By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 04, 2008

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2007 New England Patriots. Today: receivers.

It's been some time since something positive came out of Foxborough.

You have stuff like SpyGate, a nosy senator from Pennsylvania, a mysterious videotaper named Matt Walsh, a Super Bowl loss which ruined a perfect season, and a slew of free agent defections, one of which being the top cornerback on the team. Instead of basking in the glow of a fourth Super Bowl title and shutting the 1972 Miami Dolphins up permanently, the Patriots have been beset with a chain of events which has made a huge smudge on the veneer that this franchise has exuded for many years. With Asante Samuel signing with Philadelphia last week, it only continued the run of bad fortune which has dogged the Patriots since their Super Bowl loss to the Giants last month.

Everyone figured that the Patriots would make retaining Randy Moss their top priority. The man who helped deliver Tom Brady's finest season as a pro, and who did pretty well for himself, figured to be the one man the Patriots would overextend themselves to sign. But things turned fishy when the Patriots failed to place the franchise tag on him, and days passed without any news of his signing. Moss began to talk to other teams, and many observers thought that the Patriots would continue their post-Super Bowl slide with the biggest tumble of them all.

Fortunately for the Patriots, this is one slide which won't happen. Moss has agreed to a three-year, $27 million deal to remain a Patriot on Monday. The deal, according to the Boston Globe, includes $15 million in guaranteed money and a $12 million signing bonus. The 31-year-old Moss will remain a Patriot, something he badly wanted from the start, and Brady will retain his most valuable offensive weapon for the foreseeable future.

Moss became best known in 2007 for setting an NFL record for touchdown catches with 23, breaking Jerry Rice's record. Moss caught 98 passes for 1,493 yards and came within 39 seconds of winning the first championship of his career. Singlehandedly he changed the way defenses had to play the Patriots, and for all but one game, impacted the game enough to where defenses were not able to deal with everything the Patriots threw at them.

Despite Moss's huge numbers, he wasn't indomitable. He had 16 touchdowns in 10 games (at a pace to catch 26 by season's end), but "only" 7 touchdowns in the last 6. The Philadelphia game, and the great job by Lito Sheppard in guarding Moss, seemed to put an end to the incredible element to the season Moss was having. Defenses seemed to deal better with Moss from that point on, but the Patriots had enough firepower elsewhere to continue to get the job done.

A big reason for this was the work of Wes Welker. It was Welker who led the team in catches with a team record 112, and 1,175 receiving yards. Welker, who took over the slot position once held by Troy Brown, was the benefactor of teams overplaying Moss and was able to find many receiving lanes. While many league experts were extolling the praises of Brady and Moss, there were some who thought Welker was the team MVP.

Donte Stallworth proved to be too expensive to keep around and pay Moss at the same time. The Patriots failed to pick up an $8 million option on Stallworth, and he wound up defecting to the Cleveland Browns. While Stallworth did at times show flashes of brilliance, the Patriots appear poised to ready to hand the starting job to Jabar Gaffney, one of the holdovers from the weak receiving crew of the AFC runners-up of 2006. Stallworth portrayed himself as good enough to keep around but not at what it would have cost to keep him, and expendable thanks to Gaffney.

It was the substandard play of the receiving corps in 2006 which prompted the Patriots to run out and stock up on wideouts a year ago. This makes Gaffney more or less an ironic symbol, him still being with the Patriots while Stallworth bolts for big bucks. Gaffney caught 36 passes for 449 yards and five touchdowns in 2007, with his best game coming against Pittsburgh (7 catches, 122 yards, 1 TD). Gaffney has proven to be a receiver who can make clutch catches, somewhat in the David Givens mold. It could turn out that Gaffney would be a better compliment for Moss than Stallworth.

The Patriots were also able to retain Kelley Washington. The former Bengal wideout caught zero passes in 2007, but became a special teams stalwart. The latter element is always a good way to stay on a team if you are not a first stringer. Washington might be asked to take a larger role in receiving in 2007 with the departure of Stallworth, but Washington will also be counted on to continue to excel on kick coverage.

Ben Watson figured to be a benefactor of Moss much like Welker was, but he still has problems staying healthy and has not yet been able to fully use his wide receiver speed to its fullest extent. He caught 36 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns last season, but Watson needs to become more involved in the Patriot offense. Watson is still more fast than powerful, and is not an outstanding blocker. Kyle Brady was the better blocking tight end, but Brady was released by the Patriots a few days ago. David Thomas spent the season on injured reserve after just one catch for nine yards in the Week 3 Buffalo game, and he remains a player of unknown potential if Josh McDaniels wants more offensive options at tight end (like Watson, he is more of a receiver than a blocker).

Retaining Moss is the best news to come out of Foxborough since the Patriots beat San Diego for the AFC Championship. Moss was for the most part everything the Patriots wanted out of him, and he not only authored his finest season statistically, but also his finest season from a teammate point of view. Moss still didn't capture the championship he craves, but with $27 million coming his way, he'll be plenty happy in continuing his quest for the Holy Grail.

As long as Moss continues to understand that he is not the Patriot offense all on his own, things will continue to go well for him. What he was able to get away with early in 2007 won't be there any more. While he will still continue to flourish and make big plays, he won't likely match his monster numbers of 2007. He still has a great cast of characters, and once again the Patriot offense should be the league's best in 2008.

Another painful memory of the end of last season: If the defense had only done their job on that final Giant drive, Moss could have bragged about catching the championship-winning pass for the rest of his life. Both he and Tom Brady came through when it mattered the most. It's easy to forget because the Giants ultimately scored last, but in 2007 Moss was worth every penny paid him.

And he will be worth every penny paid him next year, and the next two years to follow.

Next installment: offensive line.


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