What a difference a year makes.
The New England Patriots' wide receiver position is hardly recognizable. Out are the Wes Welkers, the Brandon Lloyds and the Deion Branches. In are the rookies and the veteran free-agent acquisitions.
All of whom are just trying to catch on inside Gillette Stadium.
Needless to say the offense will take some time to get up to speed. The young pass-catchers will have to be sharper with their footwork, just as the older ones will have to do a better job separating from the defensive backs. Yet while age separates New England's receiving corps, their negotiation with quarterback Tom Brady is what unites them.
It's a relationship that will come down to a trust in ability.
The option routes and the no-huddle attack aren't procedures learned overnight. Absorbing the very crevasses of the playbook, diagnosing the pre-snap reads, adapting to the audibles, getting open and, obviously, catching the football are all vital components to playing the position.
And they are all the more vital when playing the position in Foxborough.
Some take a while to acclimate to the Patriots offense. Others never do. Consequently, Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to be patient. Because as we all know, good things take time.
With all the reconstruction taking place, here is an in-depth assessment of New England's wideout position.
A Nucleus of Young and New
But ignoring their NFL tenure, the average age is roughly 25 years old.
On April 27, Belichick discussed the position's renovations, as transcribed by WEEI.com's Mike Petraglia:
We’ve turned over the tight end position, we’ve turned over the running back position, and we’ve turned over a number of the positions on the offensive line. Now we’re doing it at receiver. I think it’s a little bit of you have to figure it out as you go. You have a plan, you try to do it a certain way but as you get into it, you see how it’s going and what certain players are able to do or how quickly they’re able to adapt and what’s taking longer. You modify your teaching; sometimes you modify your scheme a little bit.
The team certainly had a plan: get fresh. Not only is the position young in both life and football years, it's a position young in Patriots years. Eight of the receivers are new to the New England as of this offseason, which means that only three receivers spent time on the team's 53-man roster or practice squad last season.
Those familiar three combined for 21 catches in 2012. Will those incumbents see an expanded role this upcoming season? Or will they be eclipsed by the newcomers?
Experience in the system is one thing. Taking advantage of the experience in the system is another.
A Growing Trend
Just from last year's group, the biggest wideout—in terms of height and weight—to catch a pass was Donte' Stallworth, who the team listed as 6'0", 220 pounds. The other receivers who logged receptions included the 6'0", 200-pound Lloyd, the 5'10", 200-pound Julian Edelman, the 5'9", 195-pound Branch and the 5'9", 185-pound Welker.
None of those guys were really built to go get a jump ball down field, and they were not built in the Moss mold, either. They were more so suited to make plays in the underneath and work the sidelines.
While we shouldn't anticipate an overhaul in the offensive strategies, look for those aforementioned tendencies to change this year. Of the 11 wide receivers on the 90-man roster, one is listed as 6'4", two are listed as 6'3", one is listed as 6'2", three are listed as 6'0", three are listed as 5'11" and just one is listed as 5'10".
And in case you're wondering, the average weight of the receiver personnel is 205 pounds.
Whether it was intentional, New England's brass managed to bolster the size of the depth chart significantly. That should pay dividends when it comes to the physicality of going up for contested balls.
Three Familiar Faces
Punt returning slot receiver Julian Edelman, special teams Pro Bowler Matthew Slater and practice squad call-up Kamar Aiken mark the only three receivers returning to the Patriots from last season. And by now, we've got a pretty good indication what their value to the team is.
Edelman, a 27-year-old former seventh-round draft pick, enjoyed his second most productive NFL season in 2012. The shifty ex-Kent State quarterback totaled 235 receiving yards, three receiving touchdowns, 45 rushing yards and a punt return touchdown. The 5'10", 200-pounder played in nine games, starting three, before landing on injured reserve with a foot injury. Edelman is a nice option, but not likely a starter.
Slater, a 27-year-old former fifth-round draft pick, has one career reception for 46 yards. But it would be shortsighted to say he has little of an effect on the outcome of games. Based on Football Outsiders' premium statistics, Slater was tied for the league lead with 16 return stops. The 6'0", 210-pound UCLA Bruin is a captain who has made 77 tackles over his five seasons with the team. He knows his role, and he embraces it.
Aiken, a 24-year-old former undrafted free agent, was signed last season after playing two games with the Buffalo Bills in 2011. The 6'2", 213-pound ex-Central Florida Knight appeared in one game with New England but did not record a catch. Aiken should be in the mix for the final receiver spot.
Four Veteran Signings
The Patriots did their share of damage in free agency, inking renowned slot receiver Danny Amendola, Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins. This unit provides strength in numbers. Just don't expect all of whom to be on the final roster.
Amendola, a 27-year-old slot receiver once undrafted out of Texas Tech, has left his mark with both the Dallas Cowboys and the St. Louis Rams. He is regarded as New England's prized pickup when it comes to receivers. Amendola caught 85 passes for 689 yards and three touchdowns in 2010 and caught 63 passes for 666 and three touchdowns in 2012. The 5'11", 188-pounder has played all 16 games just once, but is a dangerous top option when healthy. He was signed to a five-year, $28.5 million deal in March, per Spotrac.com.
Jones, a 25-year-old once signed as a rookie free agent out of Youngstown State, spent his first three NFL seasons with the Bills. A well built 6'0", 208-pounder, Jones has his best season in 2012. In which, he started 10 of 12 games, catching 41 passes for 443 yards and four scores. Over his career, he has performed particularly well against the Patriots. In his last five games versus New England, Jones caught 18 passes for 319 yards and two scores.
Jenkins, the oldest Patriots receiver at age 30, is a former first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons back in 2004. Although he never lived up to his Round 1 billing, Jenkins did develop into a solid pass-catcher in the NFL. A long 6'4", 214-pounder, Jenkins started eight games last season as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, hauling in 40 passes for 449 yards and two TDs. At this point in his career, Jenkins is a good depth player with plenty of experience. He is not, however, a roster lock.
Hawkins, a 26-year-old former Tennessee Titans fourth-round selection, has been in the league for five seasons. At 5'11", 194 pounds, the California Golden Bear isn't of great stature, but he is a premium athlete for an inside receiver. His best NFL campaign came in 2011 when he caught 47 passes for 470 yards and a touchdown. His other four NFL seasons netted a grand total of 24 receptions for 301 yards and no scores. Hawkins was given a $150,000 signing bonus, cites Spotrac.com, so the Patriots have confidence in his abilities.
Four Rookie Acquisitions
Via the draft, as well as undrafted free agency, New England reeled in the likes of Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins and Mark Harrison. All of whom are viable candidates, but obviously, expectations must be tempered. For one reason or another, the Patriots haven't exactly had the best farm system in terms of receiving prospects.
Dobson, a 21-year-old second-round pick out of Marshall, has the chance to become New England's deep threat of the future. A rangy 6'3", 203-pounder with tremendous hands, above-average speed and tremendous smarts, this year's rookie class really depends of whether he can turn into a good pro. He's the prototypical "X" receiver, something the Patriots haven't had for quite some time.
Boyce, a 22-year-old fourth-round choice out of Texas Christian, is a well-rounded flanker who could tandem with Dobson down the road. At 5'11", 203-pounds, he's not a big receiver, but he plays big. He is nuanced in the "Z" position as well as the slot. He could very well have the most immediate impact of any Patriots greenhorn.
Thompkins, a 24-year-old undrafted pickup from Cincinnati, is a junior college transfer who found production during his final two years of college eligibility. At 6'0" and 196 pounds, he's not imposing, but he's rugged. He could be a potential choice to fill a final receiver spot or one on the practice squad.
Harrison, a 22-year-old Rutgers Scarlet Knight, could have and should have been drafted this past April. As far as 6'3", 235-pound receivers are concerned, Harrison is a supreme athlete with great speed, lower body strength and jumping ability. He's a huge outside receiver from an admired program. He cannot be ruled out to make the final 53-man roster.
An Early Depth Chart Projection
1. Danny Amendola: Possessing all the qualities to be Brady's No. 1 option in the short to intermediate passing game, Amendola is the favorite for the top gig. He's quick with good hands, and he's not afraid to go over the middle.
2. Aaron Dobson: As New England's top offensive draft pick, Dobson has his hands full to live up to expectations. But if he can clean up his routes and immerse himself in the offense, he should be able to garner split-end duties.
3. Donald Jones: New England liked what it saw from Jones when he was playing for the AFC East rival. But on top of that, Jones is still young and capable enough to stick around as a dependable depth receiver who can be utilized in multiple facets.
4. Julian Edelman: Edelman's not guaranteed much this time around, as indicated by the contract he signed to remain in town. Still, his talents as a returner and all-purpose offensive threat are worth stashing. His biggest concern is health. If he can stay cleared, he could find a role once again as a receiver.
5. Josh Boyce: Boyce may end up the safer of New England's two wide receiver draft picks. But his ceiling is not that of Dobson's. Boyce will start lower on the depth chart, but should be able to climb before long. He's currently nursing a broken bone in his foot, so he hasn't been able to make his splash just yet.
6. Mark Harrison: The value of retaining Harrison is far too great. The fact he's a Rutgers product only gives him a leg up. He's the definition of an athletic specimen who would have been drafted if not for a foot injury suffered at his pro day and perhaps an incident which transpired during the NFL combine. He'd be claimed by another team before he fell on to the practice squad.
7. Matthew Slater: Slater is a wide receiver by trade. In reality, he's just a football player. He's a team leader, and the best special teams player New England has had since Larry Izzo in the mid 2000s. He is a lock to make the roster, even if he never catches another pass.