Oklahoma wide receiver Malcolm Kelley. AP Photo.
New England had arguably the best and deepest wide receiving corps in 2007.
At this point, however, it's unclear how many of those talented individuals will be back in a Patriots uniform in '08. Wes Welker is locked up long-term, but the team still needs to decide if it wants to hang on to Randy Moss, Donté Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, and Kelley Washington.
And with veteran Troy Brown unlikely to return for a 16th season, that leaves Chad Jackson as the only other receiver under contract at the moment.
That could make WR more of a priority for the Pats in April's NFL Draft than anyone may have expected just a few weeks ago.
Rarely in the Bill Belichick-Scott Pioli era has the franchise selected more than one receiver in any given Draft, and never have Belichick's Pats spent a first-round pick on one. But with the seventh overall selection (thanks to last year's trade with San Francisco), New England could conceivably grab a blue-chip wideout right off the bat.
A wrist injury hindered him for the past year, but Texas Longhorn Limas Sweed (6-4, 216) is still widely considered to be a first-round talent.
During his interview with the media at the Scouting Combine, he came across as humble and pleasant, yet determined to prove that he's worthy of a top pick. He said he feels his size is a clear advantage, particularly with NFL teams trending toward tall, speedy receivers as their go-to guy.
"I look at guys like Randy Moss having success, and it makes me excited because now it's my time," Sweed explained. At the same time, he could foresee himself playing opposite Moss in the Patriots offense and catching passes from Tom Brady.
"That's be something cool to play on the opposite side of someone you watched growing up," Sweed admitted. "Catching balls from Tom Brady ... Now that would be cool … probably the coolest thing ever."
From the sounds of it, that may not be a farfetched proposition. Sweed revealed he's had conversations with New England officials.
"Yeah, I've talked to them, I've had a few interviews with them. It went well. I think I left a great impression on them."
Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly (6-3, 218) is another receiver expected to hear his name called on Day One of the Draft. But so far, he hasn't gotten a call from the Patriots.
That doesn't mean the team isn't interested, though. Kelly is passing up his senior season at OU because with his size and abilities, he clearly feels he has the skills to be a first-round pick. He acknowledged that he needs to work on parts of his game in order to deserve such a high selection.
"I didn't have problems getting open in college, but the NFL DBs are going to be a lot more swift and a lot more on point to breaking on your route. So that'll probably be the one area of my game I really need to improve."
Perhaps not worth the seventh overall pick, there are some other tall receivers who could wind up on the Pats' Draft board in mid-to-late rounds, including Iowa State's Todd Blythe (6-5, 214), a close friend of Cyclone alum Ellis Hobbs, and James Hardy (6-6, 220) of Indiana, a red-shirt junior who originally came to IU as a basketball prospect.
Remember Reche Caldwell, former Florida Gator who spent the '06 season in New England?
Well, things didn't work out for him with the Pats, but maybe they will with his kid brother, Andre "Bubba" Caldwell (6-0, 204). The most common questions he says he's been asked at the Combine is whether or not he's better than Reche.
"I give them a quick 'Yeah' every time," the younger Caldwell replied. "I'm very confident in my game. I know he's good but I think I'm better."
Still, "Bubba" conceded he has learned some important lessons from his big brother's NFL experience.
"He's helped me from day one, what to look for and some of the things to prepare for. I think I've got a head start on most athletes out here because I know what to look for and how to prepare for certain things. I talk to him four times a day and know what's going to be going on out here. He keeps me updated."
While they aren't siblings, both Tom Brady and Mario Manningham (5-11, 181) are former Michigan Wolverines. And the playmaking Manningham admitted he's intrigued by the prospect of playing in the Pats' pass-happy offense.
"It'd be a great offense to play in. They put up points, and have good receivers."
Manningham cited his speed and power as his main strengths, but the Patriots offense relies heavily on receivers reading defenses before the snap and getting on the same page with Brady. Manningham believes he has the know-how to be successful in that type of system.
Another player who could fit that description is Early Doucet (6-0, 209) from the national champion LSU Tigers. Doucet said he hadn't met with the Patriots at the Senior Bowl, but he expected to sometime during Combine weekend.
Cal's Levelle Hawkins (5-11, 187), Houston's Donnie Avery (5-11, 186), and Earl Bennett (5-11, 208) of Vanderbilt are also possibilities for the Pats in early-to-mid rounds.
They're easy to find in Indianapolis this week: small, speedy wide receivers who all seem to idolize Welker.
Among them, Appalachian State's Dexter Jackson (5-9, 178), whose team shocked the college football world last September by knocking off Michigan at the Big House.
"I feel like playing the slot, there are more mismatches on safeties who really can't run that fast against smaller slot receivers who are fast, like Wes Welker," Jackson reasoned.
"A lot of time the sideline helps the corner as a defender to knock me out of bounds so I cant run my route," he continued. "Inside, I have more room."
Jackson also knows what it's like to win championships. Having captured three Division I-AA titles at Appalachian State, he might feel comfortable with the three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots, who he revealed are among three teams who have shown the most interest in him so far.
"Oh yes, they were," Jackson said with a big smile. "I will talk to them personally on Saturday, too."
Hawaii's Ryan Grice-Mullen (5-10, 187) hasn't yet talked personally with New England representatives, but he said his agent may have already. That should come as no surprise, as Grice-Mullen, who has started for the Rainbow Warriors since his freshman year, is used to catching a lot of passes in their run-and-shoot offense.
"New England and the Colts throw the ball 50 times a game, just like we do [at Hawaii]," he observed. "They got a slot receiver, Wes Welker, who caught 100 balls this year. You see a lot of teams going that way.
"But I don't consider myself just a slot receiver," he added. "I can do both [play slot and flanker]."
He also has a great deal of confidence in his ability to read complex defenses, something he'd certainly have to do in New England's offense.
"I'd say 9 out of 10, or 10 out of 10. That's how much confidence I have in myself to read defenses. From day one in this [Hawaii] offense, you don't see the field unless you know how to read defenses and know your plays. All of our routes are based off of reads. You could have five routes on one play."
Other smaller receivers to keep an eye on are Cal's DeSean Jackson (5-9, 169), Purdue'sDorien Bryant (5-10, 169), and Darius Reynaud (5-10, 205) of West Virginia, who told reporters Friday that the Patriots were among a handful of teams with whom he has met this week.