Patriots training camp opened Thursday in Foxboro, and while most of the roster that came a few minutes short of a Super Bowl title last season returns, a few key questions must be answered on offense before New England kicks off against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 9.
The running back situation is still up in the air, for one. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Cincinnati and Joseph Addai no longer on the roster, Danny Woodhead and second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are the top candidates for the featured back role.
But there is also a question about who will be the team’s third wide receiver. With Wes Welker and new acquisition Brandon Lloyd likely to be the team’s top two wideouts, Deion Branch and Jabar Gaffney are the main competitors for the team’s third receiver slot.
Both receivers are in their second stints with the team. Branch played four seasons with New England between 2002 and 2005 before he was shipped to the Seattle Seahawks one week into the 2006 season. The Patriots reacquired Branch midway through the 2010 season for a fourth-round pick, and he’s been one of the team’s primary receiving threats since then. The 5-foot-9 Branch has caught 99 balls for 1,408 yards and 10 touchdowns in 26 regular season games since returning to New England.
Gaffney signed with the Patriots midway through the 2006 season and played two more years in Foxboro before the team elected not to re-sign him prior to the 2009 season. Gaffney was part of the much-maligned receiving corps on the 2006 team that blew an 18-point lead to Indianapolis in that year’s AFC Championship Game, and though Gaffney’s numbers in that season were unimpressive, he did catch a touchdown pass in that game.
Gaffney rejoins the Patriots after spending two years with the Denver Broncos and one with the Washington Redskins, with whom he had 68 catches for 947 yards and five touchdowns in 2011.
Branch likely has the inside track after his success with the team last season, but at 33, he is two years older — not to mention five inches shorter — than Gaffney. Welker has had the slot receiver position on lockdown since his arrival in 2007, so if the Patriots want to use the third receiver spot as more of a vertical threat, Gaffney’s height could lend him an advantage.