Wes Welker Tops Marquee List of Free-Agent Wide Receivers, Other Options Also in Play for Patriots

Wes Welker Tops Marquee List of Free-Agent Wide Receivers, Other Options Also in Play for PatriotsEditor's note: Jeff Howe will preview each position in free agency every day through Feb. 28. This edition highlights the wide receivers.

The Patriots' offseason begins at the receiver position, as Wes Welker should be viewed as the most valuable player on the market in their eyes. Whether they franchise him or lock him up long term, the Patriots have to secure Welker before putting together some other areas of need. And really, considering his achievements in New England and his desire to remain with the organization, the negotiations shouldn't be overly tedious.

From there, the Patriots should look for an upgrade on the outside, and there will be plenty of options at that position. They're in a good spot going forward, but their offseason success will be greatly determined by the way things play out with Welker.

Head of the Class

1. Welker: His 554 receptions over the last five years blow away the rest of the NFL, and while he owes a great deal of credit to Tom Brady and the Patriots' system, their offense owes just as much credit to him. This should be a no-brainer.

2. Vincent Jackson: He's 6-foot-5, 241 pounds and has pretty good speed. He'd be a successful outside threat for any offense in the NFL, but he has reportedly expressed his desire to remain with the Chargers.

3. Marques Colston: Colston has posted major numbers in the Saints' system, and he's got the size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), athleticism and talent to do it in any competent offense.

Diamond in the Rough

Danny Amendola could be a terrific slot receiver, but he'll be rebounding from an injury-plagued 2011 season that ended with a torn tricep. Amendola, an undrafted receiver from Texas Tech — sounds familiar, right? — gained popularity with the Cowboys during their "Hard Knocks" series, but he didn't catch on until he was given a chance with the Rams. He had 85 catches for 689 yards and three touchdowns in 2010. Considering the Rams' issues at receiver, it would be surprising if they let him walk away, especially since his value is low coming off the injury, but Amendola will thrive in someone's spread offense.

Fit for New England

It's got to be Brandon Lloyd, whose only success in the NFL has come while working with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. As I wrote in last week's mailbag, Lloyd led the league in receiving yards in 2010 after seven seasons of "blah" with the 49ers, Redskins, Bears and his first year in Denver. Then, after a slow start in 2011, Lloyd found it again with McDaniels in St. Louis after a midseason trade. In 2010 and his St. Louis stint in 2011, Lloyd had 128 receptions, 2,131 yards and 16 touchdowns. The rest of his career, he's amassed 183 catches, 2,653 yards and 15 touchdowns.

With all of that said, it's clear Lloyd clicks with McDaniels, and it looks like it could be a pretty sizeable risk for another team to give Lloyd a big contract. It comes down to the Patriots' willingness to work with Tom Condon, Lloyd's new agent, who is in the midst of a long cold war with the New England organization.

Don't Forget

1. If Bill Belichick and the Patriots can't swallow their pride to deal with Condon, look for them to turn their attention toward Reggie Wayne, who would be a very nice second-tier option at this stage of his career. Aside from his talent, Wayne's value comes from the fact that he's done it before in a fast-paced, complicated offense with the Colts. The only hurdle could be if Wayne wants to keep playing with Peyton Manning, whether that's in Indy or elsewhere.

2. Some might put Dwayne Bowe, Stevie Johnson and DeSean Jackson in the "head of the class" category. In terms of sheer talent, yeah, they belong there, but they've all done some questionable things behind the scenes. And for that, I took them off the elite list because it can be reckless to give that much money to a player who hurts the team when the lights are off.

3. Bowe inexplicably shed light on the groupies who shack up with players on road trips, and his poor effort on the Chiefs' final drive against the Steelers cost the team an interception and a loss.

4. Johnson was benched in the Bills' regular-season finale against the Patriots for lifting up his jersey to reveal a "Happy New Year" message. It wasn't exactly the dawn of the Armageddon, but it came after several messages from head coach Chan Gailey, who threatened to bench anyone for hurting the team with celebrations and such. Johnson will get bonus points for being the only receiver who can beat Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, and maybe the right structure can get him straightened out. But that's still a gamble.

5. Jackson was benched last season for skipping a special teams meeting. Then, he said he wasn't the only player who skipped meetings in Philly. That's the sign of a follower, not a leader, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to shell out a huge contract for a player who has no issues skipping meetings. It doesn't help that Jackson has an issue with drops either, and there's also a heavy belief that Philly will franchise him.

6. Randy Moss has made himself available, if you haven't heard.

7. Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace is a restricted free agent. He'll be tough to pry away from Pittsburgh, and it will likely cost a team a first-round pick to do so.

8. Mario Manningham picked a nice time to haul in the greatest catch of his career. He's a free agent with a ton of talent, but he's been inconsistent. That catch in the Super Bowl was no fluke because he can make some spectacular grabs, but he'll fall asleep at times with lazy routes and drops.

9. Even if the Patriots retain Welker and sign someone like Lloyd, Wayne or Colston, they should keep Deion Branch, too. That would all but certainly lead to the release of Chad Ochocinco, which could be inevitable anyway.

10. And don't forget about Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater. It would be surprising to see him go anywhere.

11. Steve Smith (the Giants and Eagles version) is now a year removed from microfracture surgery. He never took off in Philly, but maybe he can get back to his old form someday.

12. Greg Camarillo is a very nice route runner who was popular in Miami before getting sent to Minnesota. I wouldn't be surprised if he got a chance to compete for a spot somewhere in the AFC East.

13. Donnie Avery was an up-and-comer in St. Louis before tearing up his knee in the 2010 preseason at Gillette Stadium. He was with McDaniels and the Rams last summer before he was cut and signed with the Titans. Something to keep in mind.

14. Plaxico Burress is a free agent again. The Patriots looked at him last summer, but never formally reached out to him.

Free Agent Previews: Quarterbacks | Running Backs

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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