FOXBORO, Mass. — This column was about 500 words long before it got deleted. What happened, you ask? Well, a certain trade nullified its entire meaning. Let's start out with the Patriots question of the day before explaining what I mean:
Who will be the most improved player on the Patriots' offense in 2011?
Apologies to wide receivers Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price, but Chad Ochocinco's presence as a starter will greatly diminish their roles. As such, I junked the soliloquies that I wrote while debating this season's fate of all three. They might all be good, and they might all be valuable along the way, but there won't be enough playing time for them to make giant improvements.
From there, let's concentrate on two candidates: tackle Sebastian Vollmer and wide receiver Wes Welker. (Tight end Rob Gronkowski would be another candidate, but it would be awfully hard to make significant statistical improvements after hauling in 10 touchdown passes in 2010.)
Vollmer had a very good rookie season before slipping in 2010, but he has shown too much promise to let that slump continue. After all, there were times in 2009 when he looked like the Patriots' best offensive lineman. He'll likely start at right tackle, but if rookie Nate Solder has a hiccup, Vollmer won't have a problem making a natural slide to the left side. If that turns out to be the case, he might be a shoo-in for the team's most improved offensive player. (All of that assumes Matt Light won't re-sign with the Patriots, which may or may not be the case.)
Otherwise, it's time to look at Wes Welker. I originally wasn't planning on including Welker, but again, the Ochocinco acquisition changed some things. Defenses overloaded their coverages toward Welker in 2010, but they'll be forced to be more honest with Ochocinco in town and the expected improvement of Deion Branch, who said Thursday he knows he'll benefit from a full training camp in New England.
Welker's knee should be completely recovered from surgery in early 2010, too, and he won't have to fight through an adjustment period with the brace or the mental hurdles that follow after such an injury. If he paces the offense, and things open up even more in 2011, Welker could very well be the Patriots' most improved player on the offensive side of the ball.
Jeff Howe answered a Patriots question every day for the last two weeks.
Thursday, July 28: How will the Patriots utilize Danny Woodhead?
Also Friday: Who will be the most improved member of the Patriots' defense
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