draft or sign his replacement in 2012.
Much of the decision-making process at the receiver position is affected by how the Patriots see Taylor Price’s future. I think he is more likely to be the replacement for Branch once he retires than a true number-one option. Overall the New England receiving and tight end corps is a good one. Gronkowski, Hernandez, Tate, Edelman and Price are all young and likely to improve. Welker had a good season despite returning from a serious knee injury, and Branch was able to re-assimilate himself as a Patriot with ease. While the addition of a tall, physical player like Sidney Rice would add a deadly dimension to the air attack, there are some defensive holes that are more immediate needs. If the Patriots cannot make a splash by adding Rice or drafting a promising talent like A. J. Green or Julio Jones, they should focus on improving the defense or running game instead.