Wes Welker, Deion Branch Just Two Pieces of Cloudy Wide Receiver Picture Facing Patriots in Offseason

Wes Welker, Deion Branch Just Two Pieces of Cloudy Wide Receiver Picture Facing Patriots in OffseasonEditor's note: Jeff Howe will review each position on the Patriots' roster every day through Feb. 13. This edition highlights the wide receivers.

The wide receiver position could look drastically different in New England next season, as Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Matthew Slater are all free agents and Chad Ochocinco isn't necessarily a lock to return.

With these contract situations, an intriguing crop of draft picks and a host of talented players on the free-agent market, the Patriots have more decisions to make at this position than any other during the offseason.

Wide Receivers on Final Roster:
Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman, Tiquan Underwood (re-signed Tuesday after being released Saturday), Britt Davis (practice squad), Shun White (reserve/military list).

Key Statistic:
Welker had a league's 122 receptions to go along with career bests of 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. He's the only player in history with four seasons with at least 110 receptions, and he joined Cris Carter as the only players in history with two seasons with at least 120 receptions. Welker has a league-high 554 catches since 2007, which is 80 more than anyone else. There are only four players (Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, Roddy White, Larry Fitzgerald) who are even within 100 receptions of Welker over that time span.

Hot Topic:
Welker is far and away the Patriots' most important free agent this offseason, and they can negotiate with him exclusively until March 13 when free agency begins. Additionally, the Patriots can place the franchise tag on Welker from Feb. 20 through March 5. It should be a no-brainer to lock up Welker, and for much more on this topic, check out this story.

Offseason Question: Who will still be around in 2012?
At this point, the best plan of attack should be to retain Welker and Branch, as well as special teams ace Slater, and replace Ochocinco with someone like Wayne or Brandon Lloyd. The Patriots have shown an obvious interest in drafting a wide receiver in recent years with the selection of Taylor Price and the heavy scouting of Torrey Smith, and someone like Alshon Jeffery would be a good get late in the first round in April.

Lloyd makes sense because of his successful history with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but the wideout is represented by Tom Condon, who has a weird feud with the Patriots. If Lloyd and Wayne aren't good fits, the Patriots could scour the free-agent market for guys like Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Eddie Royal, Pierre Garcon and Donnie Avery, among others.

There are a lot of possibilities at this position, but the Patriots should focus on keeping Welker and Branch, adding a free agent who can immediately contribute and drafting someone who can learn the system and add a dynamic as a role player before evolving as a centerpiece to the offense down the road. Those are some lofty expectations, but there's enough in the market to make it work.

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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