Commentary

Going deep: Plenty in play at WR

Mailbaggers weigh all the possibilities with the Patriots at stacked position

Updated: May 22, 2012, 3:32 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The Patriots are currently in the organized team activity portion of their offseason and reporters are scheduled to watch Thursday's session. That will be our first glimpse at a good portion of the 2012 Patriots roster.

On a recent television show, the question was asked, "What is the big story of these OTAs for the Patriots?" I picked the receiver position, with quarterback Tom Brady having the chance to throw to his impressive stable of targets as a group for the first time. There might not be a better positional competition across the NFL.

Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Chad Ochocinco, Donte Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez -- there are some big names at the receiver spot and not all will make the club.

When it comes to that group, e-mailers filled up this week's mailbag with questions and opinion on Welker and his future with the team. It was the dominant topic after Welker signed his franchise tag, later said negotiations with the team have gotten worse, then backtracked on those remarks.

Here we go:

Q. Hi Mike, does Wes Welker have to accept that he'll either sign a new contract worth $7m-$8m a year or be playing somewhere else next season? The Patriots have seemed to make it clear what they think he's worth and we all know how that usually ends if someone disagrees. I can't see Welker being franchised next year and taking up $11.5 of cap space. -- Marc (London)

A. Marc, I think you've mapped out some of the key factors in play. On the $7-8 million per year, I think the bigger factor is guaranteed/bonus money in the first few years of the deal more than anything. If that number is in the $20 million range, I think the likelihood for a deal is stronger. And there is nothing that says Welker doesn't play out the season on the $9.5 million franchise tag, hit the market next year, and still re-sign with the team depending on what develops on the open market. So I wouldn't rule out his return in 2013 even if he becomes a free agent. I would agree that the franchise tag next year is less likely based on the $11.4 million price tag. That's probably too rich for the team, especially with Tom Brady's cap number at around $22 million.

Q. Hi Mike, I never thought I'd say this, but I've lost some respect for the Pats during the Wes Welker contract negotiations. As an organization, the Pats play hardball -- just like any other business. Yet they expect players to display public loyalty and behave as though they're dealing with family. I'm not buying the feigned indignation anymore. I think it's disingenuous and simply part of the Pats' own arsenal of tactics for maintaining the upper hand in negotiations with players. Honestly, this is bumming me out to the point where it's affecting my enthusiasm for the team. Thoughts? -- Scrappy (Florence, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeRobert Kraft and Wes Welker
AP Photo/Charles KrupaWhile negotiations between the Patriots and Wes Welker do not appear to be as contentious as some past team vs. player battles, the lack of a long-term deal has left some Patriots fans sour.

A. Scrappy, they are tough negotiators. From their point of view, I think they see it as more financial discipline than hardball tactics, because they have to consider some of the other players who will be due new contracts at a time when they aren't projecting a salary cap increase (e.g. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Patrick Chung, Sebastian Vollmer). It's a fine line to be disciplined but also treat players with respect. Did they cross the line with Welker by reducing his offer? If that is true, I can see why someone would say they went too far. After everything Welker has done for the team, and how he represents everything they want of players in that locker room, that approach seems harsh.

Q. Hey Mike, the Pats' hardline negotiating approach is essentially forcing players to go to the wall just to get a FAIR deal. This act is beyond tired for me and I'm sure for most others at this point. I certainly can't blame Welker for crying foul to the media after his offer was reportedly reduced. The Pats have plenty of cap room for 2012 and can easily front load his deal to compensate for 2013 and beyond. At least the crystal clear message is that the Vince Wilfork/Logan Mankins approach is the only way to apply leverage and get a fair deal. Is that your take? -- JB (Boston)

A. JB, my take is that the Patriots are going to use every bit of leverage available to them. Their approach is essentially "no hard feelings, just business that puts the team first." Along the way, that can lead to some challenging negotiations. Does it always have to be so challenging? I think it's a fair question, especially when looking at the recent Wilfork and Mankins negotiations. In 2009, in particular, I felt that Wilfork's negotiation hurt team chemistry -- you had a fractured locker room and a player who could have been leading was instead privately stewing about the situation and finding it hard to embrace the logo on his helmet that year. I think they were close to a deal with Wilfork earlier in 2009, but just couldn't wrap it up and that ultimately hurt them. Mankins also didn't sign his extension until he entered his seventh season, which is a long wait. I always say these situations are about compromise, it's a two-way street, and sometimes I think the team could give more, and other times I think the player could give more. All that said, the approach has worked for the Patriots when it comes to winning championships, and that's the ultimate goal. It might not always make friends while it's unfolding, but the won-loss results say a lot. As Matt Light put it on ESPN on Monday, "It's very complicated. Being in that organization and how they look at things, it is a business. But it's a family business."

Q. Mike, just wondering if we should begin to start connecting the dots in the Wes Welker situation; the Pats seem content to let his contract play out one year at a time; they sign a bunch of free agent wide receivers; they draft another Edelman type in the seventh round; they bring in several fullbacks. Is it possible they plan to use the slot position less often, use Aaron Hernandez in Welker's role more creatively, and consider trading Welker for a draft pick this summer in their annual roster shock move? -- John (Acton, Mass.)

A. John, I don't think they'll trade Welker. But I do think they have to layer the roster/practice squad and have contingencies in place in the event this is a one-and-done situation with him. I think that's what we're seeing with some of their moves. Another factor to consider is that with two tight ends working the short and intermediate areas of the field, it also could affect a slot receiver like Welker. The presence of those tight ends could give the team a little bit of what Welker provides from a schematic standpoint.

Q. With 12 deep at receiver and Wes Welker negotiations going nowhere fast, there has been some talk about Julian Edelman. The way I see it, the only time he's had opportunity to produce was in his rookie year (before Gronk, Hernandez and Branch came on), during which he was fairly impressive. The catch is that I wouldn't expect that kind of production from a rookie who is learning a new position (QB at Kent State). I imagine that after a few years of learning the slot receiver role, he's significantly better than he was as a rookie, just hasn't had the chance to show it. Thoughts? -- Ryan (Maryland)

A. Ryan, that's the way I view it as well. I think we've seen Edelman grow as a punt returner in recent years -- he's dangerous with the ball in his hands -- and it's my belief that if he has more extended playing time in 2012, we'd see him as a more effective slot receiver. I think it's more about opportunity with him than anything else.

Q. Mike, what's more likely: 1) Bill Belichick signed all those receivers to remind Welker that the Patriots move on; 2) Belichick signed all those receivers to make Brian Hoyer look like a superstar in preseason to create trade value? Any chance Belichick signs Stallworth or Gonzalez if Gaffney was already on board? -- Mike (Bedford, N.H.)

A. Mike, I would pick a different reason. I think Belichick signed all those receivers to create more diversity at the position. I think when he looked at the receiver corps in 2011, there were a lot of the same type of players (specifically when looking at a Welker/Branch 1-2 pairing). Lloyd and possibly Stallworth might help balance things out for them a little more. I do think the Gonzalez signing was made with Welker in mind, while Gaffney was unexpected as he came available after the other moves were made. Based on what the team is paying Stallworth and Gonzalez on reasonable one-year contracts, I do think the signings still would have been made had Gaffney already been on the team at the time.

Q. Mike, you write: "The Patriots seem willing to extend a bit for the 31-year-old Welker, but it appears clear they have an end point and aren't budging far from it." What is Danny Amendola's contract situation with the Rams? He followed Welker at Texas Tech and broke his records there, could he follow Welker to New England? -- Pete (Scituate, Mass.)

A. Pete, Amendola was a restricted free agent this year and he signed a one-year tender to return to the Rams. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2012 season.

Q. Could a Patriots offense with three tight ends as the base formation make life impossible for defenses? Go heavy, the tight ends spread out and act like wide receivers, the defense prepares to cover them and rush the passer but then the ball gets run down your throat. -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)

A. Joe, this scenario is part of why I think Bill Belichick likes the tight end position as much as he does. It provides flexibility and options, and can create matchup issues for defenses. I could certainly see a package when the Patriots have Gronkowski, Hernandez and Daniel Fells on the field at the same time. The defense would likely counter in a base alignment, and the Patriots can spread the field and do some damage because of the versatility of their tight ends. This is part of why the Patriots are so tough to defend. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that Tom Brady is the trigger man. He's pretty good.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm pretty excited about this offense and seeing Lloyd/Gaffney get into the mix, but I think we need to pull back on these 2007 comparisons for awhile. I think we're forgetting that Randy Moss in 2007 was the greatest deep threat of all time playing like he had something to prove. What he did that year was truly historic and something we probably won't ever see again. I have very high expectations for this offense, but I think it will look very different than 2007, and rely far less on its wide receivers. I could see a scenario where the fourth wide receiver catches less than 10 balls all year. Thoughts? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Great point, Tim. When I think back to that 2007 season, I'll always remember seeing things from Moss that I didn't think were possible on the field. I think my favorite moment, possibly ever, was the regular-finale against the Giants when he dropped the long pass down the right sideline and then came back on the next play, which was almost the same play, and hauled in the long touchdown pass. That gave him 23 touchdown receptions on the season. A record. It was the type of moment that made the hair on the neck stand up. How about a trip back to 2007 to revisit those 23 Moss TD grabs? As for the comparison between 2012 and 2007, I think it's more about the idea of the Patriots loading up at the receiver position with numbers, as Wes Welker noted.

Q. Hi Mike, remarkably seven out of eight top receivers know the Patriot system, including Chad Ochocinco. With an actual offseason to prepare/perform and redemption in mind, Ochocinco will be quite capable of making/contributing in Belichick's semi-interchangeable WR core. Your thoughts? -- Jake (Vancouver, B.C.)

A. Jake, I give Ochocinco credit for doing everything possible to try to make it work in New England, including reducing his salary by $2 million in 2012. I wouldn't just dismiss him, but I do think he has his work cut out for him to make the roster if everyone is healthy. Other than taking a #leapoffaith (see what I did there?), I'm not sure we've seen anything from Ochocinco that would inspire one to think 2012 will be different than 2011.

Q. Hey Mike, out of all the undrafted rookie free agents the Patriots have signed, who do you see as potentially making the 53-man roster? I really like Brandon Bolden and think Justin Francis could make the practice squad. -- Ryan (United Kingdom)

A. Ryan, since I haven't seen any of the rookie free agents practice with the Patriots, and have very limited background with their college careers, this is a tough one to answer. At this point, one of the things I like to do is look at things economically and how much the Patriots are investing in the rookie free agents. Of the group, South Florida offensive lineman Jeremiah Warren earned the largest contract, with a total of $28,000 in bonuses and guarantees. So for now, looking through that economic lens, I'd put Warren in the best position to make the roster because of the investment the team has made in him compared to others in his situation.

Q. A possibility for Bill Belichick to manage the number of good players on the team is the physically unable to perform list. He could place those players who are recovering from injuries (Gronkowski, Mankins, etc.) on the PUP list. This would give him fresh players when they have had more time to heal. What are the rules governing the PUP list? -- Paul (Sarasota, Fla.)

A. Paul, this is something Bill Belichick has done in the past and I think it's helped the team. Just last year, running back Kevin Faulk and defensive linemen Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace spent training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, and then opened the regular season on the reserve/PUP list. That meant they weren't eligible until after the sixth week of the season, but at that time, it was almost like the Patriots were picking up reinforcements. If a team is willing to pay the salary, and can be patient, it can be an effective approach. With someone like Gronkowski and Mankins, however, I don't think you want them missing any time if they are healthy enough to play. They are two of your best players, and they should be healthy enough, barring an unexpected setback.

Q. Hey Mike, with Ty Warren balking at a pay cut from the Broncos, it's just another example of a player leaving and their play declining. Yes, Bill has had a few misses (Richard Seymour and Asante Samuel come to mind), but he's had many, many more hits (Moss, Warren, Brandon Meriweather come to mind). Don't you think this further shows how Bill gets over-criticized around here? It's sometimes warranted, but overall his roster management in his tenure here is the best job of anyone all-time. He's kept the team extremely competitive in the free agency and salary cap era. Is it fair to say he'll not only go down as one of the best head coaches in history (as well as d-coordinators in New York) but also one of the best "GMs" in history? -- Tim (Newton, Mass.)

A. Tim, I don't think there is any question that there hasn't been anyone better. The results speak for themselves, and I think some of the criticism Belichick gets is because he's created such a high standard. Specific to Warren, his was more of an injury situation in Denver than play declining, and I think Belichick saw some things that concerned him in that regard in 2011 training camp (Warren's weight was high) that led him to release him. Turned out to be the right decision from a team perspective.

Q. Liked the receiver drops per attempt analysis on the Patriots blog. Makes me wonder if there is a target per opportunity stat (times thrown to/times on field during pass plays). While Ochocinco had few catches last year, he seemed to be targeted when he was on the field. The opposite was true for Branch who was eligible often but rarely targeted. To me, Branch was as big a disappointment as Ochocinco. -- Gary (Scarborough, Maine)

[+] EnlargeBranch
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliWill Deion Branch's role be reduced with the Patriots this season?

A. Gary, my feeling on Branch is that he was overused, and he wore down a bit later in the year. I don't think it was in the original plans to have him on the field for 76 percent of the snaps, but with Ochocinco (26 percent) struggling to assimilate to the offense, it put more of a burden on Branch. Totaling 51 receptions for 702 yards and five touchdowns is solid production in my book, and while there were games it looked like Branch disappeared for stretches, I attribute that more to overload. I still think Branch has a place on this team, even though some look at his roster spot as tenuous.

Q. With how tall Chandler Jones is, do you see any chance of him lining up as a potential 3-4 defensive end in the future after maybe filling out a little more and then using Dont'a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich as the 3-4 outside linebackers? -- Rob (College Park, Md.)

A. Rob, I don't see that being in Jones' future on a consistent basis, especially after Bill Belichick called him an end-of-the-line player. In the 3-4, the end-of-the-line player is the outside linebacker and the defensive end is considered more of a tackle. Now, we've seen certain game-plans where that has happened -- I'm thinking Derrick Burgess and Eric Moore playing that role against the Bills -- but it was more of a one-game wrinkle than a long-term situation.

Q. Hi Mike, I think Alfonzo Dennard could be a solid player and a nice addition to a questionable defensive back situation. A few years down the road he'll be considered a steal, but I'm worried about this year. Will his arrest/hearing potentially keep him out of team activities and hinder his development? -- Tom (North Carolina)

A. Tom, we'll likely find out for sure May 30, which is when he is arraigned. My hunch is that he won't be restricted from being a full participant with the team.

Q. Hi Mike, I really liked Sterling Moore's play last season and I think he displayed some of the best coverage skill of the Pats' secondary in the postseason (ask Joe Flacco). With a full offseason with the team and given his versatility, what do you think his chances are to move up the depth chart? Does he have more chances to play cornerback or safety? -- Banjo (France)

A. Banjo, I thought Moore finished the season strong and picked up some valuable experience in big moments. This is obviously a big offseason for him, making the first- to second-year jump that Bill Belichick says can often be the time in which a player makes the highest rate of improvement. I put Moore in the "has to prove it again" category at this point. I don't think anything is a given with him, but he showed some promising signs in 2011.

Q. Recently, I've learned that an ex-Patriot -- R.C. Gamble -- is working as a security guard at my school. Know anything about him? -- Sakeef (Lorton, Va.)

A. Sakeef, Gamble played for the Patriots from 1968-69. After a college career at South Carolina State, he appeared in 27 games, with 14 starts, for the Patriots.

Q. Mike. I never understood why the Patriots didn't stick with Brandon McGowan at safety. He played great under Belichick. With recent struggles at safety (turning our best cornerback to safety?) why wasn't he brought back? -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)

A. Matt, from my amateur scouting perspective, I thought McGowan had really slowed down in his final training camp with the team. It probably also says something that another team didn't pick him up after the Patriots let him go.

Q. I have a question about the new roster rules and the Patriots' supposed final roster spot. Wouldn't Shun White, who is on the "reserve/military" list, count against the 90-man roster and therefore wouldn't the Patriots not have an open roster spot? -- Marc (Salem, Mass.)

A. Marc, players on the reserve/military list do not count against the 90-man limit. We were thinking along the same lines, as that was something I was curious about as well.

Q. Hi Mike, you were incredibly prescient with the Pats record last year and with this year's draft and free-agent signings. What we're all really waiting for, however, is the "Reiss Summer Prediction Lock" on what returning defensive player makes a big jump this year. For those scoring at home, Mike had Darius Butler in 2010 and Jermaine Cunningham in 2011. So Mike, who are you cursing this year? -- Devin (Marlborough, Mass.)

A. LOL, Devin. Like Matt Light, I've retired that prediction. Very well done holding me accountable.

Q. With all the hype focusing on the defense and having so many receivers, I almost forgot about the running game. With two untested running backs, one that has been around but more of a situational back, and a veteran that may or may not be good to go. Do you think that the Patriots' running game will have take any pressure off the passing game? -- Ryan (Omaha, Neb.)

A. Ryan, I think the running game has a chance to nicely complement the passing game and a big part of it will be the development of second-year players Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. The Patriots drafted Vereen in the second round last year, and then Ridley in the third round. A team doesn't invest such high picks in players unless they have high hopes for them. In part because they haven't done it consistently at the NFL level, both players enter 2012 with an air of "unknown" and "uncertainty" around them, but I think they will be fun to watch this season and ultimately help the team.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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