Offensively speaking, the 2011 New England Patriots will remain largely intact next year regardless of free agent attrition. Only two full-time starters, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, face expiring contacts.
The Slot Machine, the NFL's leading receiver, is a near-guarantee to be re-signed in some capacity, with the franchise tag a legitimate option for the team if long-term talks stall out. Welker does indeed find himself on the wrong side of 30 and it's likely that he's reached the zenith in terms of production. However, there's still plenty of logic behind signing the guy, at least to a respectable contract in the 6-8 million a year range.
The logic begins to breakdown when toying with the idea of bringing Deion Branch back for his 11th season, what would be his 7th with the Patriots.
The bottom line here is that Branch spent too much time out in Seattle. By the time the 2012 season rolls around, he'll be 33-years-old coming off a season in which he struggled mightily to show up consistently on the stat sheet.
Branch made 18 combined regular and post-season starts in 2011, but he was held to five or less receptions in all but four of them. In fact, the combined reception total of his four best games comes to 28, nearly half of his 59 total receptions for the season. Branch was able to come up big when he did produce, but it was a rare occurrence.
Granted Branch does hold more value than what might appear on the stat sheet from year to year. The former Super Bowl MVP is more than familiar and comfortable in New England's offense, a fact we often take for granted in these parts.
Branch's inherent value isn't lost on the likes of head coach Bill Belichick either.
"Deion's a very instinctive receiver," Belichick said. "He's smart. He learns very quickly, and he understands receiver concepts and techniques. He almost always does what the quarterback would expect him to do. He just has a good instinct and a good feel for what the right decision to make is based on what he's seeing, so that he can help the quarterback, where he can be in the spot where the quarterback wants him to be when he wants them to be there."
But it's whether or not he'll have enough in the tank to warrant another reunion that is the question. Belichick and Director of player personnel Nick Casserio will have to weigh those hefty unknowns while keeping an eye on free agents and prospects to be.
If I had to commit to a projection or prediction on what the 2012 offense may look like I’d stand to reason Branch still has a role on this team. I don’t envision him pulling in 60 catches again, especially not with the continued development of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and the presence of Welker.
Branch or no Branch, the Patriots need an injection of youth and vigor into their collection of wide receivers, youth and vigor being code words for speed and production.
The Brandon Tates, Taylor Prices, and Ochocincos of the world haven’t fulfilled this need yet. It's this fact that sets up for a roller coaster of a ride over the next few months as we figure out just who gets tabbed as Tom Brady’s next weapon and whether Branch will even still be one.
Interested in reading more by this Featured Columnist? Check out more of Aaron Dodge's work on Bleacher Report.
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