FOXBORO, Mass. — Wes Welker's surprisingly early return from a knee injury has again legitimized the Patriots' wide receivers as one of the best units in the league. Even better for New England, the receiving corps has a good mix of young and old.
That makes for an interesting dynamic this week when the Patriots are forced to trim their roster to 53 players. While there's a well-defined depth chart at the position, the receivers' job security isn’t a complete certainty, so let's take a look at the fight for those last one or two spots.
Earlier this week, NESN.com listed 39 players who are already locked into a roster spot.
Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate
Darnell Jenkins, Buddy Farnham, Rod Owens
Sam Aiken, Taylor Price, Matthew Slater
Aiken was the Patriots' special teams captain last season and has taken a similar role this summer, which makes it sound like Bill Belichick continues to value Aiken's leadership. However, Aiken isn’t a huge threat as a receiver and had trouble breaking free from coverages last season.
Price had a fast start to training camp and looked the part of a prototypical outside receiver, albeit one that still had room for improvement. But Price has really leveled off in recent weeks, and he's well below the top-four wide receivers on the depth chart. If the Patriots think he needs some more time to grow, don’t be surprised if Price mysteriously starts the season on the physically unable to perform list, which means he'll miss at least the first six weeks. Hey, stranger things have happened.
Slater has beaten the chopping block twice before, but this would be his most impressive feat if he eludes it this week. Belichick loves Slater for his special-teams prowess, and he actually had an admirable showing during receiving drills in offseason practices before suffering an injury on the first day of training camp.
The most likely scenario involves the Patriots keeping six wide receivers, with Aiken and Price making the club. However, two things might change that up a bit.
Edelman hasn’t practiced since suffering an undisclosed injury during New England's preseason game in Atlanta, and if that’s anything serious, he could wind up on the PUP list. Injuries marred Edelman's rookie season, so the coaching staff will again be closely monitoring his situation.
Also, rookie Aaron Hernandez is every bit as much of a slot receiver as he is a tight end. If Belichick wants to keep an extra defensive player in lieu of a sixth wide receiver, it could be easily justifiable based on Hernandez's development. (Hernandez hasn’t practiced since the Atlanta week with an apparent knee injury, but he's at least been in attendance, so it doesn’t appear to be anything serious.)