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Free Agency Preview - Wide Receivers

Over the next few weeks, will help you prepare for NFL free agency by analyzing the Patriots needs and potential targets on the market this offseason. We begin with the position that attracted all the attention at this time a year ago: wide receiver.

In business school, you learn the acronym ROI pretty quickly.

It stands for "return on investment," the idea being you want the greatest possible return on the smallest possible investment. Get a lot by paying a little, if you will – a bargain, in other words.

The Patriots certainly got a huge ROI when they traded for WR Randy Moss last April on Draft Weekend. All they invested was a fourth-round pick (sent to Oakland for the rights to the talented but thought-to-be-malcontent wide receiver) and a few million dollars salary.

What they got in return was a record-breaking season out of Moss, who rejuvenated his career and helped New England return to the Super Bowl.

But his bargain-basement deal was only a year long. So, Moss is now will soon be a free agent, theoretically able to shop his services to any team in the NFL. However, he has indicated he'd like to stay with the Patriots and their future Hall-of-Fame QB Tom Brady, who threw 23 touchdown passes to Moss in '07 (plus one in Super Bowl XLII). And the team probably doesn't want to part with their superstar receiver either.

The most logical option, it seems, would be for New England to designate Moss their franchise player, a move they'd have to make prior to the start of the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next Thursday (Feb. 21). By tagging Moss, the team would secure his rights and be required to pay him an average of the top five wide receiver salaries in 2007 (a figure that amounts to about $7.8 million) or work out a longer-term contract extension.

But Moss isn't the only receiver the Patriots need to make a decision about this offseason. Here are the other Pats receivers with question marks next to their names heading into'08.

Donté Stallworth: A free agent-signee last offseason, Stallworth certainly wasn't as flashy or productive as Moss. But he was a solid, dependable number-two option at wideout for New England this past season. Probably not nearly impressive enough to warrant the $8 million in bonus options he's due this month. The Pats could elect not to pick up those options, thus making Stallworth a free agent. They'd then be able to negotiate a more reasonable contract with him, or simply let him explore his options on the open market.

Jabar Gaffney: He's done nothing but get better with each game he's played since the Patriots picked him up in October of 2006. Gaffney has grasped the New England offense and had some big games, particularly in the playoffs. It's evident he and Brady have developed a trust on the field that any QB needs with his receivers. He may be a player the Pats look to hold onto.

Kelley Washington: Though he didn't catch a pass in 2007, Washington (a free agent pickup last year from Cincinnati) enthusiastically embraced his role on special teams, where he excelled all year long. Like Stallworth, Washington is due a sizeable bonus ($4 million), which, if not picked up, could turn him into a free agent. According to today's Boston Globe, the Pats have informed Washington they don't intend to pick up that option. The story goes on to say, though, that the Pats are interested in re-working Washington's five-year deal to keep him in New England.

Troy Brown: Inactive and/or on the PUP list most of the year, the 15-year vet has likely played his last game in New England, and probably the NFL as well. As many observers predicted, Wes Welker (who many called a younger version of Brown) has cemented himself as the third, slot receiver in the Patriots offense and an elusive kickoff and punt returner, jobs once held by Brown.

If any of these players don't return to Foxborough this year, who might fill their roster spots? These are some soon-to-be free agents (listed alphabetically) that the Patriots may decide to court.

Bernard Berrian,Chicago: Speculation is the Bears won't be franchising Berrian, so he'll likely be available. At 6-1, 180 pounds, the 27-year-old veteran has the right combination of size, speed, and hands. He's a product of Fresno State, where former Bill Belichick disciple Pat Hill is head coach. That connection has worked well for the Pats (e.g., Logan Mankins, James Sanders). Expect a number of NFL teams to vie for Berrian's services.

Bryant Johnson,Arizona: He's young (almost 27), big (6-3, 216), and the third wheel in an offense that features Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. With salary cap concerns, the Cardinals GM recently said he doesn't plan on keeping the gifted Johnson in Arizona. Could be an attractive possibility for New England.

Jerry Porter,Oakland: Like Moss before him, Porter can't hide his desire to flee the Raiders as quickly as possible. The 8-year veteran is unquestionably talented, but has never really played with a superstar QB. Teaming the 6-2, 220-pound target with Brady and Moss here in New England could be a tempting lure, but other clubs will likely pursue him as well.

Ernest Wilford, Jacksonville: The Jags' leading pass-catcher in '07 is another big receiver (6-4, 218) on the market. His numbers weren't eye-popping, but he certainly could be a viable number-two option here in New England, much like Stallworth was this past season. At 29 years old but only a four-year NFL veteran, Wilford should still have some good mileage left.

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