It is a chicken versus the egg debate. Was New England's wide receiver production in 2005 a byproduct of Tom Brady's career year? Or are top playmakers David Givens and Deion Branch simply hitting their stride as they enter their prime years?
The answer is probably somewhere in between, but there is no doubt that the trio was a huge reason why the Patriots passing attack was able to average 257.5 yards per game - first in the AFC. Patriots receivers also ranked first in the NFL with 1,919 yards after the catch.
Surely, New England does not plan on throwing the ball as much next year as it was forced to in 2005 thanks to a mostly ineffective running attack. However, the Patriots front office has to be concerned that they have just two wide receivers on the 45-man roster under contract for next season - Branch and Bethel Johnson.
Givens' situation as an unrestricted free agent will be closely monitored as he, like Branch, appears to be on the cusp of becoming a 1,000-yard receiver. Here is the analysis of the wide receiver position with respect to 2005 performance and an eye toward future production:
Deion Branch - 2005 Grade: A-
The four-year veteran out of Louisville stayed healthy through a full season for the first time in his career and was just two yards short of 1,000. In another offense, he would almost certainly have gone over that benchmark and likely topped the career-high five touchdowns. Branch's individual numbers are hurt by Brady's penchant for spreading the ball around to so many different receivers. He is signed through 2006 and the Patriots would be well advised to extend his contract now if they want to keep him beyond next season. Branch's stock is on the rise and he is a big name throughout the league because of 11 and 12-reception Super Bowl performances. If he stays healthy again next season, his price past 2006 will continue going up.
David Givens - 2005 Grade: B+
New England's most physical receiver is due to get a big payday this offseason as a free agent after registering 59 catches for 738 yards in 13 regular season games. The Patriots got a certifiable bargain on him last season by signing him to a $1.43 million deal. If he hadn't missed three straight games in the middle of the season due to a knee injury, he too might have approached 1,000 yards. While Givens may not have the same raw talent and potential for huge numbers as Branch, he does boast seven straight playoff games with a touchdown. In his career, he has 158 receptions - 107 of which have resulted in a first down. Like Branch, Givens' statistics would probably be more impressive in a less diversified passing offense. Still, his stock will never be higher in a weak free agent crop at receiver.
Troy Brown - 2005 Grade: B-
Brown has been a Patriot for all 13 years of his career, but if he is going to continue playing, he might be in a different uniform next season. His 39 receptions ranked third on the team this season and he has added to his value as a serviceable defensive back in nickel formations. However, he returned just seven punts this season and only 19 in the past two years. The Patriots don't place much value on sentimentality and past success; otherwise Brown would surely be re-signed for 2006.
Tim Dwight - 2005 Grade: C
Dwight did not see too much playing time except as a fourth receiver. He did register three touchdowns, but he also had six games without a reception. He left little impression in the punt return game, with an 8.5-yard average and a long of just 29 yards. Still, Dwight is a possibility to return, especially if Brown does not come back.
Andre' Davis - 2005 Grade: Incomplete
The speedy Davis saw playing time in the second half of the season as Brady's home-run threat. He ended the season with a 21.1-yards per catch average but had just nine receptions.
Bethel Johnson - 2005 Grade: F
When he's not sidelined by injury, it seems Johnson's attitude gets him in trouble with Bill Belichick. His 22.4-yard average on kickoffs was the worst of his career and his value as a receiver seems to be very limited. It is only a matter of time before the Patriots cut their losses on the 2003 second-rounder.
P.K. Sam, a second-round pick in 2004, spent the season on the practice squad while rookie Bam Childress was inactive until the final game against the Dolphins. Both should compete for spots on the roster during training camp this summer.
The free agent market is thin at wide receiver, with Colts wideout Reggie Wayne heading the list. Indianapolis figures to have the inside track on signing Wayne, so players such as Givens, Antwan Randle-El and Joe Jurevicius will receive lots of attention from teams needing receivers.
Considering Givens' rapport with Brady and his familiarity with the offense, the Patriots may be more inclined to overpay for him than for any of the other players available. However, New England is unlikely to break the bank to keep him, especially with Branch still under contract.
With Brady entering the prime of his career, the Patriots may feel that they don't need to surround him with superstar receivers. The last New England receiver to make it to a Pro Bowl was Brown in 2002.
Don't expect New England to fill the void at wide receiver on the first day of the draft, either. This year's crop does not contain any surefire superstars and the Patriots have other needs such as linebacker and cornerback that need to be addressed first.
Dave Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider. An accomplished writer and sports analyst, you can find more of his articles by searching for "Dave Fletcher" in the archives.
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