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Patriots running options at receiver

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The National Football League has become quiet in recent days. Following the busy opening of free agency and the recent owner's meetings, though, the free agent market is expected to become active again as teams look to fill voids heading into April's NFL Draft.

It's commonplace for the free agent scene to turn from a seller's market to buyer's market as the end of the period grows closer. It's the time when the cost-conscience teams, those unwilling to overpay for player's services early in the free agency season, surface onto the radar. Likewise, the remaining free agent players are fighting for what's left of the money teams have allocated to spend.

The setting led me to a quick examination of the current free agent wide receivers. And then the Patriots. And then the Patriots wide receivers. You get the idea …

Historically, the third receiver has been a key element of many NFL offenses. Denver teams in the late 1980's had the "Three Amigos" in Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson and Ricky Nattiel. The Washington teams of the same era feature the "Posse" of Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark. In Minnesota, Randy Moss started his rookie apprenticeship behind Cris Carter and Jake Reed. In 2004, the trio of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley each eclipsed 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The dimension of the third receiver has been no different in New England in recent seasons. In 2002, rookie Deion Branch emerged behind Troy Brown and David Patten to finish with 43 receptions for 489 yards and two touchdowns. In 2003, it was Givens who filled the role after a season-ending injury to Patten, finishing with 34 receptions for 510 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. The situation was more of a revolving door in 2004, with Branch, Givens and Patten all finishing with at least 35 receptions.

While it may not measure up to the importance of quarterback Tom Brady's reported contract extension or the health status of linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the Patriots have some important decisions in the wide receiver corps heading into next season. Patten, who signed as an unrestricted free agent with Washington, and Brown, whose contract option was not picked up by the Patriots, are now gone. The two starters at the position - Branch and Givens, a restricted free agent - have each battled various injuries during their first three seasons. The newly signed Tim Dwight, who has missed 17 games over the last three seasons, represents the only other receiver with substantial NFL experience. Bethel Johnson, strictly a special teams player since he was the team's second-round pick in 2003, has 26 receptions in two seasons of limited offensive snaps while P.K. Sam played in two games as a rookie last season.

It all has me thinking: Which direction with the Patriots go? With the addition of Dwight, is the team done at wide receiver, perhaps relying on tight ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson to play larger roles in 2005? If the Patriots do bring in more receivers, what avenue will they elect to take? It isn't the most compelling topic out there (but honestly, how many mock drafts can one person read?), but for Patriots fans it should be of interest.

Given the amount of feedback the possible return of Brown generates at Patriots.com, lets take a look at a few different scenarios the Patriots might weigh in making decisions at wide receiver:

1.) Stay the line
The most straightforward scenario has the Patriots letting the incumbent group of receivers battle for the No. 3 spot behind Branch and Givens. What this scenario does is let many of the "ifs" involved play themselves out. It also leaves the Patriots in a precarious position should those same "ifs" not come to fruition, leaving the team in a similar situation to the early weeks of 2004 when only four receivers were active. Dwight would seem to have the inside track, given his experience in the role, but hasn't shown the ability to stay healthy in recent seasons. Johnson showed flashes during training camp before last season, but wasn't able to parlay that momentum into a role in the offense. Sam, the team's fifth-round pick in 2004, appears to have considerable upside given his age (22) and size (6-3, 210) but did little last season and was suspsended from the active roster during the playoffs for unknown reasons. Given the injury history of Branch, and to a lesser extent Givens, it would appear to be a calculated risk for the Patriots to enter the season with so many unknowns at the position.

2.) Go the free agent route
I still wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots elect to go yet another route and add a receiver - most likely a veteran player - through free agency. If they aren't convinced Dwight can stay healthy an entire season and/or are questioning whether Johnson or Sam can step up to the responsibilities of the No. 3 receiver, this would be the most logical step. The most coveted (and also highest priced) free agents at the position - Plaxico Burress, Mushin Muhammad, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmanzadeh (re-signed) David Patten, Travis Taylor and Cedric Wilson) - went quickly in the first phase of free agency, leaving a group of less heralded players to fight over the remaining free agent pie. While there may not be star quality left at the position, unrestricted free agents Corey Bradford, Tai Streets (a free agent I targeted in the March issue of PFW) and David Terrell might offer what the Patriots are seeking at the right price.

3.) What hasn't Brown done for us?Clearly, the door isn't completely closed on the idea of a return by Brown. The Patriots elected not to pick up the option year on his contract, which certainly shouldn't have been a surprise to either side. What isn't known is (a) whether Brown wants to return to the NFL, or the Patriots; (b) if any agreement or understanding was reached before the free agent period; or (c) under what conditions or terms the two sides left off at when they last communicated. While he accepted a lesser role in the offense last season, some believe that Brown, if absolved of his special teams and defensive duties, could still produce in the role of a third receiver. The signing of Dwight may lead some to believe the Patriots don't think he can, but the 33-year-old is still only two seasons removed from a 97-catch season in 2002. While is game isn't built on speed or betting defenders downfield - it never really was anyway - it's not a stretch for some to envision Brown putting up numbers similar to 2003 (40 receptions, 472 yards, four touchdowns). Brown was the Patriots No. 3 receiver over a stretch during mid-season and would be a comfortable target for Tom Brady.

4.) Stick to the draft
Given the fact that all eight wide receivers current on the Patriots roster are 25 years or younger, and the more immediate draft needs at linebacker, defensive back and offensive guard, I'm not sure how much sense it makes to use a Day One selection at the position. Of course, I'll preface that argument by saying the Patriots always seem to avoid drafting purely on need and have been known to do the unexpected (see Benjamin Watson), leaving no draft day selection a complete surprise. Still, I don't see it happening. It would take an extremely polished rookie receiver to come in and serve as the team's third option. That's also ignoring the fact that the Patriots have a group of young players (Sam, Cedric James, Ricky Bryant, Mark Bartosic and Jake Schifino) fighting for a roster spot at the position, players who could probably offer the same production as a mid-round draft pick. While it's conceivable a talented player such as South Carolina's Troy Williamson or Oklahoma's Mark Clayton slips in the draft and forces their hand, I believe it's a better bet the Patriots would be looking to add more of a known quantity than another young player.

Just some random thoughts from The Think Tank on a Monday. Thanks for reading. Check back to Patriots.com on Tuesday for another update.

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