The Patriots have a surplus of talent at wide receiver for 2012.
This offseason, the New England Patriots revitalized the roster on both sides of the ball. Yet one position in particular has been stockpiled to max capacity: wide receiver.
Currently the Patriots' 90-man squad includes 12 wideouts: Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, Jabar Gaffney, Chad Ochocinco, Matthew Slater, Britt Davis, Donte' Stallworth, Matt Roark, Anthony Gonzalez and Jeremy Ebert.
New England's re-signings and free-agent acquisitions have made their receiving corps one of the deepest in the NFL.
With that said, half of these route runners will be looking for a new team come September. As for now, it's time to speculate who's in, who's out and where each player fits on the depth chart.
Wes Welker is as dependable as they come.
Wes Welker has recently made waves due to his contract situation, but he also can make waves on the football field.
Since joining the Patriots in 2007, the undrafted Texas Tech receiver has caught 554 passes for 6,105 yards and 31 touchdowns.
The three-time NFL receptions leader has played himself into an elite class and should be revered as New England's top wideout.
Welker signed a franchise tender on May 15, which guarantees him $9.515 million through the 2012 season. However, No. 83 isn't exactly happy that he and the Patriots couldn't agree on a long-term deal.
The 5'9", 185-pound receiver voiced his feelings to the media and consequently ruffled the feathers of the Patriots organization.
"There have been talks, but nothing that's brightened anything at all," Welker told the Boston Herald. "It's actually gotten worse."
Yet just two days later, he sang a different, more positive tune, according to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Rodak.
"That was probably a bad choice of words, saying they've gotten worse," Welker said. "They've pretty much -- they've stayed the same. I'm franchised for the year and I'm completely happy with that."
Welker isn't going to hold out. Instead, he's attending offseason OTAs and prepping for another Super Bowl run as a Patriot.
“I’m excited to be back. I’m excited to be a Patriot," Welker told the media at the Old Spice Wes Welker Football Clinic on May 19. "Excited to be out there on the field for the OTAs and minicamps with my teammates. Looking forward to the 2012 season, and just going out there and getting better.”
For the immediate future, Wes Welker is a member of the New England Patriots. If he continues to perform at the same level, everything else will fall into place. At the end of the day, Welker is Tom Brady's most consistent wide receiver.
Brandon Lloyd's athletic ability makes him a big play threat for the Pats.
The 30-year-old target has developed into an exciting talent who can stretch the field. However, his road to success has been a long one. The Illinois product played seven NFL seasons before notching his first 1,000-yard campaign with the Denver Broncos in 2010.
During that breakout season, Lloyd racked up 77 catches for an NFL-leading 1,448 yards and 11 scores, establishing himself as a legitimate deep threat.
If Lloyd's production could skyrocket with Kyle Orton at the helm, then he should do just fine with Tom Brady.
In addition, current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was Lloyd's head coach in Denver during the 2010 season. Having a familiar face in town should bode well for Lloyd in 2012.
"[McDaniels] gave me a really large route tree and just the way the plays were designed, I was put in positions where I could just make catches," Lloyd told Mike Florio on NBC Sports' Pro Football Talk prior to signing with New England.
Ultimately, Brandon Lloyd's ability to get open downfield and his relationship with Josh McDaniels will help solidify him as the Patriots' No. 2 receiver. By spreading the field, Lloyd will compliment Wes Welker's underneath routes and make life easier for Tom Brady.
"He's a difference-maker. He's their big splash," said ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss.
Jabar Gaffney is ready for another stint in New England.
The ex-Florida Gator enjoyed three seasons in New England from 2006-2008, where he collected 85 receptions for 1,059 yards and eight touchdowns. During the 2006 playoffs, Gaffney led the team with 21 receptions for 244 yards and two touchdowns, proving he can step up when the lights shine brightest.
Gaffney's prior knowledge of the system should make for a smooth transition back to his old stomping grounds. Not to mention, the 6'2", 200-pound pass-catcher has just put together his two best NFL seasons.
Since 2010, the 31-year-old has hauled in 133 catches for 1,822 yards and seven TDs.
"He's just one of those guys that, from the day we got him here, he was just so reliable and dependable," said Tom Brady.
Gaffney's chemistry with Brady and sure hands should give him a leg up on the competition for the No. 3 receiver job.
"For a potential No. 3 receiver who has a built-in knowledge of the offense, and is one of the quarterback's favorite all-time receivers, this is a solid deal with limited financial risk for New England," said Mike Reiss.
Deion Branch is aging, but he is still of service to the Patriots.
Deion Branch is years removed from his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXIX, but he can still get the job done.
Since the 32-year-old returned to New England in 2010, he's quietly totaled 99 catches for 1,408 yards and 10 touchdowns.
On the field, Branch and Tom Brady are on the verge of telepathy. Brady knows where Branch wants the ball thrown, and Branch knows where he needs to be to get open.
"Since Tom Brady took over as the Patriots starter in 2001, he’s been blessed with several dependable pass catchers, but few receivers have been able to mesh with quarterback Tom Brady like Branch," said WEEI's Christopher Price. "The two have a unique chemistry, an ability to know what the other is thinking and what the other needs."
Having a great quarterback-wide receiver relationship is valuable to a team's success, and that is why Branch is such an asset for the Pats.
The 10-year vet isn't what he once was, though he's all the Patriots need him to be: a No. 4 wide receiver who provides excellent depth.
Julian Edelman's versatility gets him on the field.
He catches passes and returns punts and kicks while also dabbling as a defensive back.
Put Julian Edelman in any position, and he'll give it his best effort; that is why he's a New England Patriot. The former Kent State QB is simply a nifty athlete who finds a way to get on the field.
Since joining the Patriots in 2009, Edelman has caught 48 balls for 479 yards and one touchdown. However, he's also scored twice on punt returns and made 19 tackles.
The 26-year-old was on the receiving end of just four passes in 2011, but he brings a variety of skills to the table, which make him a viable back-up receiver.
Edelman fits the Wes Welker mold and filled in admirably when Welker tore his ACL and MCL against the Houston Texans in Week 17 of the 2010 season, snagging 10 catches for 103 yards. During that season's 33-14 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Edelman played well at slot receiver, catching six passes for 44 yards and two touchdowns.
He does everything. Julian Edelman is a football player and a commodity for the Patriots as the team's No. 5 receiver.
Special teams is where Matthew Slater makes his impact felt.
Over the course of four NFL seasons, Matthew Slater has caught one pass for 46 yards.
The former UCLA Bruin is no slouch, however. He's a special teams extraordinaire who was voted to the 2011 Pro Bowl for his relentless efforts as the Patriots' special teams gunner.
Slater has brought down ball carriers for 58 tackles during his pro career, forcing one fumble. Not to mention he's also provided depth at the safety position.
"I'd like to think I just try to go out and play the game with reckless abandon and relentless effort, and that's always been two things that I focus on," Slater told Patriots beat writer Jeff Howe. "I don't care what happens to my body, and play as hard as you can from whistle to whistle."
This offseason, New England rewarded Slater with a three-year contract worth up to $5.4 million. The son of Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater may not be much of a wide receiver, but he's got heart.
Matt Slater isn't going make many catches, but the Patriots just need him to make tackles, which is why he rounds out the receiving corps as the No. 6 wideout.
Donte' Stallworth and Chad Ochocinco may not have spots on the 53-man roster.
Carrying six wide receivers is the norm in the NFL. With just 53 spots on the roster and depth needed elsewhere, several wideouts won't make it through to the end.
Donte' Stallworth, Chad Ochocinco and others may not have a place in Foxboro once September rolls around.
Donte' Stallworth is not new to the Patriots, as he played with the team in 2007, catching 46 balls for 697 yards and three touchdowns. Yet with other veteran receivers already on the squad, Stallworth's role on the 2012 Patriots is in doubt.
One question about Stallworth is his decline in production. He's a speedy runner, but hasn't caught more than 22 passes in a season since departing from the Patriots over four years ago.
If Stallworth fails to rediscover his niche, he will fail to make the final roster.
As for Chad Ochocinco, his first year in New England was more than disappointing. The former Cincinnati Bengal recorded a mere 15 catches for 276 yards and one touchdown.
He was taken off the field in no-huddle situations because he wasn't comfortable enough with the playbook. However, what was most apparent was the fact that the Patriots didn't need him. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker combined for 291 catches in 2011, making Ochocinco obsolete.
"The 'no time to learn the offense' excuse holds no weight for an NFL player with a decade in the league," writes CBS Boston's Michael Hurley. "He’s just not the right fit."
There's a chance he could rebound this preseason, but unless Ochocinco has an outstanding camp, the experiment will be over in New England. When No. 85 restructured his contract this offseason, he gave the Patriots the financial flexibility to release him.
There is one wideout on the fringe who might stick around: Jeremy Ebert. New England's seventh-round pick in the 2012 draft could fall onto the practice squad, where Pats coaches could develop his route running and polish his skills at as a return man.
Coming out of Northwestern, Ebert's a smart player who has the body of a slot receiver at 5'11", 200 pounds. Yet the active roster has space for only so many slot receivers.
Overall, New England is fortunate to have such an array of options at receiver. The mixture of seasoned experience and energetic youth will pay dividends down the road for the Patriots. But for the time being, training camp and preseason will dictate the future of the Patriots wide receiving crew.