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Patriots Free Agent Target: Brian Hartline

Coming off his first 1,000 yard season as a pro, could the New England Patriots be interested in yet another dynamic talent from Miami?

Mike Ehrmann

After trading wide receiver Brandon Marshall to the Chicago Bears, cornerback Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts and electing to select QB Ryan Tannehill with their eighth overall pick, it became clear the beady eyes of the helmet-wearing porpoise were set only on the future. The Dolphins, however, became a surprisingly competitive group in 2012, finishing second in the AFC East and leapfrogging the trainwreck New York Jets and preseason darling Buffalo Bills. Their incredibly stout defense had a lot to do with that after finishing the season seventh in terms of points allowed, resting on the shoulders of premier pass rusher Cameron Wake and linebacker Karlos Dansby.

The offensive output, however, would have to come from something of an unknown. It would be silly to rely completely on the raw and unproven rookie quarterback, and even after coming off of a stellar 2011 campaign, the approach would have to extend beyond running back Reggie Bush.

Enter wide receiver Brian Hartline.

Miami Dolphins WR Brian Hartline compiled quite the résumé in 2012 after becoming the Dolphins' de facto No. 1 receiver, setting impressive career highs in his fourth year as a pro: 74 catches for 1,083 yards and a touchdown. Could Hartline be a feasible option for a Patriot team struggling to get younger at the position?

Why He's a Good Fit: Hartline is reportedly seeking a contract in the $5-$6 million per year range, and considering that's a shoot-for-the-moon figure likely instigated by his agent, he could very possibly be had for less than that.

Hartline is only 26 years old, and while his career numbers certainly aren't eye-popping, Hartline has never had the luxury of playing with one of the league's best at the quarterback position. At Ohio State he caught passes from Todd Boeckman and a freshman Terrelle Pryor, and after being taken 108th overall in the fourth round of the 2009 NFL Draft, he's been targeted by Chad Henne, Chad Henne, Matt Moore and Ryan Tannehill. In the early goings of entering his athletic prime, Hartline put some incredibly solid numbers up with a quarterback many projected as one of the most unpolished in the draft.

His single touchdown in 2012 is a bit of a concern, but a 14.6 yards-per-catch average—even after defenses later gameplanned to limit the damage—is a good sign for one of the more promising grabs in the 2013 FA WR crop. Better yet, there's a good chance Hartline has yet to approach his ceiling.

Why He's Not: Contrary to popular belief, Hartline's skill set is nothing like Wes Welker's. Replacing Welker's production with a younger, cheaper option is certainly enticing, but that option won't be Hartline.

Hartline comes in as a very solid No. 2 type receiver—think the Packers' Jordy Nelson—who won't be seeing any permanency in the slot anytime soon. If the Patriots do choose to pursue Hartline, it becomes extremely unlikely they'd come to an agreement with Welker, causing a great paradigm shift in the McOffense.

Hartline's lone 1,000+ yard season in four years isn't a dealbreaker—after all, Welker came nowhere close to that during his Dolphin days and Hartline did have to steal targets from Brandon Marshall—but it's always shrewd to continue to rely on the 'sure thing.' Welker is a known commodity and an integral part of the Patriot offense, and while it's tempting to shake things up a bit after some inopportune drops particularly stand out, it would spell disaster if Hartline struggled to acclimate to a now Welker-less offense.

The Consensus: Hartline's production and low cost make him an attractive option for many receiver-needy teams, and while the Patriots will undoubtedly kick the tires of a division rival, serious pursuit will only come as a result of desiring to completely move on from Wes Welker. It would be unfortunate if the front office and Wes Welker were once again unable to come to a two- or three-year deal, but Hartline would be an appealing consolation prize if the Patriots chose to spend their dollars elsewhere.