Just two weeks ago, the Patriots seemed to have one of the biggest logjams in recent memory at wide receiver. Now, following the release of Chad Ochocinco yesterday—which the team announced Thursday evening—and Anthony Gonzalez last week, the receiving corps seems to be taking shape.
Suddenly, all that are left for veteran receivers are those already well-versed in the Patriots system. Donté Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who has played in the system previously with the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Lloyd and Welker are surefire locks to make the roster obviously. They should each be able to create gaps in coverage for each other, especially when on the with all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
This pairing gives the Patriots a strong inside-outside presence that they have lacked since trading away Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss. Defenses will no longer be able to clog the middle to take away Welker and the tight ends and will need to have a much wider set to pay attention to every part of the field.
The next man in line should be Gaffney. He should currently be looked at as the favorite to start outside opposite Lloyd, although he has the flexibility to be lined up in the slot as well. Coming off his best season as a pro last year, he should have many opportunities to make plays against one-on-one coverage as the defense diverts their attention elsewhere.
The next spot is where it becomes very interesting. Assuming the Patriots keep six wide receivers, this is the last spot that either Branch or Stallworth can occupy because the 5th and 6th receiver jobs are very likely to go to Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater for special teams purposes.
If it Comes Down to Branch or Stallworth, Who Should Be Cut?
So far, both Branch and Stallworth have been underwhelming at organized team activities (OTAs), though the latter was seen returning kickoffs on Thursday, according to Andy Hart of Patriots Football Weekly.
If Stallworth could carve out a niche as the team's primary kickoff returner, a spot the Patriots had no one excel at in 2011 following the waiving of Brandon Tate, he would drastically improve his chances make this roster.
Branch would be an exceptionally tough cut for Bill Belichick to make, however, mainly due to his relationship with quarterback Tom Brady. Their chemistry on the field together is tremendous, which keeps Branch's production higher than it would be anywhere else, even as his skills deteriorate.
Clearly on the outside looking in right now are rookies Jeremy Ebert and Matt Roark, as well as fourth-year receiver Britt Davis. One of these three will have to perform tremendously to create any chance to knock off both aging receivers in Branch and Stallworth.
The odds are stacked against them right now, but an injury or two could give one of these young players a chance. Out of the three, Davis would be the favorite, simply based on his added experience with McDaniels in Denver and with the Patriots' practice squad last season.
As a simplified version of this article, below is what I see as the depth chart right now, please feel free to comment below on how your's may differ.
1. Brandon Lloyd
2. Wes Welker
3. Jabar Gaffney
4. Deion Branch/Donté Stallworth
5. Julian Edelman
6. Matthew Slater
7. Britt Davis
8. Jeremy Ebert
9. Matt Roark