Donte' Stallworth is back, and looking to reconnect with quarterback Tom Brady.
After unremarkable stints with three other teams, the 31-year-old target re-joined the Patriots this March. Back in his old stomping grounds, Stallworth is trying to ignite a rapport with quarterback Tom Brady.
However, eight other wideouts are striving to accomplish the same task.
Does Stallworth have what it takes to make the 53-man roster behind the likes of Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney?
Based on Stallworth's workload early on, he has an excellent opportunity to do so.
During the first half of the Patriots preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, the 6'0", 200-pound route-runner played 28 snaps—the most for any skill-position player, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com.
The fact that Stallworth led the corps in game action bodes well for his future as a Patriot. He only finished with one catch for one yard versus New Orleans, but he's clearly earned the trust of head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Coach Belichick spoke highly of the 10-year pro during a press conference on July 27, per the Boston Herald. Belichick said:
I would say Donte has really matured a lot since he was here in ‘07. He’s been a very positive example and influence with what he does on a daily basis, but also some of the things that he’s done with other players on the team. I think he’s shown more leadership.
With the Patriots in 2007, Stallworth was a dependable third option in the offense. He finished the 16-0 regular season with 46 receptions for 697 yards and three touchdowns.
Following that campaign, Stallworth faltered both in and out of football.
He played with the Cleveland Browns in 2008 before a DUI manslaughter charge put a screeching halt to his NFL career. As a result, Stallworth was suspended for the entire 2009 season. Since his reinstatement, the journeyman has bounced around with the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins organizations.
A 2002 first-round draft pick, Stallworth has totaled just 24 catches, 391 receiving yards and two scores over the last two years. But there's reason to believe the burner can turn it around in 2012.
In May, Stallworth explained how he's seasoned with age, via ESPNBoston.com's Mike Rodak. Stallworth said:
I think, back then, I was really more relying on my talent. Now that I'm going into my tenth year, I think I run better routes now and understand different coverages and what teams are trying to do...
Due to his fundamental progression, Stallworth is on track to make the final cut. The former Tennessee Volunteer has also added kick returns to his arsenal—something he started practicing in OTAs, reported the Boston Herald.
The last time Stallworth returned a kick in the NFL was in 2003 with the Saints, but he's willing to give it another go-around if it improves his odds of surviving the roster squeeze. Stallworth knows that the more he can do, the harder he will be to let go.
With that in mind, New England's brass has to make a tough decision when it comes to selecting a fourth receiver. At the No. 4 spot, a battle is brewing between Stallworth and Deion Branch.
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal broke down the depth chart on in late July. Rosenthal wrote:
Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney should be roster locks. Special teamers Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman are likely to make the team. That leaves Branch and Stallworth fighting it out for the role of "well-known veteran" looking for a ring.
While Stallworth has been getting plenty of reps in training camp, the same cannot be said for the 33-year-old Branch. The longtime Patriot has been limited in practice and even missed the first preseason game, cited Zuri Berry of Boston.com.
Branch's chemistry with Tom Brady is second to none. The 11-year pro has been a steady pass-catcher throughout his six seasons in Foxborough. But failing to suit up hinders his shot at making the team.
If Stallworth can capitalize on Branch's absence, he will make the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP obsolete. And unlike Branch, the versatile Stallworth still has a dangerous burst which allows him to stretch the field.
Deepening the aerial attack would serve the Patriots well.
According to James Christensen of nepatriotsdraft.com, Tom Brady completed only 31 percent of throws over 20 yards last season.
The previous year, Brady ranked 12th in the league with a completion rate of 36.73 percent, indicated Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus. To put that number in perspective, then-Tennessee Titans QB Vince Young led the league in deep-ball efficiency at 45.71 percent.
When it comes to chucking the ball past the secondary, the Patriots haven't been as effective since the Randy Moss era drew to a close.
Attempting to fix that disparity is Stallworth, who's made a living scorching cornerbacks. He's averaged over 15 yards-per-catch in four different seasons—something Deion Branch hasn't done once. Stallworth may not be the blazer he once was, but he's a more balanced receiver than ever.
Look for Stallworth and fellow deep-threat Brandon Lloyd to run outside the numbers. In turn, the clogged passing lanes should open up, and so will some big plays.
Through training camp and the final three preseason contests, Donte' Stallworth must show he still has the wheels that made him a potent receiver not so long ago. If he rediscovers a role in the system, his second term in New England will be more successful than his first.