With Julian Edelman and the Patriots unable to come to terms on a new deal before the start of free agency on Tuesday — and with the understanding that the two could still eventually agree on a contract — here are a few fallback options for New England when it comes to filling his spot.
– Emmanuel Sanders: The Steelers receiver was coveted by the Patriots last spring when he was a restricted free agent, as New England signed him to an offer (one that was eventually matched by Pittsburgh). The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Sanders is a 27-year-old pass catcher out of SMU who has 161 catches for 2,030 yards and 11 touchdowns in four seasons with Pittsburgh. (We profiled Sanders as a potential Patriots free-agent target here.)
– Steve Smith: The 35-year-old veteran made his bones in 13 seasons with the Panthers, but it sounds like he’s going to be on the move sooner rather than later. He’s not the elite-level slot receiver he was a few years back (he had four straight years of at least 78 catches a season between 2005 and 2008), but he’s still a tough-as-nails target who has a propensity to rile up defenders. He had 64 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns last season.
– Eric Decker: Decker will probably be one of the more expensive pass catchers on the market, but his positional versatility, skill set and dependability are all pretty impressive. The 27-year-old is a pretty big target — at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, he presents a pretty good target wherever he’s lined up, and has good numbers over the last few seasons to prove it. He finished the 2013 season with a career-best 87 catches for 1,288 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He does have a connection with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, as the former Denver head coach drafted him out of Minnesota. In February, Decker said McDaniels had a “brilliant” football mind. (For more on Decker, check out our profile here.)
– Golden Tate: Since he arrived in Seattle in 2010, Tate has emerged as one of the fastest slot guys in the league. The 5-foot-10, 202-pounder had 64 catches for 898 yards (career-bests for the second-round pick out of Notre Dame) and five touchdowns last year with the Seahawks. He’ll turn 26 in August, and while it took him a year or two to get acclimated to the league, he’s developed a reputation as a tough, physical presence who is durable.
In addition, there’s always the chance that Edelman tests the market, is unable to find a deal to his liking, and returns to the Patriots. For what it’s worth, his name has already been connected with the Ravens, Texans and Browns, all of whom could be in the market for a slot receiver.