We're just over a week into the 2012 NFL League year, and the Patriots have already made significant moves to revitalize their wide receiving corps. They've added three new faces in Brandon Lloyd, Anthony Gonzalez, and Donte Stallworth. They assigned the franchise tag to wide receiver Wes Welker, and today, they've reportedly re-signed wide receiver Deion Branch. Those five join a group that also includes returning faces such as Julian Edelman, Chad Ochocinco, Britt Davis, Matthew Slater, and Tiquan Underwood.
Yeah, that's a crowded group... to say the least. That being said, lets quickly break down the Patriots wide receiver depth chart:
Wes Welker (Franchise tag): Welker is without a doubt the Patriots top target at the wide receiver position. While he could hold out due to his franchise tag situation, I doubt that happens. Hopefully, the additions of Brandon Lloyd and Donte Stallworth can help him return to his natural role in the slot in 2012.
Brandon Lloyd (Signed through 2014): Lloyd signed a three year deal with the Patriots, and figures to be the team's top outside threat at the position. Aside from Welker, he should be on the field more than any other Patriots receiver in 2012.
Deion Branch (Signed through 2012): Branch has reportedly agreed to a one year deal to remain with the team. While, at 32, he doesn't have the explosion or athleticism he once had, he's still a reliable target that is always on the same page on Tom Brady. He's not a lock for a roster spot, but his experience and knowledge of the system could give him an edge over a guy like Chad Ochocinco.
Donte Stallworth (Signed through 2012): Stallworth was also signed to a one year deal. He'll have to compete for a roster spot, but like Branch, his previous chemistry with Tom Brady could give him the edge over Ochocinco. While he hasn't produced much in recent years, he is still a burner and could provide some value as a deep threat.
Chad Ochocinco (Signed through 2013): Ochocinco will likely restructure his contract and should be given the opportunity to compete for a roster spot this offseason and in training camp. There's no guarantee he'll get that chance, but he definitely wants it. If the Patriots draft a receiver early, he could be a long shot to make the roster. However, he's still talented, and if he can finally get on the same page as quarterback Tom Brady, perhaps he can earn a second chance with the team.
Rest of the analysis of the receiver position after the jump!
Julian Edelman (Signed through 2012): Edelman, a seventh round pick out of Kent State in 2009, enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2012. He's been excellent for the Patriots as a punt returner as of late, but has seen his development as a receiver regress since a spectacular rookie season. While I think he should definitely make the final roster, perhaps a player such as Anthony Gonzalez could have a strong preseason and put his job in jeopardy.
Anthony Gonzalez (Signed through 2012): Gonzalez joins the Patriots on a one year "prove it" type of deal. If he is healthy and can return to his previous form and production, he could be a solid pick-up for the team and could possibly even edge out a player such as Julian Edelman for a roster spot. If not, the Patriots will simply cut their losses and move on. Gonzalez has played mostly in the slot during his career, but has the versatility to play outside as well.
Tiquan Underwood (Signed through 2012): Underwood will face long odds to make the Patriots in 2012. He had a few stints on the active roster last season, and actually made a few catches in the second half of the season. Unfortunately, the competition at the receiver position could make it hard for him to stick.
Matthew Slater (Signed through 2014): Slater was just re-signed to a three year deal by the Patriots. While he had one deep catch last year, he probably won't be used by the Patriots much as a receiver next year (if at all). Slater is a Pro Bowl special teams player, and is a stud in that phase of the game. That will be his role next year, so he likely won't have much of an impact on this group.
Britt Davis (Signed through 2012): Davis was a practice squad guy in 2011 for the Patriots, and was signed to a future contract after the season ended. At 6'3" and 205 lbs, Davis has excellent size. Unfortunately, he appears like a very long shot to make the final roster.
This is obviously a very deep group that is versatile in what they can do. The Patriots could even seek to add another receiver in the draft. Also, I'd mention Aaron Hernandez in this group as well, as he'll probably split out wide more often than not in 2012.
As for how many of these guys will actually make the final roster, my guess would be six or seven. Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman are both capable of playing on defense, and are more valued by the team for their value on special teams. The only true locks for the final roster are Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. After them, the team will like keep two or three of the remaining receivers (which includes Stallworth, Ochocinco, Branch, etc.).