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Patriots Roster Prediction: Welker Signing Pushes Ochocinco, Branch, Edelman To Roster Bubble

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Tom Brady, Chad Ochocinco and Deion Branch (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Tom Brady, Chad Ochocinco and Deion Branch (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — The chances of Wes Welker not signing his franchise tender and not being present for training camp and the 2012 season were somewhere between 0.0001 percent and 0.0002 percent.

Yet, now that Welker has officially signed on the dotted line, it’s a good time to take a comprehensive look at the depth chart and try to guess which wide receivers will still be on the roster for Week 1.

Roster Locks

Wes Welker
No surprise here,  as Welker, fresh off a 1,569-yard season, is quite obviously the favorite target of Tom Brady. He’s 31 and should have another two or three seasons as a top producer in the NFL (he’s finished first or second in receptions in four of his five seasons in New England), so don’t be surprised to see the Patriots work out a three- or four-year deal before the season begins, much like they did for Vince Wilfork in 2009.

Brandon Lloyd
He was arguably the Patriots’ biggest free-agent acquisition, and there’s no doubt he’ll play an important role in the Patriots’ offense. Ideally, he’ll develop into a true No. 1 receiver for New England, and his track record with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels offers positive signs for that to happen. As Patriots reporter Jeff Howe noted on Wednesday,  Lloyd’s averaged 4.8 receptions, 78.1 yards and 0.56 touchdowns per game in the 25 games he’s played within McDaniels’ system. Add Brady into that equation, and it’s safe to expect big things from Lloyd.

Matthew Slater
Technically a wide receiver by trade, Slater is guaranteed to make the roster for his contributions on special teams. He was a Pro Bowler and team captain last year and is a valuable member of the team, even if it’s not on offense.

Jabar Gaffney
Normally, a free-agent addition of a 31-year-old wide receiver wouldn’t mean a guaranteed roster spot for the signee. However, consider two very important factors. First, Gaffney is fresh off a 68-catch, 947-yard, 5-touchdown season in Washington, where the quarterbacks throwing to him were Rex Grossman and John Beck. That’s so remarkably impressive that I don’t have the time or space to fully get into it. Just know that it’s very nearly impossible. Second, note how quickly the Pats pounced on Gaffney once he became available. He was released on May 1, and he was reportedly a Patriot on May 2. He’s a guy they wanted badly, partly for his five touchdowns with the Pats in 2007 and partly for his subsequent success under McDaniels in Denver. He’ll be on this team, and together with Welker and Lloyd will create a fearsome and occasionally uncoverable trio for opposing defenses.

On The Bubble

Deion Branch
It’s sad to say for sentimental Patriots fans, but Deion Branch is going to have to earn his spot on the team in training camp. That’s no knock on Branch — he impressed last year with 702 yards and five touchdowns on 51 receptions — but the cruel reality of the NFL is that somebody who’s younger and faster than you will always be poised to steal your job. Branch is loved by Brady and Belichick, and he probably has a good chance to make the team as a fourth or fifth option, but he turns 33 in July and hasn’t played in 16 games in one season since 2005.

(If you are indeed sentimental, you shouldn’t feel too badly. He left in ’06 because he wanted a big pay day. He’s truly a great guy, and he wasn’t wrong for seeking big money, but the four-plus years in Seattle should help facilitate this breakup, whether it comes this summer or next.)

Chad Ochocinco
A restructured contract only guaranteed Ochocinco that he wouldn’t be cut prior to training camp. There’s still no reason to believe Belichick will keep him on the roster through training camp. Sure, Ochocinco’s said all the right things about having a big season, and he’s surely motivated, but he said the same things last year and had just as much motivation. The fact is that he never learned the plays and was unable to participate in the no-huddle offense, which just so happened to be the times when Brady and the Patriots were most effective. If he can show up to camp and prove he knows where to be and what to do at all times, he’ll be a contributor this season. If he needs Brady to run out and tell him where to go, he’ll be available to the highest bidder by mid-August.

Julian Edelman
The case for Edelman is a tricky one. He earned about 3 million brownie points with Belichick for being willing and able to step in on defense last season, and with Kevin Faulk a longshot to make the team, Edelman looks to be the most capable punt returner for 2012. He returned 28 punts last year, 20 more than anyone else, averaging 10.6 yards per return, and he had the highest kick return average (23.7 yards) among all Patriots with multiple kickoff returns. Despite that, he has just 11 catches in the past two seasons combined, as his pleasant surprise of a rookie season in 2009 is a distant memory. He’s inexpensive, and he knows how to contribute, but ultimately, he’s a guy who can be replaced.

Cut/Practice Squad

Jeremy Ebert
Sorry, kid, but without some injuries to some proven guys at the position, and with Slater and Edelman taking up spots on special teams, you’re looking like the odd man out. As he is a seventh-round draft pick from Northwestern, though, you have to like his chances to end up on the practice squad. Belichick drafted him for a reason and wouldn’t want to immediately say goodbye.

Donte Stallworth
Another result of Belichick shouting “Let’s get the band back together!” in a meeting room last month, Stallworth has a lot to prove. He had just 22 receptions for 309 yards and two touchdowns last season, but seriously, don’t discount the Grossman/Beck factor there. Regardless, it wasn’t a tremendous bounceback year for Stallworth after a two-catch season in 2010. If I had to guess without yet seeing a single snap, I’d say there’s a much greater chance Stallworth is cut than there is for him making the team.

Anthony Gonzalez
The Gonzalez signing was made long ago, before Stallworth, Gaffney and Lloyd became Patriots. Gonzalez was a no-risk acquisition, as he’s caught just five passes since 2009 due to injuries. He was a good, young receiver in 2007 and ’08, but with such competition on the roster, the Patriots don’t have to wait to see if Gonzalez is back to his old self. They’ll be just fine without him.

Britt Davis
Not much to say here, as he was a practice squad member last year and should be again.

Matt Roark
Much like Ebert, Roark would probably have a chance to make an NFL roster, just not this one.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or follow him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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