Even with 12 years under his belt Tom Brady just seems to be getting better and better. The Patriots passing game has thrived with him at the controls and in recent years that's meant an awful lot of work for Wes Welker. The slot receiver has led the team in receptions in each of his five seasons with the team, topping the 100-catch mark in four of those five years.
But the receiver depth chart hasn't looked this strong in years. You'd have to go back to 2007, Welker's first season in New England, to find this many capable pass catchers. In addition to Welker, Brady has a pair of gifted tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, new threats on the outside in Brandon Lloyd and Donte' Stallworth and versatile performers in Deion Branch and Jabar Gaffney.
All but Lloyd have been productive in New England, and even he has significant experience operating in the Patriots offense from his time with Josh McDaniels in Denver and St. Louis.
Instead of having to rely on one or two options, Brady will be free to target anyone he wishes in an offense that figures to be very difficult to deal with.
So with that in mind this week's Samsonite Make Your Case simply asks, who will lead the Patriots in receptions in 2012?
PFW's Paul Perillo says ...
While it's certainly not a controversial answer, Welker remains the odds on favorite to catch the most passes. During his Patriots career he's proven to be a very durable player in the slot with an innate ability to remain on the same page as Tom Brady at all times. This connection allows him to present opportunities for himself even when he's not intended to be the main focus of a particular play.
Welker remains as dependable as any receiver in the game and has caught more passes over the past five years than anyone. There's no reason to think his production will drop significantly enough to affect his status as the team's leading pass catcher just because the team added some weapons. Maybe instead of 120 or so catches the number drops to 100. Even still that should be enough to set the pace.
About the only concern with my pick is Welker's contract situation. As of now he's playing under the franchise tag and unless he receives a contract extension won't change. Welker has displayed a good attitude thus far while showing up for offseason workouts – even the voluntary OTAs that recently took place in Foxborough – but contracts can affect players in different ways and we won't know for sure how Welker deals with it until the season gets underway.
But for my money as long as Welker is a member of the Patriots in 2012 he will remain Brady's favorite target.
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
I'm saying it now, Hernandez is going to catch 100 passes this season for the Patriots.
He's a matchup nightmare for secondaries with corners who are too small to cover him and safeties who are too slow. He also will benefit greatly from the added weapons the Patriots have brought to Foxborough. Teams aren't going to let Rob Gronkowski go uncovered, especially in the red zone, the way they did at times last year. Gronk will still be great, but his production almost has to drop – and Hernandez will be ready to pick up the slack.
Also, Brandon Lloyd is going to force teams to respect and outside deep threat in a manner in which they haven't needed to in the recent past. That will also open windows for Hernandez to fill the void. With defenses focusing on Wes Welker in the slot, Lloyd on the outside and Gronk everywhere in between, it's hard to imagine Hernandez not getting lost in the shuffle.
He'll make defenses pay dearly for using their fourth-best cover man on him, and as long as he remains healthy he'll put up huge numbers and put himself in line to cash in come contract time just like his partner in crime Gronkowski just did.
Sometimes defenses are just going to have to pick their poison, and Hernandez is going to be the silent killer.
*Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll.