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Countdown to Patriots Camp: Wide receiver

07.24.12 at 8:46 pm ET
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Brandon Lloyd followed Josh McDaniels to New England. (AP)

In the days leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we’ll take a quick look at how each position shakes out. We’ve looked at quarterback, tight end and running back. Now, it’s the wide receivers:

Roster (2011 stats): Brandon Lloyd (70 catches, 966 yards, five touchdowns with Denver and St. Louis), Wes Welker (122 catches, 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns), Deion Branch (51 catches, 702 yards, five touchdowns), Jabar Gaffney (68 catches, 947 yards, five touchdowns with Washington), Donte Stallworth (22 catches, 309 yards, two touchdowns with Washington), Julian Edelman (four catches, 34 yards), Matthew Slater (one catch, 46 yards), Jeremy Ebert, Britt Davis, Jesse Holley (seven catches, 169 yards for Dallas).

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Brandon Lloyd has the most unique skill set of any wide receiver that Tom Brady has ever worked with. We covered this back in the spring, but it bears repeating — Lloyd’s ability to work on both intermediate and deep routes, as well as his ability to compete for jump balls, make him a completely different receiver than anyone Brady has worked with. After getting the chance to throw to Lloyd on a regular basis in the spring, Brady bottom-lined it: “We haven’t had anyone quite like him,” the quarterback said of Lloyd, who followed former offensive coordinator and head coach Josh McDaniels back to New England. (For more on their relationship and Lloyd’s potential impact, click HERE.)

Deion Branch doesn’t have the wheels that he used to, but his smarts, knowledge of the system and great working relationship with the quarterback should be enough to keep him in Foxboro for another year. The 33-year-old, who probably played more than he should have last season because of Chad Ochocinco’s inadequacies, will still have a role in this passing game. And while shouldn’t have the same sort of production he had last year, there will be at least three occasions in 2012 where he comes up with a big play based solely on his background with Brady.

The acclimation process between Tom Brady and the new receivers should be a little easier than it was for No. 85 last season. You figure that with Gaffney and Stallworth already having spent time in the New England offense, the getting-to-know-you timetable should be minimal. As for Lloyd, he was asked this spring if he believes the Patriots system would be a difficult one to pick up. He responded with a quick, one-word answer: “No.” OK then.

THREE QUESTIONS

Can Wes Welker ignore the noise? No Patriots’ player has had a more eventful six-month stretch than Welker. He had 122 catches last year, but ended the 2011 season glassy-eyed and teary after failing to come up with a Brady pass that would have likely closed out the Giants in the Super Bowl. Since that game, he’s been hit with the franchise tag, signed his tender, gone back and forth with the franchise about his contract, gotten married, endorsed adult diapers and revealed the most remarkable story involving Larry Izzo you will ever hear. He starts the 2012 season under the microscope — without a long-term deal, there will be speculation that he’s starting his final year in New England. However, Welker’s track record indicates that he should be able to block out the distractions and focus on the task at hand. Provided he stays healthy, look for another 100-plus catch season from the slot machine.

How many wide receivers can one team carry? Right now, it looks like six or seven, depending on what they want to do with Donte Stallworth: Lloyd, Welker, Gaffney, Edelman, Slater and Branch, with Ebert, Davis and Holley all practice squad possibilities. To his credit, Stallworth spent time this spring working as a returner on special teams, ostensibly to try and increase his overall value to the team. But right now, he would appear to face an uphill battle in a fight for a roster spot.

Why has this team had trouble developing young wide receivers? It’s more of a big picture question (perhaps best answered another day), but when you’re talking about wide receivers, it’s worth mentioning once again that the Patriots haven’t been able to develop a young wide receiver since the Deion Branch/David Givens combo nearly 10 years ago. Since then, they’ve relied on imports like Welker, Moss, Gaffney and Lloyd … and Ochocinco, Galloway and Donald Hayes. The veterans have been good enough to keep the passing game humming — and maybe the Patriots have found something with their younger receivers Ebert, Davis and Holley — but for a team that’s enjoyed so much success in player development in so many other areas (they turn JAGs into starting offensive linemen on an annual basis), it’s an odd anomaly.

By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: Wes Welker’s passes dropped (including postseason): 2008 — 3; 2009 — 13; 2010 — 14; 2011 — 15.

The skinny: As we discussed earlier, while the passing game might not reach 2007 levels, they might not be far off. And while the tight ends have emerged as a potent force for Brady, the receiving corps is deep, smart and filled with the sort of veterans you can build an offense around. (“This group that I’m working with, they’re as professional and as good a group as I’ve ever been around,” Patriots wide receiver coach Chad O’Shea said this spring.) Lloyd appears poised for a monster year, while there’s no reason to think Welker won’t have a typical Welkeresque season. Gaffney is as underrated as they come, and Branch remains a steady and reliable presence for Brady. They may be getting a little older, but there’s no reason to think that this group of receivers won’t be one of the best in the league statistically when the season is done.

Read More: Brandon Lloyd, Britt Davis, Chad Ochocinco, Chad O’Shea
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