Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tom Brady's Receiver Bunch Filled With New Faces

By: Rich Bergeron

New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady will go into next month's training camp without some of his best receivers to throw to thanks to injuries, free agency, and the arrest and release of Tight End Aaron Hernandez Wednesday.

Leading Patriot Receiver Wes Welker will be playing with the Denver Broncos next season. All Purpose running and passing target Danny Woodhead will play for the San Diego Chargers. Brady's favorite Tight End Rob Gronkowski is likely to be unavailable for a while due to his recovery from back surgery. The team also released Wideout Brandon Lloyd in March. Deion Branch is also currently a free agent.

There is still a long list of free agents to choose from other than Branch and Lloyd, and some of them could be great fits for Brady.

At Wide Receiver the Patriots aren't likely to sign three other Ex-Patriots currently available: Randy Moss, Jabar Gaffney and Chad Johnson. The more logical choices for Coach Bill Bellichick to recruit would be: Laurent Robinson, Braylon Edwards, Austin Collie, Brandon Stokley, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet, Titus Young, Terrell Owens, or Lee Evans.

At Tight End the Patriots might have to rely heavily on recent New York Giants Convert Jake Ballard.

Ballard is recovering from a serious ACL injury, but he has tremendous talent and potential as a 24-year-old starting tight end. He had 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns in his first year as a full time starter for the Giants. He suffered the ACL damage in the second half of Super Bowl XLVI...against the Patriots.

He wound up on the team he last played against thanks to a requirement for players to be put on the waiver wire prior to being put on injured reserve. The Patriots claimed him on the sly, and he sat out the full 2012 season with the team, but he should be healthy enough to play at a high level this year.

Ballard is six-and-a-half feet tall and tips the scales around 275 pounds, so he will complement Gronkowski nicely whenever the team's top tight end can return. Ballard's size and strength will also ensure that his blocking skills will be an asset as well. Ballard was only eclipsed in receiving performance by Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz during his time with the Giants. His reliable hands and the benefit of a full year spent learning the Patriots playbook will put him in the best position to help make sure Aaron Hernandez quickly becomes a distant memory. Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells would fall behind Ballard and a healthy Gronkowski on the tight end depth chart.

Should the Patriots still feel the need to add another veteran tight end, there are plenty of viable candidates available. The remaining free agents at the position include: Dallas Clark, Kevin Boss, Todd Heap, Jeremy Shockey, Visanthe Shiancoe, David Thomas, Randy McMichael, Chris Cooley, Travis Beckum, Cameron Morrah, Leonard Pope, and Will Heller.

The current Patriots offense does include some other new faces already. The team added Danny Amendola, Donald Jones, Lavelle Hawkins, Michael Jenkins, and second-round draft pick Aaron Dobson. None of these players are seasoned veterans with amazing stats, though. The receiving corps could really use a solid leader with more experience, raw talent and wisdom.

Despite the grim outlook for another potential undefeated season, the Patriots can take comfort in the fact that they play in a fairly weak division. Also, Tom Brady has tremendous experience as far as adjusting to new dynamics and year-to-year player transitions. He brought the team deep into the playoffs last year despite lacking a powerful group of wide receivers, and he could do the same next season. Past years have also seen Brady thrive even without a dominant defense, which may not be a factor this year if the team's rebuilding of that squad continues to pay off. Unfortunately, any future additions to the team could be hampered by the salary cap hit the team will still have to take from the Hernandez signing in the off-season (a reported $4 million black hole), but there are definitely some free agents who are not likely to mind having to sign a shorter or less lucrative contract than they might like to at this stage of their careers.

As the Patriots proved by signing Former Jets and Broncos Quarterback Tim Tebow, they are certainly willing to take a chance on developing new talent even in positions where they already have a solid and reliable starter. Getting a true veteran like Terrell Owens on board for a lowball one-year contract would not be out of the realm of possibility for the Patriots. As for Tebow transitioning to play at tight end, don't count on that circus coming to town anytime soon or in the forseeable future. Tebow already brings enough drama as a backup quarterback, and the last thing he wants to be is a spectacle as he tries to learn whatever he can from a future hall of famer. The Patriots should be just fine no matter what happens, and in the worse case scenario it will be a season in which they focus on rebuilding their offense. One year missing the playoffs wouldn't kill this super successful team, though many fans might find it hard to believe if the Patriots do finally miss the cut for once.
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