By: Bob George/
June 16, 2006

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Right now, there is more salivating going on regarding the Patriot offense than there is in a dog pound at feeding time.

Laurence Maroney is turning heads like he should. Corey Dillon is healthy. Ben Watson is drawing more attention from Tom Brady. The offensive line is back in business. Pete Sheppard said on FSNE's Sports Tonight that the Patriots should average about 30 points a game in 2006.

Wow. 30 points a game? Did someone sneak Kevin (run and shoot) Gilbride or Don (Air) Coryell into camp? Even with Bill Belichick at the helm, many experts think that this will be a very explosive offense the Patriots will feature in their quest to regain their perch atop the National Football League.

And there is good reason to think such. The running back situation will focus more on "team yards” than Dillon becoming another Barry Sanders. Watson, Daniel Graham and David Thomas may form the best tight end trio in the conference, if not the entire league. With the return of Matt Light and Dan Koppen, the only question on the offensive line is who will win the right tackle job, with Nick Kaczur perhaps being the front-runner.

There's just one problem. When people talk about the Patriot offense, not much is made regarding the wide receivers. People out there may be lulled into thinking that things are okay at the wideout position when in fact it may be more tenuous than meets the eye.

At the epicenter of the problem is Deion Branch, who made news this week at minicamp by blowing it off. Belichick tersely said that Branch's absence was unexcused, but said nothing more. Nothing more needed to be said anyway. Most everyone knew it was coming, but it is not getting the run it perhaps should.

Richard Seymour set the precedent last year. He skipped the minicamp, and eventually sat out part of training camp until he received a salary bump for the 2005 season. Branch has made no bones about his wanting a contract extension, and will likely follow Seymour's lead and sit out training camp until he gets a bump in his 2006 salary too.

If this happens, how will the Patriots deal with it? Will the Patriots simply let Branch sit and not give him Seymour treatment? Jerry Rice commented recently that he sat out once and felt "stupid”, and thinks that Branch should not hold out. Whether or not Branch would listen to the greatest receiver in NFL history for this kind of advice remains to be seen. In any case, it is an issue which bears close watching in August, and could have a profound effect on the team, even if Branch does get some kind of salary bump, or even an extension.

People also need to remember that David Givens is now a Tennessee Titan. The wideout job opposite Branch is literally wide open. You have Chad Jackson fresh off the Florida assembly line, free agent Reche Caldwell, veteran Troy Brown and not much else (Bethel Johnson was shipped off to New Orleans for Johnathan Sullivan a few weeks back).

Jackson turned heads in minicamp with his speed. But the biggest question mark regarding Jackson is trying to deal with a reputation receivers from Florida have (Caldwell himself is also a former Gator). It is a bad reputation, as they generally flame out in the NFL. Jackson is bigger than the prototypical Florida wideout, so that may bode well for him. But he is by no means a shoo-in to take Givens' job from the get-go.

Brown is coming back for a fourteenth Patriot season, and will perhaps do no more than be a third wideout. Caldwell has started only 14 of 47 career NFL games. He caught a career high passes in 2005, but that amounted only to 28. In summary, Caldwell has never been a big time NFL receiver. If Jackson does not show himself as worthy of starting in 2006, one has to wonder who Belichick has in mind to take Givens' job.

Belichick put down rumors this week that the Patriots were looking to deal Graham to Denver for disgruntled Bronco wideout Ashley Lelie. Belichick said that Graham will remain a Patriot "this year”. But the deal makes sense from a personnel standpoint, albeit a deficit in value for the Patriots; Graham would be heading home to Colorado and Lelie would step in and challenge for the two wideout spot. But Lelie is viewed as a clubhouse cancer and is nowhere near the star receiver Denver thought he would be when he was drafted in 2002 out of Hawaii.

All things aside, the biggest wide receiver issue for the Patriots centers around Branch and what the Patriots intend to do with him. The Patriots cannot afford to go into the regular season with a wide receiver corps missing both Branch and Givens. Branch is a former Super Bowl MVP who is not quite on a par with other number one wideouts in the league, but certainly knows his value in New England. He is someone who will continue to blossom into a top wideout as long as he manages to stay healthy.

Until this issue is settled, people need to temper their enthusiasm over the delicious prospects for the 2006 Patriot offense. While the running back and tight end positions are now strengths, the offensive line is stabilized, and the quarterback continues to be the game's best, all these great players have to offer will be limited if defenses don't feel they need to pay much attention to the wide receivers.

Simply stated, if Branch (holdout) and Jackson (Florida syndrome) don't pan out, defenses could put eight in the box and dare Brady to beat them with deep passes. Then they merely put cornerbacks in man coverage and have the free safety play centerfield. The eight in the box could pressure Brady to throw quick, and without a serious deep threat in the secondary, it reduces the options Brady has out there.

Of course, everyone is counting on Branch being taken care of and Jackson being worthy of his high draft position. There is also the possibility of Watson being a deep threat, given his unusual speed for a tight end. Chances are that things will be taken care of when the opening gun is sounded in September. It's just that right now, the wideout situation is less than ideal and in need of tweaking before the regular season begins.

You can continue to dream about Maroney, all those tight ends and Light back to protect Brady's backside. But Branch has to come into your thought processes at some point, and will he play in 2006 or be a Patriot beyond 2006.