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Thursday, June 7, 2012
Receiver position coming into focus

By Mike Rodak

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If you asked anyone a month ago how the New England Patriots' logjam at receiver would shake out, the most you would have gotten was a shrug of the shoulders.

And for good reason. Following their loss in Super Bowl XLVI, the Patriots splurged in adding pieces at the position.

First it was Anthony Gonzalez, the talented but fragile Colts castoff, who signed on March 16. Two days later, Brandon Lloyd arrived, while Donte' Stallworth made his return to New England shortly thereafter. On March 31, Deion Branch came back on a one-year deal, and when Jabar Gaffney was cut by the Redskins on May 1, the Patriots scooped him up in less than a week.

At that point, the outlook for Wes Welker, the team's top target for several seasons, was unclear. Welker, whose contract expired after last season, had been assigned the franchise tag in March, and in April said he was considering skipping the team's mandatory minicamp this month. It appeared that he and the team were headed for a contentious negotiation that could keep Welker unsigned and out of training camp.

As players conducted offseason workouts and spoke to reporters this spring, one of the major storylines was Welker's contract situation and how the intense competition at wide receiver would play out.

But the picture at receiver soon began to clear up.

Welker reversed course and signed his franchise tender with the Patriots on May 15, a one-year deal that will keep him in New England for at least this upcoming season.

A few weeks later, Gonzalez, once considered insurance if Welker stayed unsigned, was given his pink slip. He never even hit the practice fields for the Patriots.

Now, on Thursday, the underwhelming 10-month stint for Chad Ochocinco in New England has come to an end. The team released the 34-year old receiver after spending the day trying to trade him.

So where does this leave things at wide receiver, a position once muddled with veteran castoffs and few sure bets?

Lloyd has put together an impressive three weeks of organized team activities, and appears to be the upper-tier, athletic pass-catcher many billed him as upon his arrival. Welker is back in the fold, and Gaffney, long considered a favorite of quarterback Tom Brady, appears to be in line for a major role in the offense.

What that leaves, setting aside Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater as players likely to stick for their special teams prowess, is a potential training camp battle between Branch and Stallworth. Both have experience in the offensive system and with Brady, but both have seen their production and durability diminish in recent seasons.

Other than that veteran competition, and with the top of the depth chart beginning to solidify, it will take an unexpected development in July or August to alter the outlook at the position.