FOXBORO -- If there’s any team that can handle a crowded receivers’ meeting room, it’s the Patriots.
Over the last 10 years, the New England wide receiver depth chart has had anywhere between five and seven players for the bulk of the season, and has looked fairly consistent throughout: There’s been top-end talent, some depth (a third, and occasionally, a fourth receiver), and one or two guys at the back end of the depth chart who have managed to stick around mostly because of their special teams abilities -- or haven’t managed to make it through the season, for one reason or another. Here’s a look:
2011 (7): Welker, Branch, Edelman, Ochocinco, Underwood, Slater, Price.
2010 (7): Welker, Branch, Moss, Tate, Edelman, Price, Slater.
2009 (7): Welker, Moss, Edelman, Galloway, Aiken, Stanback, Slater.
2008 (5): Welker, Moss, Gaffney, Aiken, Washington.
2007 (7): Welker, Moss, Gaffney, Stallworth, Brown, Jackson, Washington.
2006 (7): Brown, Caldwell, Gaffney, Gabriel, Jackson, Kight, Childress.
2005 (7): Brown, Givens, Branch, Dwight, Davis, Johnson, Childress.
2004 (5): Brown, Givens, Branch, Patten, Johnson.
2003 (7): Brown, Givens, Branch, Patten, Johnson, Ward, Stokes.
2002 (5): Brown, Givens, Branch, Patten, Hayes.
Seven of the last 10 years, New England has had seven receivers on the roster over the course of the season. But are they going to go for seven again this year? With the understanding that it’s likely to follow the same formula this season, here’s a look at what we expect 2012 to look like.
Locks: Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker.
Depth: Jabar Gaffney.
Special teamers: Julian Edelman, Matt Slater.
On the bubble: Donte’ Stallworth, Deion Branch, Jesse Holley.
Practice squad: Jeremy Ebert.
That presumably leaves a positional battle for the final spot or two between Stallworth, Branch and Holley. Unfortunately for Holley, even though he’s a great story, he has no practice squad eligibility left, which will likely leave him out in the cold. If the Patriots do go with seven, it would be Stallworth and Branch.
The two have a lot in common: Both are veterans in their second tour with the Patriots, and while age has slowed them a bit -- Stallworth is 31, while Branch is 33 -- they remain wise receivers who lean on their smarts, knowledge of the system and rapport with the quarterback to gain an edge.
To his credit, Stallworth has been doing as much as possible to land a spot on the roster, including working part-time as a kick returner, something he hasn’t done since 2003. He had a few bad drops on Tuesday and saw a distinct drop in his reps on Wednesday, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Stallworth has had a “solid camp” to this point.
“He’s shown that he still has his speed; athletic, gets down the field well, he’s tough, comes in and blocks, good with the ball in his hands,’ Belichick said of Stallworth. “I think he’s been very competitive with that group.”
As for Branch, when he’s been on the field, he’s been his usually reliable self. He’s run more with the twos and threes at this stage of camp -- which has certainly been eye-opening -- but he remains as feisty as ever when it comes to the battle for a roster spot.
“I’ve been fighting for my job since I came into the league,” Branch said. “If you think that you’ve got a job then something is wrong. And that’s true. Nobody’s a guaranteed lock. It’s a competitive training camp. We’re out here trying to take advantage of every opportunity we get and then it’s up to the coaches to make the decisions.’’
“They’ve all had their moments, like any receivers,” Belichick added of the group as a whole. “There are plays that haven’t been perfect, but it’s been very competitive.”
But with the way the offense is starting to look, it might not matter if the Patriots go with Stallworth, Branch or both. While those third and fourth receivers have always been an important part in the New England passing game in the past -- consider the stats that Gaffney was able to post from 2006 through 2008, or even the performance of Edelman in 2009 -- the Patriots’ passing game has evolved to a point where the primary focus of either Branch or Stallworth will be to provide depth as a fourth receiver and fifth receiver for a passing game that will have more options than ever.
Whether it is Branch or Stallworth (or even both), the wide receivers at the back end of the 2012 depth chart won’t get near the number of touches they had four or five years ago for a couple of reasons: One, the Patriots have come to rely much more on their tight ends in the passing game over the last few seasons. The target percentage for the tight ends went from 43 catches on 60 targets in 2009 to 169 catches on 237 targets in 2011 -- almost four times as many targets and catches. If the 2011 season taught us one thing, is that the New England offense is better when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are both on the field at the same time.
And two, with Josh McDaniels back at the controls of the offense, the running backs will have a larger impact on the passing game. McDaniels has long been a proponent of utilizing pass catchers out of the backfield, and that trend should continue this year. (At camp, the running backs are drilled daily in the art of pass catching, working with the quarterbacks on a regular basis.) In his last season as the offensive coordinator in New England, the Patriots targeted running backs 105 times and came away with 78 catches. But since then, the running backs’ impact in the passing game has lessened considerably: In 2009, it dipped slightly to 74 catches on 105 targets. In 2010, it was 61 catches on 86 targets, and last season, it was 37 catches on 58 targets.
This isn’t to imply that both veteran receivers can’t play. At this point, it’s really a matter of sheer numbers: At practice on Wednesday when the starting offense was on the field in 11-on-11 drills, the Patriots featured a two-tight end set with Gronkowski and Hernandez, along with two wide receivers (Lloyd and Welker) and one running back (Ridley). That’s 11 players already, and doesn’t even begin to take into account Gaffney as a possible third receiver for different looks. Simply put, there’s not a room on the field for either Stallworth or Branch at this point.
One thing that could shake things up a bit is injury. Gaffney appeared to tweak his right thigh midway through practice on Wednesday, and sat out the rest of the session. While no one is sure how Wednesday’s injury to Gaffney will shake out, it certainly appears that even if he’s not ready to go, it won’t matter if the Patriots decide to keep Stallworth, Branch or both. At the end of the day, their impact will be minimal.