This morning, ESPN Boston's Mike Rodak continued his New England Patriots "bubble watch" series by focusing on wide receiver Donte Stallworth. In his analysis, Rodak seemed to imply that Stallworth and Deion Branch could be competing for one roster spot:
Wes Welker (122 catches in 2011), Brandon Lloyd (70 catches) and Jabar Gaffney (68 catches) will top the depth chart, but if there is room for one more receiver outside of special-teams captain Matthew Slater and returner Julian Edelman, the battle will likely come down to Stallworth and Deion Branch and which of the two veterans has more left in the tank.
Stallworth flashed some breakaway speed while returning a kickoff during organized team activities last month, but another question with Stallworth is his ability to stay healthy, having battled hamstring injuries over his career. Branch, who faces durability questions himself, is the incumbent in the Patriots' offense. Stallworth will have to prove himself this preseason to unseat Branch.
Rodak's piece got me thinking: Do the Patriots have room for both Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth on their final roster?
My thoughts after the jump!
To tell you the truth, I don't really think I can answer the question until I see what Stallworth has left in the tank in person. But theoretically, yes, the Patriots could find a way to keep Stallworth and Branch. The team has already cut ties with two veteran receivers - Anthony Gonzalez and Chad Ochocinco - leaving seven true veterans competing at receiver.
As Rodak points out, Welker, Lloyd, and Gaffney currently have a hold on the top three spots at the receiver position. After that, Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman appear to be near locks to make the final roster. However, Slater and Edelman were rarely used as receivers in 2011. Instead, they were used primarily on special teams. Should Bill Belichick view those two as pure special teamers in 2012, that could open up a spot for both Stallworth and Branch who would be the fourth and fifth "true" receivers on the roster.
Another couple of factors to consider:
- The presence of TE/WR Aaron Hernandez could reduce the need to keep an extra receiver on the roster, which could certainly affect Branch and/or Stallworth.
- The amount of three and four wide receiver sets that the Patriots intend to use could also be a factor in the team's decision to keep Branch and/or Stallworth. The Patriots used the 3-WR sets on a limited basis, but could turn to the personnel unit more in 2012 with Josh McDaniels back as offensive coordinator.
In the end, I think it's most likely that the Patriots keep only one of the Branch-Stallworth combination. That being said, it's too early to rule out the idea of hanging on to both of them. Both have unique skillsets that actually compliment each other quite well. Either way, this should still be one of the most intriguing roster battles to watch come training camp.