BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots placed the franchise tag on Wes Welker on Monday, but that’s just the first of many decisions the team will have to make at wide receiver this offseason.
On their own roster, Deion Branch is a free agent who will be 33 this summer, and they have an overpaid 34-year-old Chad Ochocinco, with whom they’ll either try to negotiate a restructured contract or cut from the roster. Really, the receiving corps next September could look completely different than the one that suited up for the Super Bowl in February.
Felger & Mazz Discuss Free Agent Targets
A big factor in that potential change is the deep class of available free-agent wide receivers.The Patriots’ interest level in each receiver might vary from zero to 100 percent, but here’s a rundown of the bigger-name options the Patriots have. And because it’s early March and we’re all desperate for fun, the scale will be based on Mr. Belichick’s famous hoodie.
The former seventh-round pick who took the league by surprise with a 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown rookie season has been as steady as it gets for New Orleans in his six NFL seasons. He’s averaged 75 catches for 1,040 yards and eight touchdowns per season, despite missing five games in 2008, and he’s coming off a season in which he set a career high in yards (1,143) in just 14 games, while scoring eight touchdowns. He also put on a show right in front of Bill Belichick’s eyes in 2009, burning the Pats for 121 yards and a touchdown back in ’09.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound weapon would fit in just about any offense, which means he’ll likely require a big-time contract. That’s not necessarily the Patriots’ MO, particularly at the wideout position.
Marques Colston LikeliHOOD: 2 out of 10
Garcon is an interesting free agent in that he might be the least accomplished player on this list but has serious potential to blossom. Just 25 years old, Garcon incredibly put up career highs in receptions (70) and yards (947) while tying his career high of six touchdowns, despite the absence of Peyton Manning and the presence of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky.
Garcon’s availability depends on a lot of factors, with the biggest being the team’s decision on Mr. Manning. After that, chips will start to fall. If they move on from Manning and on to Andrew Luck, he’ll need someone to throw to, and the Colts could use their leftover Manning money to sign players like Garcon. This situation is certainly still very much up in the air.
Pierre Garcon LikeliHOOD: 3 out of 10
The buzz around Vincent Jackson is considerably quieter than it was during the 2010 season, when the receiver didn’t play until Nov. 28 after a lengthy holdout. That year, he wasn’t able to do much, but in 2011, he hauled in 60 passes for 1,106 yards (18.4 YPC) and nine touchdowns. Now 29, Jackson could very well be the most explosive receiver available this offseason.
The Chargers, though, reportedly want to keep him, despite not franchising him this week. That will be no easy task, with probably at least a dozen teams getting in on the Jackson sweepstakes. Again, it’s not like the Patriots to be the highest bidder in a situation like this, but if any receiver might be worth it, it’d be Jackson.
The fact that the Patriots were reportedly trying to trade for Jackson in 2010 bumps this likeliHOOD up a few points, even if it’s still a bit of a long shot.
Vincent Jackson LikeliHOOD: 5 out of 10
In a way, Brandon Lloyd might be the unlikeliest candidate to join the Patriots. That’s because by all accounts, he seems the most likely to join the Patriots. Whenever you feel like you have a Belichick move figured out ahead of time, you’re usually wrong.
Still, the receiver has said publicly he wants to work with Josh McDaniels again, under whom he’s had success. He’ll be 31 in July, so he’s certainly got life left in his legs. All signs point to him being the right fit in New England, so we’ll rank this one high. But again — don’t go thinking you’ve ever got Belichick figured out.
Brandon Lloyd LikeliHOOD: 8 out of 10
The thought of the man who essentially beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl swapping sides and joining Tom Brady’s offense is hard to imagine, so we won’t spend too much time thinking about it. The 25-year-old hopes to return to the Giants, but cap concerns might get in the way of that. What he’s worth on the open market will be a point of contention. Is he a potential No. 1 guy? Or is he more suited to be a second or third option?
For the Patriots, he might not be any option.
Mario Manningham LikeliHOOD: 1 out of 10
This is never going to happen. Don’t waste your time thinking about it.
Randy Moss LikeliHOOD: 0 out of 10
The veteran option, Reggie Wayne has lived the charmed NFL life of lining up in Peyton Manning’s offense for his entire career … until last year. Prior to the 2011 season, Wayne had experienced seasons of 10 or more wins in nine of his 10 seasons, the only losing season coming in his rookie year of 2001. Wayne tasted losing in a big way last year as the Colts went 2-14 as the worst team in the league.
Wayne has said he wants to stay in Indianapolis, but again, the Colts’ situation remains up in the air. If the Colts decide to move on — or if their offer is too low — the 33-year-old Wayne has one last chance to cash in with a big-money deal.
And after a decade working with Manning, the idea of catching passes from Tom Brady can’t sound all that bad for Wayne. It’s just a matter of whether the Patriots spend big money on a veteran wideout. They did that last year with Ochocinco, and that failure may curb their eagerness to do it again.
Reggie Wayne LikeliHOOD: 6 out of 10
Mike Wallace is not completely a free agent, as his restricted status means a team would have to sacrifice a first-round pick if the Steelers choose to not match that other team’s offer. But for teams like the Patriots, who own the 31st pick, Wallace is almost guaranteed to make more of an impact than any late-first-round rookie could.
He’ll be 26 in August, and he’s on a rapid rise to being one of the NFL’s most explosive receivers. He’s improved his reception totals in all three of his seasons, going from 39, to 60, to 72, and he averaged 1,225 yards over the past two years. He’s the type of big-play receiver who can change how defenses prepare for an offense, and with the Steelers already up against the cap, he’s almost certain to play somewhere other than Pittsburgh next year.
Will it be the Patriots? It’s hard to say exactly … but, when you take the obvious factor of Wallace being a top-flight wide receiver, and add in the benefit of potentially weakening a powerhouse conference opponent … and this just might make sense for Bill. However, Belichick loves his draft picks perhaps as much as his children, and the idea of ever “giving” one away without receiving a pair of future fifth-rounders will likely be too much for him.
Mike Wallace LikeliHOOD: 6 out of 10.
Regarding the players currently on the roster, you have to imagine the team and Branch will be able to work out a low-paying deal that will keep Branch a part of the team, though his role will certainly be diminished if any other receiver is acquired or drafted. We’ll put Branch’s return at 8 out of 10 on the LikeliHOOD scale.
And Ochocinco? He’s gone. That experiment failed. If he didn’t make much money, he might be invited back, but given that he’s due a ton of money, he’s as good as gone.
Who do you think the Patriots will sign or keep at receiver this offseason?