New England Patriots Position-by-Position Review: Receivers/Tight Ends

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New England Patriots Position-by-Position Review: Receivers/Tight Ends
Al Bello/Getty Images
Will contentious negotiations with the Patriots make Wes Welker run away from Gillette Stadium?

This is part three of an eight part series.

Wes Welker had another big season. He tied for second in the NFL for receptions with 118. He gained 1,354 yards. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in his career.

None of those numbers by Welker matter as much to Patriot Nation as one number about Welker: 5’9”.

Ever since the dominance of Randy Moss, the fan base has longed for a big, unstoppable target on the outside that can stretch the field. Watching Baltimore’s Anquan Boldin pluck passes over the heads of helpless defensive backs repeatedly, including those on the Patriots in the AFC Championship, only reinforces the argument for a plus-sized, physical receiver.

Welker has been supremely productive since he arrived in Foxboro, but he’s not growing anymore. Welker is also close to losing the fan base for critical drops in January’s AFC Championship and Super Bowl XLVI.

Welker is a free agent, and while some are ready to move on from him, it’s impossible to ignore his impact on offense. Once he returned to his usual role after TE Aaron Hernandez’s injury, the passing game took off.

QB Tom Brady doesn’t want to lose his favorite target, but the organization will only bring Welker back if he fits within their value of the slot receiver. They already paid Welker franchise tag money in 2012 ($9.5 million). They won’t do it again in 2013 (franchise tag for a receiver is projected to be $10.357).

Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Julian Edelman flopped as a receiver in 2012, decreasing his chances to return in 2013.

A Welker replacement is anyone’s guess. Julian Edelman was force-fed to start the season, but he didn’t get the job done. Edelman is a free agent as well, and his return is doubtful due to lack of production. Edelman is a good punt returner, but RB Jeff Demps could make Edelman expendable.

Other receivers that might not return are Deion Branch and Donte’ Stallworth.

Can Brandon Lloyd become Brady’s go-to receiver? Doubtful. Lloyd turned in a solid season after a slow start, but he wasn’t the deep threat many expected him to be. Nor did Lloyd show the willingness to work the middle of the field and gain yards after the catch.

New England has failed repeatedly to find a receiver in the draft. Chad Jackson (2006), Brandon Tate (2009) and Taylor Price (2010) all failed to catch on with the Patriots long-term. And Edelman could join the group this offseason.

2012 seventh-round draft pick Jeremy Ebert is on the practice squad, even after a pedestrian preseason. He has a good chance to earn a spot with potentially up to four departures from the receiving corps.

Just don’t expect Ebert to be the only nascent receiver after the 2013 NFL Draft. New England certainly believes that if you first don’t succeed (at drafting a receiver), try, try again. Maybe they draft a big one this time.

Not that the Patriots feel they have to. They already had an oversized, unstoppable receiver on the team for three years. The problem has been keeping TE Rob Gronkowski healthy through the playoffs.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Rob Gronkowski has been unstoppable, but injuries the past two seasons kept him from being a force in the post season.

Pummeling the record books for the position is taking a toll on Gronkowski as opponents use all their force to bring down the 6’6” 265-pound man-child.

A high left ankle sprain in the 2011 AFC Championship hampered Gronkowski in Super Bowl XLVI. And in a string of bad luck, Gronkowski broke his left forearm twice this season.

Statistics show a measurable difference for Brady between when Gronkowski plays and when he doesn’t, as detailed by the Examiner.com:

This season, using pass target data provided by NFL.com, when Gronkowski's receiving statistics are removed from Brady's passing statistics, Brady has experienced a 1.7 percent decrease in completion percentage (from 65.1 percent to 64.0 percent), a 7.9 percent decrease in yards per pass attempt (from 7.6 to 7.0), a 12.0 percent decrease in adjusted yards per pass attempt (from 8.3 to 7.3), a 5.2 percent decrease in yards per completion (from 11.6 to 11.0), a 34.0 percent decrease in touchdown percentage (from 5.3 to 3.5 percent), and a 12.5 percent increase in interception percentage (from .8 percent to .9 percent).

Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui proved they can’t fill Gronkowski’s shoes. So don’t be surprised if neither are back with the Patriots. New England didn’t claim Jake Ballard just to stick it to the New York Giants.

Ballard is a lesser version of Gronkowski. Ballard has size (6’6” 256), is a good blocker and can contribute as a receiver. New England had no problem rehabbing Ballard for the year if he makes a full recovery. Ballard is an exclusive rights free agent, so the Patriots control his rights. In other words, Ballard is not going anywhere.

Adding Ballard to Gronkowski and Hernandez can be considered unfair. Gronkowski and Hernandez were already the best tight end duo in the NFL. The unit could be even better with Ballard while trimming Hoomanawanui and Fells from the roster.

One less tight end on the team. That leaves enough room on the roster for a big, playmaking receiver with deep speed, right?

 

Questions? Comments? Send to randolphc82@comcast.net.

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