Almost a week on, the dust is finally beginning to settle on the New England Patriots' disappointing finish to the 2012 season. Fans are still trapped in the misery that comes with a failed season, but the organization itself is already collecting the pieces they can move forward with next season, while assessing what losses need to be replaced. The Patriots are typically an active team in the off-season, as Bill Belichick is always willing to explore all avenues that could potentially improve his team. This off-season should be similar as there are some key areas that need to be rebuilt.
One of those areas comes outside the numbers at the wide receiver position.
Unless Jeremy Erbert, Matthew Slater, Alken Kamar and Andre Holmes are counted as such, the Patriots only have one notable wide receiver under contract currently, Brandon Lloyd. Wes Welker highlights the free agent class of 2013, but Julian Edelman, Deion Branch and Donte' Stallworth are hot on his coat-tails. Branch was re-signed to the roster during this season as depth cover, while Stallworth likely won't return after his issues getting on the field this year. Presuming the Patriots are still looking to him as their future possession receiver, Edelman should almost certainly return. What happens with Welker is anyone's guess at this point.
Nothing is definite about the futures of those either becoming free agents or currently under contract, the Patriots have plenty of options open to them. Being a consistent presence in the playoffs and having a top talent at quarterback means that the Patriots don't need to fear free agency. Wide receivers will want to play for this offense. How cheaply they were able to sign Lloyd last year reflects that. When you think of a player such as Dwayne Bowe, who has gone through a six year career primarily with Matt Cassel throwing him the ball, you understand the value for some receivers looking to further themselves on the field.
Bowe could be an option for the Patriots. He is a very gifted player with the talent to change an offense for the better, while also offering the Patriots a size presence that doesn't currently exist on the edges of their offense. Working against Bowe is his supposed sour character, but that has never turned off this Patriots team in the past. Bowe and Brandon Lloyd would be a beautiful combination for the Patriots, but would hinge on the Patriots letting Wes Welker walk. Franchise tagging Welker again this year is an option, but one that is difficult to foresee even though the Patriots have the eighth most cap space entering the year, $18.6 million.
Franchising Welker would cost $11.4 million and make the rest of the team's transactions very tight. Of course, Bowe would come with a big cap hit also, but presuming he is signed to a long-term deal, that hit could be managed in the way it can't be with a franchise tag. Bowe is 28, so he's not young, but also a much more physically imposing receiver which would make the Patriots less skeptical about signing him to a long-term deal. Should that addition occur, the Patriots would be faced with a dilemma.
With Bowe, Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots would be a top heavy talent team at the skill-positions. Instead of running so many three receiver sets, moving Welker into the slot, they would instead feature more two receiver sets, keeping Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field with their two starters. The Patriots did do much of that last year, but it would be expanded further next year, with Shane Vereen likely becoming an even bigger part of the offense out of the backfield. The Patriots could either settle on that direction or make further investments.
Julian Edelman was showing promise this season before being lost for the season due to injury. In a way, that injury could be a blessing in disguise now that he is on the open market. The Patriots have long thought highly of Edelman and would obviously like to re-sign him this off-season. Because he didn't explode statistically during his contract year, and because he is coming off of an injury, the market for Edelman will likely have shrunk compared to what he would have initially expected entering this year. Keeping Edelman on a cap friendly contract and still signing Bowe is definitely a feasible possibility. Edelman would allow the team to continue running an offense that puts a receiver in the slot, a la Welker, and use him to move the chains on a consistent basis.
Instead of signing Edelman however, the Patriots could alter their approach with their receiving options.
Last off-season, the Patriots changed the identity of their backfield. They let the reliable, but limited, BenJarvus Green-Ellis leave in free agency, to move forward with the explosive, but less reliable, combination of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Vereen's emergence late in the season will likely see Danny Woodhead follow a similar path to Green-Ellis this year. The options are available for the receiving corps to undergo a similar transition this off-season.
Instead of signing Edelman, the Patriots could move for big-play threats Devery Henderson, Louis Murphy, Jerome Simpson or Donnie Avery. Each of those receivers would be on the same pay-grade as Edelman, but have very different styles. Each bring inconsistencies to the table, but also much more speed and deep ball ability. That would be the beauty of having Brandon Lloyd and Dwayne Bowe together, both receivers are capable of doing anything you would ask from them. Neither is pigeon holed as a deep threat or a possession receiver. Both are all around football players who blur the lines between the positions-within-positions.
Signing Bowe is no certainty, but it is very unlikely that Lloyd won't be on the roster.
Lloyd's flexibility to fill different roles is what allows the Patriots to move in different directions this off-season. His ability to run every route at an incredible speed may not have led to many deep balls in 2012, but he does still carry that threat and can stretch the field when need be. If the Patriots sign Bowe, then he can continue in the role he played last season. However, if the Patriots look to bring in another big name receiver, Mike Wallace, then Lloyd would likely focus his play on moving the chains and filling the Welker-Edelman role on offense.
Wallace is an unlikely signing, because he wants an astronomically large contract and is coming off a season when he failed to live up to his self proclaimed status as an elite receiver. Even considering his struggles this past year, Wallace offers the Patriots something they haven't had since Randy Moss. Speed that not only beats defensive backs, but flat out scares defensive coordinators. His addition would make the offense almost impossible to match up to from a personnel point of view, because it's already incredibly difficult to stick with the team's tight ends and slower receivers. The combination of Lloyd and Wallace would force single coverage to either receiver or one of the tight ends. Each would handily beat that on 90 percent of plays, while you can't play zone effectively against a Tom Brady-led team.
Signing Wallace would limit what other receivers the team could sign, so they could look that way in the draft. It's always possible to find a complementary piece in latter rounds of the draft, but if they felt aggressive enough to add to an already stacked offense in the early rounds, taking DeAndre Hopkins or Tavon Austin would really push this offense's aerial attack over the top. Austin and Hopkins are both players who would excel in space. Playing with a Patriots' offense that has the weapons it already does and the scheme it already runs, space would be a given on every single snap.
Of course, that is all presuming that the Patriots will make a big splash at a position they have so often not made big splashes in the past. The more likely possibilities may be less exciting, but could also be just as effective. The possession receiver role that was last filled by Wes Welker will be key. Welker could be re-signed, but the team could also re-sign Edelman and shift him into his position. The possibility also exists that the Patriots make a move for Danny Amendola, making that two ex-St. Louis Rams receivers on their roster. Amendola is very much in the same mold as Welker, but may be even better than him at this point in his career. He has played exclusively on bad offenses for the past four years in St. Louis.
Re-signing Welker and adding a bigger receivers in the draft is the less enticing option, because it would cost the team money without adding the excitement that comes with a big-name free agent addition. However, it would allow the continuity within what has been a very successful offense over the last few years to continue. Signing Amendola would be similarly expensive, but would at the very least give the team a much younger player with room to develop further. Expecting Edelman to fill the role and adding bit-part players behind him wouldn't improve the offense, but it would allow the team to spend the majority of it's cap space on improving a defense that needs plenty of new additions. Over $15 million in cap space and plenty of draft picks is an awful lot to help a defense lacking in quality such as the Patriots'.
It's always difficult to know what Bill Belichick and his franchise are going to do during the off-season. The only thing that is certain is that they do need to sign wide receivers, unless of course the lesser known names on the roster have some special talents we are yet to see...with this team, you can't even rule that out.