By: Ian Logue/PatsFans.com
July 13, 2003

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Make no mistake, Troy Brown isn't getting any younger.

For the past three seasons he's been the Patriots leading receiver, including a career high season in 2001 where he broke the team's receiving record for receptions in a season with 101. He also finished with the second most receiving yards in Patriots history for a single season with 1,199, eclipsing former tight end Ben Coates who had previously claimed that honor with 1,174 back in 1994. Only Stanley Morgan had more yards in one year, with a team record 1,491 back in 1986.

Brown, who turned 32 back on July 2nd, has earned the reputation of being New England's go to guy, with both former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe and current signal-caller Tom Brady looking for Brown when it's time to move the chains. Last season he lead the team for receptions on third down, and if he's healthy it's doubtful that anything will change when the season begins.

The obvious goal for New England has been to find someone to compliment Brown. Fortunately since David Patten joined the team prior to their Superbowl season of 2001 they've finally had someone to carry some of the load. Patten finished the 2001 season with 51-catches for 749-yards along with four touchdowns, including the Patriots only two offensive touchdowns during the postseason en-route to their championship.

The duo has also lead the team in yards for the past two seasons.

But the team selected former Louisville standout Deion Branch in the second round of the 2002 draft and the rookie caught everyone's eye with his blazing speed during the preseason when he had eight receptions for 129-yards, including a 62-yard grab in his very first exhibition game.

That success followed him into the regular season when he had an impressive start to his rookie campaign, with 37 catches for 408-yards in first six games as a Patriot.

Unfortunately it's no secret that the NFL's season is longer and much more difficult than college, and Branch seemed to find that out the hard way. He hit a wall and dropped off the radar screen after he was slowed by injuries and went on to finish with just 6 catches for 81-yards during the next seven games before being inactive for the final three. Heading into his second season as a pro Branch will have an opportunity to compete for more playing time, and if he can stay healthy could give Brady another weapon with veterans Brown and Patten.

However when camp opens in less than two weeks, you can bet all eyes will likely be on this year's second round draft pick Bethel Johnson, who's speed left many blown away during the team's mini-camp a month ago. While the early reports have some questioning his pass-catching ability, the 5-11, 200-pound Johnson has too much potential to not land a spot on the team. Belichick told reporters during that time that he didn't think he had ever coached a faster player, so it's likely Johnson will be given time to develop and if he performs well enough during camp he could potentially push for playing time.

That leaves second-year receiver David Givens and veteran free-agent addition Dedric Ward as the likely candidates to battle it out for the team's final receiver spot. Givens surprised everyone last year when he beat out Fred Coleman as the team's final receiver. Coleman had six catches for 134-yards and a touchdown during the preseason, and finished strong with a 3-catch 65-yard performance with the touchdown in the team's final exhibition game against Washington. Meanwhile Givens had 8-catches for 83-yards and a touchdown during the exhibition season, but just 2-catches for 24-yards in his final preseason appearance leaving many believing that Coleman (who was also in his second season with the team) would edge him out.

But Belichick must have seen more long-term potential in Givens and instead cut Coleman. Givens ended up appearing in 12-games with 9-receptions for 92-yards and a touchdown last season.

Givens will be up against another veteran this year as he'll be pushed by free agent Dedric Ward. Ward played well under Weis' offensive system with the Jets including a career-high 54 receptions for 801-yards season back in 2000. After two seasons in Miami where he totaled just 381-yards on 40-catches he'll have to prove that his success with Weis wasn't a coincidence as Givens has the edge in size (6-0", 212lbs compared to Ward at 5-9", 185lbs) along with youth and special teams experience working for him.

Last season Buffalo, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh each had two receivers with over 1,000-yards each on their team, with Oakland having three with over 900. New England had two of their own with over 800-yards each as Brown and Patten finished as the team leaders, and heading into training camp the Patriots certainly appear to have the potential to have a pretty productive group. They've got a good mix of youth and experience, and should Branch build on his early success from last season, along with Johnson having a solid camp, New England could potentially have a pretty explosive duo to compliment their veterans.

The Patriots finished 24th in the league in receiving yards-per play last season with 10.9 and were 21st in the NFL in receiving yards per game with 207.9. They certainly appear to have the potential to improve from that with the group of players they have, but it will be a little while longer before fans get to see if this potential will yield the necessary results.

Training Camp Opens on July 23rd at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.


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