With the Patriots re-signing Sebastian Vollmer to a four-year deal, it appears that their major moves in free agency are close to done. Prior to Vollmer's pact, which carries a $3 million cap hit in 2013, the Pats had approximately $15.3 million in cap space. Now, they're left with about $12 million to work with, of which $6-8 million must be retained for draft picks and in-season moves.
The Patriots have spent their cap money wisely thus far, shoring up holes in their secondary and ensuring their starting offensive line returns intact. However, the hole at wide receiver has only gotten bigger since free agency started, even if Danny Amendola is a solid addition.
Entering the offseason, the Pats had decisions to make on every wide receiver that caught a pass for them in 2012. It was clear they were coming to a crossroads at the position, but no one suspected they'd blow the whole thing up.
Now, with Wes Welker in Denver, the release of Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch likely done and Julian Edelman still lingering on the free-agent market, the Patriots depth chart at wide receiver is currently topped by Amendola, Donald Jones and, maybe, Matthew Slater.
Those three players combined for 104 catches, 1,109 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012.
The Patriots top three wide receivers in 2012 (Welker, Lloyd and Edelman) combined for 213 catches, 2,500 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The drop-off is glaring—frankly, at this point in free agency, given the market, it's scary.
More Free Agent Moves to Make
The Patriots will add more wide receivers, but the landscape certainly looks a lot different now than it did when Welker's return was still possible, along with an addition like Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings. There are no impact X-receivers left on the market.
They did have restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders in for a visit and must be currently weighing if he's worth the third-round pick and contract he would cost. The Patriots only have five draft picks to begin with.
- Round 1 (No. 29 Overall)
- Round 2 (No. 59 Overall)
- Round 3 (No. 91 Overall)
- Round 7 (No. 226 Overall) (Bucs – Aqib Talib)
- Round 7 (No. 235 Overall)
But even if he was worth their only mid-range draft pick, Sanders had just 44 catches for 626 yards and one touchdown in 2012. It's not like he would automatically shore up the Patriots' receiving corps.
Victor Cruz certainly could, but his price tag of a first-round pick and a $7 million-plus per year contract to go with it is far too rich for the Patriots given their remaining cap space.
Julian Edelman still seems like a slam dunk, but he's more in the mold of Amendola and would still leave the need for an outside X-receiver.
David Nelson of the Bills is another possibility, who would bring some size to the outside, or former Giant Domenik Hixon. Both would complement the limited pieces the Pats have in place already, but neither would immediately intimidate defenses.
Though Nelson showed promise with a 61-catch, 658-yard 2011 season, he missed almost all of 2012 with a torn ACL. Hixon's 39 catches in 2012 were a career second best.
None of them would get Patriots nation excited.
Perhaps bringing Brandon Lloyd back at a reduced rate is possible, but it still seems like they would prefer a more physical threat outside, and one who does not display “erratic behavior in the locker room and on the practice field."
The Patriots are running out of options, and it seems clear that for the first time since 2007, the Patriots will enter a new season without a stable of proven, dangerous receiving threats.
Draft 'Em Early and Often
Despite their lack of draft capital, the Pats might have no choice but to spend multiple picks at the receiver position, and that's a scary proposition for a team that has missed multiple times at the position over the last decade.
Bethel Johnson (Round 2 in 2003), Chad Jackson (Round 2 in 2006) and Brandon Tate (Round 3 in 2009) are just a few late-round receivers who couldn't hang in New England.
New England's inability to develop young receivers is coming back to haunt them now, and they'll be forced to confront their draft weakness head-on in just a few weeks.
But the good news is that it's a solid overall draft for receivers of all kinds.
There are some with size and X-receiver potential, like Justin Hunter, Keenan Allen, Cobi Hamilton and Aaron Dobson. Or even undersized, quick receivers that fit the mold of the Pats offense in recent years like Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ace Sanders.
The Patriots will have a number of receiver options with good value at every pick they make. That's the good news, but picking the right guys who can click with Brady is the biggest challenge.
Ultimately, the Patriots have made this bed and now they'll have to pull themselves out of it.
The odds are ripe for a "double-dip" at receiver like they did at tight end in 2010, taking Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and at running back in 2011, when they took Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, all at the top-end of the draft.
Biggest Challenge for Final Act of Brady's Legacy
The Patriots don't have many holes left, but the one at wide receiver is glaring, and they must take bold steps in the next month.
Tom Brady needs enough targets to not only continue the offensive dominance that has lasted over a decade, but to fix the problems the passing offense has had since Randy Moss and his ability to take the top off of defenses left.
With the addition of another free agent or two and a double-dip in the draft, they should have enough pieces in the mix for a competition, though it's no guarantee that the offense can continue their torrid pace of 2012.
The moves the Patriots make at wide receiver over the next month will play a significant part in the final act of Tom Brady's career. Finding and developing new, dangerous playmakers for Brady has never been easy, and the Pats have missed far more than they've hit.
Now it might be the only thing standing between Brady, Belichick and their fourth Super Bowl.