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4 thoughts on Patriots, free agency, who’s still out there at WR

03.17.14 at 6:30 am ET
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1. Dane Fletcher signed with Tampa Bay on Sunday, the second inside/middle linebacker the Patriots have lost to this point in free agency. (Brandon Spikes went to Buffalo earlier.)

Fletcher isn’t a tremendous loss — he was a backup who provided defensive depth at the position, as well as some special teams value. (His shining moment in 2013 likely came in the regular-season win over the Broncos, when he stepped in for a struggling Dont’a Hightower and played significant snaps down the stretch and into overtime.) But from a personnel standpoint, that means a new generation of linebackers likely will be given the chance to step into the void, a group that includes Steve Beauharnais.

Even with a few guys capable of stepping into that spot, there’s the likelihood that New England tries to go out and acquire one more linebacker/special teamer, either in the draft or free agency. The Patriots tried to go after former Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard, but he ended up signing with the Titans.

From this viewpoint, South Dakota linebacker Tyler Starr could be a late-round possibility in the draft. (For more on why he might be a fit with the Patriots, check out our story here.)

It’s not a colossal priority at this point, but it’s a personnel question that needs to be addressed between now and the start of offseason workouts.

2. The last few seasons, the Patriots have made a habit of adding veteran free agent wide receivers in free agency — not household names, but relatively anonymous guys who might be a fit in Foxboro. Last year, that group included LaVelle Hawkins, Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones, none of them ultimately worked out.

And so, on the surface, there might be inclination to link them to Brandon LaFell — who was acquired Saturday as a free agent — to last year’s group. But taking a look at LaFell’s work, he might be a step up from that group. LaFell has some positional versatility, having worked on the inside, in the slot and split wide, and his versatility, combined with his surprising size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), likely puts him a step ahead of veteran wide receivers acquired in year’s past.

A lot of his success will depend on how quickly he gets on the same page as quarterback Tom Brady — if I’m LaFell, I’m on the first plane to Southern California to see if Brady can take a break from hanging out on the set of “Entourage” to do some throwing. (For what it’s worth, LaFell had seven catches and a touchdown in the Panthers’ win over the Patriots last season.)

3. With the acquisition of LaFell, it’s worth resetting the depth chart for the Patriots receiving corps. While there’s no de facto No. 1 receiver, with the return of Julian Edelman the picture is far more stable than it was at this point last season. (Last year, the Patriots lost four of their five best pass catchers in Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead. As of this moment, they have their top 10 pass-catchers — from a reception standpoint — from last year all under contract for 2014.)

Edelman: The only receiver other than Welker and Troy Brown to catch at least 100 passes in a season from Brady will return on a three-year deal.

Danny Amendola: Underwhelming at times in his first season in New England, he figures to return in 2014 for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that because he was on the roster earlier this month he guaranteed himself a $2 million roster bonus.

Aaron Dobson: The leading rookie receiver on the 2013 roster, he’s expected to be sidelined for a sizable portion of the offseason because of foot surgery. But it’s realistic to expect him to build on his first year, when he finished with 37 catches, 519 yards and four touchdowns.

Kenbrell Thompkins: Perhaps the most enigmatic of the first-year receivers last year, he had moments of brilliance followed up with his share of rookie moments as well. He ended up with 32 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns, but like Dobson he will be expected to build on those totals in 2014.

Josh Boyce: Boyce was a combine stud, and while he didn’t make it through the whole season (he went on season-ending IR with an ankle issue in January), he clearly has the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. One look at this juke he put on Cleveland’s Buster Skrine is proof of that.

Mark Harrison: Harrison never made it to the field last season, but he’s an intriguing prospect who certainly has impressive size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), and the Rutgers pedigree probably doesn’t hurt.

Matthew Slater: A wide receiver in name only, Slater figures to play more of a role as captain of the special teamers.

4. Two more names who could figure into the mix at wide receiver sooner rather than later are veterans Kenny Britt and Lance Moore. Britt met with the Patriots on Sunday (according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network), and the 25-year-old certainly presents as an intriguing prospect. He’s had sizable off-field issues, as well as some knee issues, but when he’s right physically and mentally, he’s shown himself to be a very good receiver — he had three seasons of 40-plus catches with the Titans.

The 6-foot-3, 223-pounder has an in with Bill Belichick — he played his college ball for Belichick’s pal Greg Schiano at Rutgers, and so if there’s anyone who might be able to figure out what it takes to reach Britt, it’s a trusted confidant of Schiano.

Meanwhile, Adam Caplan of ESPN reported that Moore has met with the Patriots. Release in the great New Orleans roster purge of March 2014, the 30-year-old Moore had 37 receptions for 457 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games in 2013. However, there appears to be some positional redundancy with the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder as it relates to the current New England receiving corps, as he’s enjoyed much of his career as a slot receiver. (He ran 52 percent of his routes out of the slot last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and has run at least 35 percent of his snaps from the slot each year for the last three years.)

His age likely will limit him to a short-term deal, but he’s only one year removed from going for 1,041 yards and has shown an ability to produce, with four seasons of 50 catches or more over the course of his career.

Read More: Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher
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