Is New-England a dead-end for WR’s?

By R. Temin

I’ve been thinking about this, and it seems like we’re never going to have much success keeping WRs happy around these parts unless we change our offensive philosophy, which of course won’t happen while Belichick and Brady are both here.

Think about it. Last year, the Pats were third in the league in passing yardage as a team, and yet we didn’t have a single receiver top 1000 yards. The last time one of our receivers did top 1000 was Troy Brown in 2001. This year it once again looks as if this will be the case.

Then we look at what happened in the offseason with our top two receivers from last season. David Givens racked up 738 yards on 59 catches in 2004. These are not stellar numbers by any stretch, though keep in mind that he did miss 3 games, and yet he was considered the 2nd or 3rd best free agent at the position, behind T.O. He wanted to come back to New England, but wanted #1 WR money AND the opportunity to be a genuine #1 target for Brady. The Pats offered him a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal [not far below what he ultimately settled for], but could not promise him the #1 role he wanted, so he split for Tennessee. Now, in Tennessee, Givens has been injured, but even when he gets healthy, it does not seem as if he has much of a shot at becoming an elite receiver.

Now, as for Deion, he came within 2 yards last season of 1000, but nonetheless failed to miss the mark [once again, remember that the Pats were 3rd in passing last season]. Branch was understandably unhappy with his rookie contract, and had a lengthy stand-off with management, demanding an extension and a raise which would have him paid like a true #1. The organization, however, saw the numbers and saw the team’s playing style and decided that Branch was not worth the kind of money he was looking for, so they dug in their heels and refused to pay him what he wanted. Ultimately, Branch was traded to a Seahawks team that, oddly, already HAD a #1 receiver [Darrell Jackson], and ostensibly a #2 as well [Nate Burleson].
Now, we must ask the fundamental question – why did the Pats refuse to pay Branch? Was it a simple matter of the team being cheap? Perhaps, but does it really make sense for a team to be cheap in this league, when it has more cap room than anyone, and a clear need at the position? Was it a matter of Branch not having the ability to justify the kind of compensation he sought? That seems more dubious now than it did a few weeks ago, because he has produced very well for the Seahawks despite having little experience in their offense. I’m not suggesting he will have a 1000-yard season right now, but it seems entirely possible in the future. The answer, in my opinion, is a combination of factors, not the least of which is the way the Patriots perceive their own offense. Again, I refer you to the statistic that the team has been without a thousand-yard receiver since 2001 – the only other teams in the league to have that distinction are the Browns, who have, to say the least, lacked our stability at the QB position, and the Falcons who are not a passing team. Whenever there is a conversation to be had about Tom Brady, it always comes back to how well he spreads the ball around – ‘the best point guard in the NFL,’ he’s frequently called. And while this is great for the passing game, it’s not so good for individual receivers.

Since 2002, this team has spent six first day draft picks on receivers and tight ends. Daniel Graham is better known as a run blocker than as a receiver; Deion Branch is obviously no longer here; Bethel Johnson was a complete bust; Benjamin Watson is constantly being expected to break out, but has yet to do so; Chad Jackson and David Thomas have yet to really establish themselves. The one other receiver we drafted was David Givens in the 7th round, who is also no longer with the team. It’s certainly not any lack of success that has driven our biggest success stories [and I include David Patten in this] from New England, but rather the mentality that they can get more personal glory and make more money elsewhere. The modern wide receiver, by and large, seeks to maximize returns on his own potential, whether that means staying with one team [i.e. Hines Ward] or seeking greener pastures. If they feel that they cannot reach their peak where they currently are, they will seek to go elsewhere. Likewise, if an organization does not expect to get top-flight production out of a receiver, they will not pay him top-flight money, no matter how talented he is.

What does this mean for the Patriots? Well, take a look at what happened in the last six months – the team’s top two receivers from its best season in terms of passing yardage since 1994 both sought their exit for all these reasons. They wanted more money, they wanted bigger roles, but most importantly they wanted the chance to produce like elite receivers, which they could not do here. Ultimately, if it was difficult to keep those two in town, it will be extremely difficult for this team to land or keep premiere free agents at the position in the future, barring a significant change in passing philosophy, and it will also be extremely difficult to keep a guy like Chad Jackson or Doug Gabriel in New England if they find themselves in situations similar to Branch’s – they can have success and be the top target for Brady, but they could never post elite yardage/TD totals, so they’ll want to go to a team that gives them that extra opportunity. Likewise, the team will perceive receivers who have not produced elite numbers in its own system as being worth less than their actual market value for that very reason, and will refuse to pony up high-level contracts for these players, regardless of how valuable they are to Tom Brady.

In short, this team is going to have difficulty maintaining continuity in the passing game in the future, as it has had this season.

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