Saturday, July 21, 2012

Training Camp Countdown: Part Five-Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The New England Patriots Training Camp starts on July 26th. At that time, the Patriots season will kick off in earnest and go non-stop through (hopefully) February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox realizing they may have been better off holding on to Kevin Youkilis until he was healthy and hitting to get something better back in trade; the Celtics Summer League in full swing as everyone tries to see if the kids left after trading for Courtney Lee are alright; and the Bruins sharpening their skates as the season of Tuukka Time rapidly approaches.

Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp for the Patriots. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  The offensive line running backs,  defensive backs, and defensive line got some lover earlier. Let's jump in to the fifth installment of all things Patriots a look at the...

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Wes Welker is back for this year. While there is not a long-term fix for Welker's contract situation, he is back at least this year.  Keeping TB12 happy with his favorite safety valve is never a bad thing.  Whether the team and Welker can cobble together a two or three year deal that works for both sides over the next year is definitely something to keep an eye on.  For insurance, the Patriots still have Julian Edelman and new draftee Jeremy Ebert in the case of needing to break the glass and replace Welker. 

Bringing in Brandon Lloyd, as I reviewed in May here, could be the best pick-up this side of Randy Moss for the Patriots:
Brandon Lloyd, the best deep threat in the NFL, signed on this off-season with full knowledge of the Josh McDaniels playbook from playing for him in Denver and St. Louis. Unlike Chad nee Johnson Ochocinco, he knows the playbook already.  What seems remarkably understated is that Lloyd, like Welker, is one of the best receivers in the league in this specific offense: it is tailored to his skills specifically, just like it was to Randy Moss. Lloyd is going to put up jaw-dropping Randy Moss-esque numbers. Be prepared.
The best battle is for who lines up opposite Lloyd on the outside in the three-wide set.  Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch, and Donte Stallworth are three veterans, all have experience and success playing with Tom Brady in this offensive system, and all seem to be competing for one or two spots at the most.  It really doesn't seem likely that all three will make the roster, as there are so many needs on defense and depth at running  back seems necessary.  Jabar Gaffney, like Brandon Lloyd, had his best seasons playing with Josh McDaniels at Offensive Coordinator.  Gaffney has proven versatility in this system, having lined up all over the field and bringing toughness and the ability to move the chains.  

Deion Branch has lost a step for sure, but he has the complete trust of Tom Brady. TB12 obviously loved having Branch back, but I really wonder if Branch holds off Donte Stallworth.  Stallworth has the potential to line up as a deep threat opposite or next to Brandon Lloyd and really help open up the underneath for Welker and the tight ends.  Stallworth, like Gaffney, has played in the system and was a big contributor in 2007.  Unless he has lost a step, he brings something that this offense has missed.

That said, Deion Branch outlasted Chad nee Johnson Ochocinco last season when everyone expected him to be put out to the pasture.  Branch knows Brady, and that is hard to duplicate.  With an offense that is so dependent on the receivers being on the same page as TB12, familiarity really is important.  So who stays of the three veterans and who gets cut? It may have to be simply who stays healthy. Maybe a player starts on the PUP list, or someone gets hurt in training camp.

Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater are basically special teams players. Jeremy Ebert and Britt Davis are likely practice squad players, and Jesse Holley is trying to get another team's attention.   Edelman and Slater, barring injuries, won't touch the field other than special teams. Ebert, if he contributes on special teams, could make the team rather than having the Patriots squeeze him through waivers. 

Everyone knows what Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez bring to the table. They are simply the most dynamic pair of tight ends on the field ever.  Both are so different, but both bring so much to the table.  Having those two on the field along with Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney is going to give Rex Ryan an ulcer trying to decide which two run free. If healthy, Gronk and Hernandez should both continue to grow as players and fill up the stat sheet. 

Daniel Fells is a pro, and unlike the past two seasons, gives the team a legitimate back-up tight end who can block and contribute running routes.  While there is little behind Fells this year (Jake Ballard is an intriguing pick-up for next season), one expects the team to grab another tight end if only to push Fells.  Rumor has it that the team has kicked the tires on Visanthe Schianco after having Bo Scaife on the roster for a few weeks prior.  With luck, the Patriots should need no more then 3 tight ends on the roster, but as the Super Bowl showed, with an injured Rob Gronkowski,the Patriots lost a huge weapon. With new receivers and Fells, the team should be able to avoid that kind of issue again.

In conclusion, there are some fun roster battles in store, and a lot of production expected from all the pass catchers.  This group looks like it could really be interesting out on the field and score a lot of points and drive defenses crazy.  This group is easily one of the strongest and deepest on the team.

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