Patriots’ Biggest Offensive Offseason Need Is Wide Receiver With Uncertain Futures of Wes Welker, Julian Edelman

AFC Champiohship FootballThe Patriots were already shallow at wide receiver in 2012, and if they can’t sign both of their free-agent slot receivers, it could get even uglier in 2013.

By the end of the season, the Patriots had just Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Kamar Aikan and Matthew Slater on their roster. Donte Stallworth and Julian Edelman were placed on season-ending injured reserve and Jabar Gaffney hadn’t made the roster out of training camp. There was also the time Bill Belichick activated Marcus Zusevics from the PUP list, forcing the team to cut Greg Salas from the 53-man roster and losing him to the Eagles. Zusevics was never active for the remainder of the season.

Obviously the Patriots have plenty of other weapons on offense, and the fact that Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Aaron Hernandez can line up at wide receiver helps the depleted crew, but when the Patriots’ season meant the most, they were one injury away from special-teamer Slater playing  a major role — that’s not ideal, nor is having the 5-foot-8 Woodhead lining up out wide.

Many fans expected Lloyd to be an electrifying force in the Patriots’ offense this season. He was expected to take on the “deep threat” option that everyone has pined after ever since Bill Simmons tweeted out “moss vikings” to Adam Schefter in October of 2010.

Lloyd finished the season with 74 receptions for 911 yards and four touchdowns. His longest reception was a 53-yarder. He had just 180 yards after the catch, the lowest of any receiver with at least 70 receptions.

Lloyd was targeted on 32 passes over 20 yards and he caught nine of them for 257 yards. He had seven total drops on the season.

Overall, Lloyd had a very good season, but he didn’t take Moss’ role from his most effective days with the Patriots — he essentially took Branch’s old role. Most of the time, opposing defenses didn’t really have to respect the top half of the field because they were rarely challenged deep. Lloyd, Welker and Gronkowski were targeted deep the most frequently this season, but none of those players can excel in that role on a regular basis.

Fortunately, there are plenty of options out there to help the Patriots’ wide receiver corps.

First, the team will have to decide whether they want to keep Welker and/or Edelman. The team appeared to be trying to phase Edelman into the starting role in the slot this season, but multiple injuries kept Welker in that role. Durability is a major concern for Edelman, unfortunately, and could lead the Patriots to keeping Welker, who’s among the most durable players in the league.

The team’s other option at the slot would be to sign Danny Amendola from the Rams, but he’s another player who has dealt with injuries throughout his career, which is par for the course with smaller players who have to go over the middle so often.

Edelman has never played a 16-game season, and he’s played just 22 games over the last two years. Amendola has played just 12 during that same span while Welker has missed just four regular season games his entire NFL career.

As far as deep to intermediate threats, the Patriots need a certain player. There aren’t many complaints you can make about Tom Brady as a quarterback, but deep-passing accuracy isn’t his strongest suit. Brady ranked 17th in accuracy on passes that traveled 20 yards or over in 2012, 16th in 2011 and 11th in 2010, according to Pro Football Focus. At most he’s average in that category.

So you can’t have a pure deep option out wide at flanker. You need a player with the speed and size to go deep and the route running ability to also get it done over the middle of the field and out to the sidelines.

The top free agent wide receivers are Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline. Another intriguing option out there is Danario Alexander of the Chargers, who would likely be more of a part-time player for the Patriots, but one that teams would have to respect on the deep ball whenever he’s on the field. At 6-foot-5, 217 pounds, he would be by far the biggest wide receiver on the Patriots’ roster.

This year’s draft is also stacked with talented young wide receivers both outside and in the slot. Keenan Allen from California is the best of the bunch as far as potential flankers, but Justin Hunter of Tennessee, DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson, Quinton Patton of Louisiana Tech and Da’Rick Rogers of Tennssee Tech are also attractive options. All of those players are over 6-foot-1 with impressive speed.

At the slot, two wide receivers out of West Virginia, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, helped out quarterback Geno Smith tremendously in compiling astronomical stats. Either could be options to replace Welker or Edelman. Since the team has taken the risk of converting a quarterback to wide receiver before — Edelman — Michigan’s Denard Robinson could also be a potential target.

As the team is currently assembled, they have just three wide receivers under contract — Lloyd, Slater and Aikan. Their team salary currently sits at approximately $104 million, according to NYJetsCap.com and they have just five picks in the 2013 draft — first, second and third round picks and two seventh round picks.

While the team has other needs at cornerback, offensive line, defensive tackle and linebacker, wide receiver is by far the biggest on the offensive side of the ball. The Patriots could open 2013 training camp with a much different-looking wide receiver corps.

Photo via Twitter/@SportsTalk79

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