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Camp Preview: Wide receiver

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            Every season fans clamor for a big-bodied wide receiver to ease the load on **Troy Brown** and the other diminutive Patriots pass catchers and each year things never seem to really pan out. Past projects like Torrance Small, Charles Johnson and most recently Donald Hayes failed to produce. So for 2003, with an inability or lack of interest to acquire such names as J.J. Stokes and Oronde Gadsden New England will likely enter the season with a crew of productive but five-foot something wide receivers.  

Brown, one of the team's captains over the last two seasons, is the unquestioned leader of the receiving brigade. And with his 97 catches for 890 yards last year to follow up his 101-catch, 1,199-yard 2001 campaign the 5-10, 193-pound Brown has established himself as one of the elite receivers in the NFL regardless of size or other "measurables." Slowed by a knee injury for the better part of 2002, the most important thing to watch for from the Marshall alum is a healthy march through training camp and the preseason. Brown is the most consistent, productive and proven weapon in Charlie Weis' offensive arsenal and his health throughout 2003 will likely be a key factor in any New England offensive success.

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            The number two receiver spot, held by veteran **David Patten** over the last two seasons, could be a competitive area this summer. While both Patten and second-year player **Deion Branch** will see plenty of action in the Patriots spread sets, Branch could move up the depth chart should he be able to display some of production he showed early last season. As a rookie the 5-9, 193-pound Louisville alum hit the ground running catching 37 passes for 408 yards in his first six NFL games before being slowed by injuries and finishing the season with 43 receptions for 489 yards and two scores. For his part the 5-10, 190-pound Patten put up his second-consecutive career year in 2002 with 61 catches for 824 yards and five touchdowns to follow up his 51-catch, 749-yard, four-score first season in New England. Regardless of depth chart position, a healthy Patten and Branch will give quarterback Tom Brady a pair of viable options after Brown.  
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            The battle for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots will be an interesting one when training camp kicks off on the practice fields of Gillette Stadium on July 23. Between speedy rookie second-round pick **Bethel Johnson**, second-year receiver **David Givens** and veteran free-agent addition **Dedric Ward** the Patriots have a mix of talent, youth and experience to choose from. While the 5-11, 200-pound Johnson is essentially a roster-spot lock based on just his speed (4.27 in the 40) and draft position, the final spot will likely go down to the end with Givens and Ward. Neither player has been overly productive, Ward has averaged just 26 catches in his six NFL seasons (including a 54-catch, 801-yard campaign with the Jets in 2000), while Givens caught just 9 passes for 92 yards and showed questionable hands as a rookie in 2002. With his experience and time in Weis' offensive as pluses, Ward may have the upper hand in the camp battle, although the 6-0, 212-pound Givens has size, youth and special teams coverage ability on his side. Givens told Patriots.com earlier this offseason that he had spent much of his training trying to improve his hands and pass catching ability. The Givens/Ward battle could be one that goes down to the final wire in terms of camp cuts.  

Most of the other wide receivers currently on the roster would have to be considered total long shots at best, and some may be lucky to even make it to camp to show their stuff considering that the team will have to cut five players to reach the 80-man roster limit by the time all rookies sign on the dotted line. From the list of guys that includes Rob Milanese, Dan Stricker, Kerry Watkins, Scott McCready and Chas Gessner, Gessner may be the most interesting to watch during camp, though probably for a practice squad spot. The 6-4, 215-pound Brown grad represents the size the Patriots have been searching for, although even with an ultra-productive career at the I-AA he has a lot to prove. Gessner missed basically all of the rookie and mini camp with a leg injury this offseason, but should he get healthy and impress during camp a developmental spot on the practice squad would be plausible. The other notable name to watch may be McCready. With two seasons of NFL Europe (23 catches for 337 yards and 3 touchdowns this spring) under his belt and significant time on the New England practice squad over the last two seasons, this is likely his last shot with the Patriots

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