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This is the third in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze the Patriots' WR situation.
Overview: The entire makeup of the Patriots' offense and receiving corps changed after Week Four when the team traded Randy Moss to the Vikings. Without him as a deep threat, the Pats went to a short-to-intermediate passing game, dinking and dunking all over the AFC.
To replace Moss, Bill Belichick brought Deion Branch back to New England, and he had an outstanding season. Wes Welker fully recovered from his torn ACL and MCL, also got better and better with each passing week. The team, however, did not see the results from Brandon Tate that they were likely hoping for after parting ways with Moss.
As prolific as the offense was, especially Welker and Branch, there still seemed to be a big void for a receiver who could catch balls even when he was covered, like Moss could. That void of a deep threat came into focus in the playoff loss to the Jets.
The receiving group is deep, but with the success of the tight ends and Danny Woodhead out of the backfield, not a whole lot was asked out of the guys at the bottom of the depth chart.
Here's a breakdown of each of the wide receivers on the roster:
Wes Welker: It seemed to take Welker a few weeks to finally return to his form, but starting in Week 10, Welker looked like the star receiver he has been in Foxborough. He regained the ability to break tackles and the speed to gain yards after the catch. He finished as the team's leading receiver and got a Pro Bowl nod with 86 catches for 848 yards and seven TDs. Welker's contract expires at the end of the 2011 season, so look for the Pats to try and give him a lucrative, long-term deal to keep him in New England.
Deion Branch: Like Welker, Branch turned it on when the offense got hot in the second half of the season. He had two games of more than 100 yards receiving and gained 14.7 yards per catch in his 11 games in New England. He felt very comfortable back in the offense with Tom Brady and finished with 818 receiving yards(706 with the Pats). Branch is also signed through 2011, but would likely want to finish his career as a Patriot.
Julian Edelman: The former college quarterback and likely heir apparent to Welker, Edelman didn't catch a pass between Weeks 4-16. But in the season finale, with Welker inactive, Edelman caught three passes for 72 yards. As the team's punt returner, Edelman gained 15.3 yards per return, including a 94-yard TD return. He shows a lot of potential, but simply doesn't fit in often in the logjam at receiver, especially with the presence of two talented, young pass-catching tight ends.
Brandon Tate: One reason many fans were OK with the Patriots trading Moss was that Tate was supposed to be the deep threat. He showed his electric speed on kickoff returns, taking two back for touchdowns this season. But he never turned into a go-to receiver who could stretch the field. In his first full season, Tate had 432 receiving yards and three scores, in addition to 62 yards rushing. Expect the Pats to continue to groom Tate into being a bigger part of the offense next season.
Taylor Price: The Pats' third-round pick wasn't active until the season finale, playing in one game in a season where many Patriots rookies got snaps, and starts. But, like Edelman, there simply wasn't room for Price. The Ohio product did show some flashes in his one performance, catching three passes for 41 yards. He still might not see much time until there's more room for him on the depth chart.
Bottom line: Outside of tight end and quarterback, this is probably the most stable, solid position. But, the team could use a wideout to create opportunities even when covered, like Moss could, to help open more things up for Welker and Branch. It's not entirely necessary, though, especially if Tate's game goes to the next level in his third season. As long as the tight ends produce, the offense showed last season that it didn't need Moss. That said, expect the Pats to use a draft pick on a wideout. There is solid depth with the three youngsters — Tate, Edelman and Price — but they might have to wait in line to get snaps. The big thing to watch for in 2011 will be for the team to re-sign Welker.