Patriots

Reggie Wayne Should Be Patriots’ Primary Free-Agent Target For 2012

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Reggie Wayne is a free agent for 2012. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Reggie Wayne is a free agent for 2012. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots lost their chance at winning the easiest Super Bowl of their history in the 2006 season because they didn’t have enough receivers. Five years later, the simplest explanation for losing Super Bowl XLVI was that a pass bounced out of a wide receiver’s hands in the game’s final minutes.

If the Patriots want to win the race against time and win another Super Bowl before that Tom Brady-Bill Belichick window closes, the solution starts with adding a top-flight wide receiver.

That’s no indictment of Wes Welker, the receiver whose hands dropped that fateful pass last weekend. Signing the 30-year-old to a multi-year contract should be priority No. 1. But priority 1A should be signing Reggie Wayne.

The wideout has crushed the souls of the Patriots so much over the years that the thought of him exchanging the horseshoe on his helmet for a Flying Elvis is a bit jarring. And at 33 years old, his days as a top-five statistical receiver in the league may be history, but that may be exactly why he is exactly what the Patriots need.

Brady and the Patriots love Deion Branch, but his regular battles to stay healthy make him much better-suited as a third or fourth option on offense. The Patriots like what they have, obviously, with Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but they still sought an additional wide receiver last summer who could add a different element.

That receiver came in the form of Chad Ochocinco, a decision that did not work out, to say the least. Ochocinco finished the season with just 15 catches and one touchdown. He cost them two draft picks, for which the team essentially got nothing. Despite that, they were one play away from winning the Super Bowl.

Now, they can add Wayne and give up nothing more than money — which will be freed when the Patriots almost certainly cut Ochocinco this offseason. In the prime of his career as Peyton Manning’s go-to guy, Wayne made roughly $6 million per season from 2006-11. Ochocinco made a little more than $3 million last season, indicating the Patriots are willing to set aside at least that kind of cash for a wideout.

When it comes to what Wayne can still do on the field, it’s admittedly a bit tricky. It’s safe to assume he won’t be putting up 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns without the benefit of youth, Manning and an indoor home field, but it’s just as safe to assume he’ll improve upon his numbers from 2011. With Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky and Curtis Painter throwing him passes, he still managed to haul in 75 of them for 960 yards and four touchdowns. Those 75 catches would have placed him fourth on the Patriots, and the 960 yards would have ranked third. Substitute Brady for Orlovsky/Painter/Collins throwing him passes, and you can rightfully expect a bump in production.

If the situation with Manning were different, then there’d be almost no reason to believe Wayne would ever leave Indy. Given that the Colts, by many accounts, are set to cut ties with Manning at the beginning of March, the chances of the big-name free agent Colts sticking around become almost zero.

Of course, with a receiver who will turn 34 in November, the concern of injuries and regression is always present. What Wayne has on his side in that department is that he hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year, playing in all 16 since 2002, plus 17 more playoff games. He also showed he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank with an eight-catch, 73-yard performance on a Thursday night against Houston, capping it off with the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left.

He’s still capable of an occasional big game, but he’s perfectly suited to share the load with Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez.

Aside from the benefits of adding Wayne, there’s the simple fact that the Patriots don’t have many in-house options. Matthew Slater, Tiquan Underwood and Julian Edelman combined to catch eight passes in the 2011 season, and Edelman was the only one of that group with a catch in the playoffs. He had two for five yards.

When Brady was throwing to Reche Caldwell and Ben Watson and with Wayne in the opposing huddle in the ’06 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots fell one pass shy of reaching a Super Bowl against the Bears. In Super Bowl XLVI, with Gronkowski severely limited with an ankle injury, Brady was one option shy from being able to operate his offense at full speed.

The Patriots need an upgrade on the outside, and so long as Wayne desires to continue his career playing with an all-time great quarterback, he’s the ideal fit.

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