By: Bob George/
February 28, 2005

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2004 New England Patriots. Today: receivers.

Stephen Neal committed the costliest clipping infraction for the Patriots in Week 2.

Oh, he wasn't flagged for it. He clipped one of his own teammates. On a Hail Mary Pass to end the first half out in Arizona, Tom Brady heaved one deep and James Darling picked it off. Darling ran it back 65 yards before being stopped by Daniel Graham. But on the runback, something happened in the background which had an impact on the 2004 Patriot season.

Neal bolted for Darling to try and tackle him. In the process, he collided into the backside of Deion Branch and cut his legs down from behind. Branch had to leave the game and would miss the next seven games. Branch was lucky that it wasn't the rest of the season.

Being injured is nothing new to Branch. He was drafted in 2002 with a reputation for being injured often. He has yet to play a full 16-game schedule in his three seasons for the Patriots. This injury sustained against Arizona hampered him for the rest of the year. But Branch showed what he is capable of in the final two games of the season, and he also showed how valuable he is to team during the October 31 loss at Pittsburgh.

If Branch can somehow play healthy and put in a full season, he could very well approach 100 catches and 1,000 yards receiving. This may still not happen given how much Brady likes to spread the ball around and involve as many different receivers as possible. It is also unlikely that Branch could reach these numbers if he draws the top opposing cornerback, only to see David Givens or Troy Brown pick up the pass receiving slack. Why throw to Branch if he's blanketed when you don't need to?

Enough Devil's advocate stuff. Branch can flat out catch the ball, and can run after the catch. He had four catches for 116 yards and a touchdown in the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh. He also had two end-arounds for 37 yards total and another touchdown. He simply killed the Steelers on that evening, and their secondary had no answer for him at all. Much was made of Corey Dillon being absent from the October 31 game, but so was Branch. Taking nothing away from Dillon, Branch's absence in that game was just as impactive.

Branch topped everything off in the Super Bowl, hauling a record-tying 11 catches for 133 yards and earning game MVP honors. He befuddled the Eagles on the opening drive of the third quarter, again showing the brilliance he is capable of (four catches for 69 yards on that drive alone).

Givens is a restricted free agent, and it is still not clear what the Patriots want to do with him. In three years he has transformed from an obscure former Notre Dame tight end with the dropsies to a top-notch number two wideout. The Patriots may actually let Givens go and restructure Brown, but there remains the possibility that last year's first round pick, tight end Ben Watson, might be converted to a wide receiver because of his speed.

If Givens stays, the Patriots will have probably overpaid to keep him, and this organization rarely if ever overpays. He is too valuable to the team to merely cast aside as if he were a Shockmain Davis, but the team may go in another direction for money reasons only. He is a tough possession receiver whose specialty is catching first downs at the stick. He led the 2004 Patriots in catches with 56. He is an attractive prospect for some team to explore, and the Patriots are deep enough to sustain his loss if he leaves.

Brown will be given an opportunity to finish his long and great career as a Patriot if he agrees to restructure his contract. He has generally been affable where this is concerned, and there is nothing to suggest that he will insist on his current salary being honored. Brown remains the most versatile player on the team, as he can catch, return punts, and also pick off a few opposing passes. His time at cornerback will probably be limited to 2004 only, as he has made overtures that he doesn't want to play both ways in 2005. The offensive equivalent of Tedy Bruschi from a "beloved” standpoint will likely get one more day in the sun in 2005 before he has to sit down and reflect on his career.

How does Bethel Johnson fit into the mix? He remains the fastest Patriot and one of the most perplexing. He missed a game because he was unprepared in practice, but made the catch of the year against Seattle. Right now he is depth at the position, and can also help the team out on kickoff returns. But he has to do some growing up and force himself to become a better and more polished receiver. Thus far he has only marginally lived up to his awesome potential, but he has not delivered the goods like he ought to be able to.

David Patten is also a question mark for the future. He is now a free agent, and one has to figure that his time as a Patriot is over. If Givens comes back, the chances Patten also comes back would be zero. Patten will be 31 in August, so he might have two or three top years left, and he can still get separation from many corners in the league. Patten was second on the team in catches with 44 in 2004. This, like Givens, will be decided by the almighty salary cap.

Watson also will decide how the Givens/Patten/Brown deals play out. He will report to camp as a tight end, but if he is converted to a wide receiver as some reports say, then Bill Belichick will be looking to a Branch-Watson tandem for many years to come. Watson, who was injured for most of 2004, will need to show first that he is healthy and capable of at least his tight end job. His speed plus his high Wonderlic score make him a most intriguing prospect for the future.

We're still waiting for Daniel Graham to break out of his shell. For now, he is at least producing well, though not at the levels which befit his high draft selection in 2002. Graham is a great blocker, but needs to work on his hands and reduce the dropsies. Christian Fauria is likely gone unless Watson converts completely to wideout and Fauria agrees to a cap-friendly deal.

As for bit players like Jed Weaver and P.K. Sam, they will need to prove themselves in August. Sam spent all year on injured reserve, while Weaver came over from Miami in mid-season and provided some help. If Belichick keeps up his fascination with drafting tight ends, Weaver's time in Foxborough will have been brief.

With a new offensive system on the horizon, maybe Branch will get his big numbers year. This is still a team which favors wins over big numbers, but if Dillon was still able to break the record for most yards gained in a season, Branch could very well have a huge 2005 if he stays healthy. Sooner or later, the rest of the league will recognize his huge talent and respect him accordingly.

At least some good came from his Super Bowl MVP performance. Those fans who called him "Twig” have stopped calling him that for now. His given last name works much better now.

Next installment: offensive line.