Wide Receiver Depth Chart Starts to Take Shape

With the recent releases of veterans Chad Ochochino and Anthony Gonzalez, the wide receiver picture for the 2012 Patriots is starting to look a whole lot clearer.

While training camp and injuries could shuffle the board over the next three months, expect the Patriots’ WR depth chart to look something like this in Week 1:

WR1 Wes Welker
WR2 Brandon Lloyd
WR3 Deion Branch
WR4 Jabar Gaffney
WR5 Donte’ Stallworth
WR6 Julian Edelman

After signing his $9.5 million franchise tender, Pro Bowl WR Wes Welker will return to anchor the wide receiving corps. With roughly eleven billion catches over the past five seasons, everyone knows what Welker brings to the table. Whether he lines up outside or in the slot, he’s a threat to move the chains on every snap.

Even with Welker pulling down more than 30 percent of Tom Brady’s passes and leading the league in targets and catches, wide receiver was a position of weakness last year. After Deion Branch’s 51 grabs, the rest of the WR corps (an uninspiring mish-mash of Chad Ochocinco, Matt Slater, Julian Edelman and Tiquan Underwood) pulled in just 23 passes. The addition of Brandon Lloyd on the outside should help spread the field for the Pats. Lloyd has posted back-to-back seasons with at least 70 catches, and he could easily match that level of production in 2012 with an elite QB feeding him the ball. While he has been praised for his ability to stretch the field (an aspect of the game the Patriots desperately needed to address), Lloyd’s exceptional route-running ability and familiarity with OC Josh McDaniel’s system should make him among the most important offseason additions for any team in the NFL. Branch figures to slide into the #3 role, but he could still see plenty of time at flanker in 3-WR sets so Welker can create mismatches in the slot.

Depth at WR was a serious deficiency for New England in 2011, but these problems were effectively masked by the use of Aaron Hernandez as a flex TE/WR. WR depth was addressed in the offseason by bringing back veterans Jabar Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth. Both players were underrated cogs in the record-setting 2007 offensive machine that allowed Brady to toss 50 TD passes (Stallworth reeled in 46 catches and nearly 700 yards, while Gaffney contributed 36 catches and five scores). In particular, Gaffney could carve out a substantial role in the passing game after putting up three solid seasons as a starter in Denver and Washington since leaving the Pats in 2009. He figures to push Branch for playing time in 3-WR sets, while Stallworth is available to stretch the field and provide another strong veteran presence off the bench.

Through a few shrewd offseason acquisitions, the Patriots appear to have turned a position of weakness in 2011 into a deep position of strength in 2012. Considering the lethal accuracy of Brady and the unparalleled athleticism of the tight ends, that could be bad news for defensive coordinators across the league this season.