Taylor Price shows what he can do

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Taylor Price could have let it deflate him.

All offseason, he was projected as a contender for the team's No. 3 receiver spot. The Patriots already had two of quarterback Tom Brady's most trusted targets in Deion Branch and Wes Welker, whom Price figured to have a tough time leapfrogging, but why not No. 3?

It seemed realistic to think the physically gifted, still-developing 2010 third-round pick might put a lock on that job, besting Brandon Tate (last year's No. 3) and Julian Edelman.

Then came the arrival of veteran Chad Ochocinco in a trade July 28.

In one bold move by Patriots management, Price's standing on the club suddenly looked a lot different. He could have let that knock him down. Instead, it seems to be bringing out the best in him.

"It was another something for myself [to overcome], but I couldn't hold myself back," Price said Thursday night after he was one of the stars in the Patriots' 47-12 preseason-opening win over the visiting Jaguars, a game in which New England didn't play its top starters. "I'm still young. I'm still going to fight. I'm still going to do what I need to do to make this team, to earn a roster spot.

"They wanted another player to come in here and make some plays. Maybe they wanted another experienced guy, and that's OK. That's fine. I'm not going to change how I'm going to go about my business. I love the competition. We're all good friends; there are no hard feelings between us."

As Price showed Thursday night, when he totaled five receptions for 105 yards and had a dazzling back-of-the-end-zone 11-yard touchdown grab, he has many of the qualities NFL teams look for in a receiver.

He's big for the position at 6 feet, 205 pounds. He's fast. He can play physical, gaining yardage after the initial catch. And he has reliable hands.

That "good combination of skills," as cited by coach Bill Belichick, has never been in question among the team's decision-makers and coaches. What they want to see is more consistency.

Price acknowledges this, too.

"It's little things, not knowing the offense," he said when asked what has held him back to this point. "It's getting these guys' trust. [Tom Brady's] trust. Getting [Brian Hoyer's] trust, getting them to believe I'm going to be where I need to be every single play."

Thursday was a positive step for him, although Price was still hard on himself. Although many of the headlines will highlight his touchdown grab -- he ran a baseline in-cut, snaring the ball (which was thrown behind him) with his fingertips, then toe-tapping to stay in bounds -- he wasn't overlooking some of his breakdowns.

They were little things, Price said, not as easily detected by the casual observer, such as "route conversions, proper footwork at the top of the route, the proper angle, staying quarterback-friendly, and knowing the alerts, communication."

Price has worked to battle through those breakdowns, not letting them affect his next play. It's still a work in progress, but clearly, he shows promise.

One example of his strides came in the fourth quarter, when he couldn't hang on to a Ryan Mallett pass over the middle and took a vicious hit from safety Michael Hamlin that drew a 15-yard penalty. Price crashed to the turf after the play but later in the drive responded by catching his final pass of the night for a 9-yard gain.

Early in the third quarter, he had a 50-yard catch-and-run up the left sideline in which he caught a short pass on a hitch route, then created about 40 extra yards by making the initial defender miss. His ability to create yardage with the ball in his hands was also highlighted by a 43-yard punt return that was called back because of a penalty.

This is what Price thinks he can bring to the Patriots: a young presence who is explosive and has an all-around game.
He didn't get to show his stuff as much as he would have liked last year, in part because he missed spring camps as he had not yet graduated from his college, Ohio University. He got behind, never could catch up and ended up playing in just one game, the season finale against the Dolphins.

"I got a late start last year, which didn't really help," acknowledged Price, 23. "This lockout really helped me improve, knowing my playbook, staying in shape, just learning the game of football, really getting my head in the film and really just diving in, knowing what I'm supposed to do on every play, and how to practice and play."

Belichick has also noticed a change, saying, "the year has made a big difference" for Price.

Still, if the Patriots' top receivers stay healthy, it might be another year before Price has the chance to really break through at the top of the team's depth chart. Looking ahead, Branch and Welker are in the last year of their contracts, which means there could be voids to fill in 2012.

But Price won't allow himself to get caught looking ahead. He's focused on the here and now, and on Thursday he felt he "definitely took a step in the right direction."

"I knew I was going to get a lot of reps, knew I was going to get the ball," he said. "I wanted to show my improvement, what I've been working on in my game, and just play ball. I knew I would get opportunities and wanted to make them count."

He did, just as he has in practice since the trade for Ochocinco.

The trade could have shattered the confidence of a budding young receiver still working to build trust with the team's quarterbacks.

But Price didn't allow that to happen, and his approach was rewarded Thursday night.

Mike Reiss covers the New England Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.