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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Wide receiver

01.05.12 at 1:55 pm ET
By

Wes Welker (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a weeklong, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’ve already broken down the running backs, quarterback and tight ends. Now, it’s the wide receivers.

Depth chart: Wes Welker (122 catches, 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns), Deion Branch (51 catches, 702 yards, five touchdowns), Chad Ochocinco (15 catches, 276 yards, one touchdown), Tiquan Underwood (3 catches, 30 yards), Julian Edelman (4 catches, 34 yards), Matthew Slater.

Overview: After beginning the season on a record pace, Welker dropped off a bit, but still had one of the best seasons of any receiver in NFL history and arguably the finest year of any slot receiver in the history of the league. He finished the season with 122 receptions, a total that is tied for the fourth-highest single-season total in NFL history. He led the league in yards after catch with 751. The 120-plus catch season was the second time in Welker’s career he has passed the 120-reception mark (123 in 2009 and 122 in 2011), joining Cris Carter (122 in 1995 and 122 in 1994 as the only players to have 120-plus receptions twice in career. In addition, Welker’s 1,569 receiving yards are the most in Patriots history, topping Randy Moss’s previous mark of 1,493 receiving yards in 2007.

The Patriots offense is what drives this team. The passing game drives the offense. And the Tom Brady-to-Welker combination is the primary element of the passing game. While Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have emerged as viable threats, if Brady and Welker cannot connect on a regular basis, the New England offense will struggle. Conversely, if the two are in sync, there are few (if any) defenses in the league that can slow them down.

While he doesn’t have the wheels that he used to, Branch remains an absolutely dependable target for Brady in big situations, and while he’s seen fewer looks lately because of the increase in two-tight end sets for New England, he will almost certainly play a role in the postseason. After that, things drop off dramatically — Ochocinco has had his moments (his touchdown catch against the Broncos, his big play against the Jets), but those have been few and far between this year to expect him to be a reliable threat in the passing game in the postseason. Underwood has had a few looks, while Edelman and Slater have bounced back and forth between wide receiver and defensive back.

Going forward, when it comes to pass defense, three of the top four teams in the league (Pittsburgh, Houston and Baltimore) are possible playoff opponents for New England.

One opposing scouts take on the Patriots’ wide receivers heading into the postseason: “If there has been a chink in the armor, it’s the lack of big, one-shot plays by the wide receivers. All are efficient at the lateral, short to intermediate routes and catch the ball in traffic. They also have some ability after the catch, but lack size and can be disrupted at the line of scrimmage. If delayed off the line and without a proven vertical threat, they could have some issues if they get behind against a team that can run the ball and limit New England’s possessions.”

Best Moment: For singular moments, it’s probably the 99-yarder from Brady to Welker in the season opener against the Dolphins. (That was part of an eight-catch, 160-yard, two-TD effort against Miami.) However, if you’re going to hand out a game ball, it’d probably be Welker’s Week Three performance against the Bills, when he had an astounding 16 catches (on 20 targets) for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

Worst Moment: Not to kick a guy when he’s down, but it’s hard to look past Ochocinco’s drop of a sure touchdown pass against Buffalo as the worst moment of the year for the wide receivers.

By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: Welker’s 1,569 receiving yards was not only a Patriots club record, but it was also 59.1 percent of the total receiving yards by Pats’ wideouts this year, the third-highest percentage by a Patriots wide receiver since 1970. Welker trailed only Stanley Morgan (1982, 66.7 percent) and Randy Vataha (1971, 59.5 percent).

Money quote: “Nothing surprises me with Wes — he’s the heart and soul of this team. He’s been that way since the day he got here. He works his tail off, and he’s a great player, a great teammate. He’s become a real dynamic player over the years. He’s made some huge plays for us. He’s clutch — tough, mentally tough, physically tough.” – Brady on Welker

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Chad Ochocinco, Cris Carter, Deion Branch
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