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Wednesday, March 13, 2013
WR overhaul: Lessons of 2006

By Mike Rodak

In the 13 years that Bill Belichick has led the New England Patriots, the 2006 offseason hit the team perhaps harder than any other.

In addition to having longtime kicker Adam Vinatieri bolt to the Indianapolis Colts through free agency, the Patriots lost wide receiver David Givens to a 5-year, $24 million deal with the Tennessee Titans.

That summer, Deion Branch, the team's leading receiver in 2005, held out and was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in September. It was an ugly process that saw Branch file grievances against the Patriots and the Patriots levy tampering charges against the New York Jets.

Between Branch and Givens, the Patriots lost 137 catches from the previous season. That March, they signed Reche Caldwell, who was a role player for the San Diego Chargers, and traded up to draft Florida receiver Chad Jackson in the second round that April.

With Jackson hobbled in late July (and not a significant part of the offense when he did return), the Patriots began training camp with the following wide receivers on the practice field: Caldwell, Troy Brown, John Stone, Zuriel Smith, Rich Musinski, Keron Henry, Michael McGrew, Erik Davis and Matt Shelton.

Besides Caldwell and Brown, the rest of the contingent had a combined six NFL receptions entering that camp.

It was a dire situation, and one the Patriots tried to address. Just before the regular season, they traded for veteran receiver Doug Gabriel, who was off the team by Christmas. Midseason, they picked up Jabar Gaffney, who caught an impressive 21 passes and two touchdowns in the team's three playoff games.

But the final playoff game -- an AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts, in which Caldwell dropped two critical balls, in part allowing the Colts to advance to the Super Bowl -- revealed that more had to be done to shore up the position. The Patriots' additions of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington at receiver in the ensuing offseason were proof positive that they knew they had a problem in 2006.

So what about 2013?

With Welker agreeing to terms on a two-year, $12 million contact with the Denver Broncos on Wednesday, the Patriots have the following players under contract at wide receiver: Brandon Lloyd, Matthew Slater, Kamar Aiken, Andre Holmes and Jeremy Ebert.

Sound familiar?

Of course, it's only March. The situation will change between now and July, and it could mean further hits to the position (the potential release of Lloyd, for example).

But while the Patriots have stocked up through the draft at linebacker (Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower) and at running back (Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen), they have completely failed to integrate young talent at wide receiver since losing Givens and Branch in 2006.

They doubtless have more firepower at tight end than in that season, when their pair of first-round picks, Benjamin Watson and Daniel Graham, were reaching the end of their disappointing roads in New England. In 2013, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez can shoulder more of the load, but they won't be able to do it themselves.

Indeed, the Patriots find themselves in an unusual spot: They now must restock their wide receiver position. It could mean acquisitions via free agency, the draft or a trade, but one must not look beyond Caldwell, Jackson and Gabriel for examples of why that may not work.

With Welker gone, and dust covering the cupboards at wide receiver, no crystal ball is needed when analyzing what the biggest storyline surrounding the Patriots will be come July.