When it comes to the wide receiver position, the Patriots are suddenly finding themselves in potentially tough shape heading into next season.

Head coach Bill Belichick gambled a bit and lost in putting this year’s group of wide receivers together.  In an attempt to bring in another veteran to go along with Wes Welker, Belichick brought in free agent receiver Chad Ochocinco in hopes the former Cincinnati Bengals receiver would be even more productive catching passes from Tom Brady than he was with Carson Palmer throwing him the football.

Yet as much as we all wanted it to, that obviously didn’t quite workout.

From there he clearly felt comfortable enough with Deion Branch to believe the veteran would come back and give the team another productive year. After a quiet preseason where he didn’t register a catch, he did what they needed him to and finished the season catching 51 balls for 702 yards and 5 touchdowns.  The only problem is over the course of a 16 game season – which later became 19 games – at the age of 32 and having dealt with leg injuries throughout his career, he clearly wore down.

Through the first twelve games of the season, Branch was New England’s third leading receiver in receiving yards with 48 catches for 665 yards and four touchdowns.  However, during the last four games of the regular season he struggled getting open and his effectiveness dropped off.  Over that span he registered just 3 catches on 11 targets (27% competion percentage) for 37 yards and a touchdown.

During the postseason Branch had just eight catches for 45 yards on 13 targets (61%) for 148 yards along with a touchdown.  He saw six of those targets and three of his catches come during their loss to New York two weeks ago.


If Deion Branch is back next year, hopefully there’s a bit more talent ahead of him on the depth chart. (FILE:Icon/SMI)

Having Branch back was clearly a positive for Brady last season and he was a great complimentary player in the offense this year.  However, when Rob Gronkoski suffered his ankle injury, that took away 30% of their postseason offensive production and left them forced to be over-reliant on Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, and eventually Branch two weeks ago.

As it stands right now they’re going to be in need of addressing their perimeter receivers during this offseason, because they saw first hand the result of losing one of their key offensive weapons without much of a contingency plan.  Ochocinco was supposed to be a key offensive acquisition who should have been much more effective than he was this season.  However, he quickly dropped on the depth chart and never really recovered, leaving them forced to rotate in guys like Matthew Slater, Tiquan Underwood, and Julian Edelman at times this season.

Watching the Giants during the Super Bowl made you realize just how depleted the Patriots really are with that group. Seeing guys like Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham make plays at the receiver position makes you wonder just how lethal New England would have been if they had the same trio to go along with their two outstanding tight ends. As fans, that fact was more or less ignored before Gronkowski’s injury because they had been so effective before he went down.

That whole situation really was a big problem for them all year, and Ochocinco made it worse by not being able to really give them much of anything.  It’s even more frustrating when you look at how well Branch adjusted during his first game back after Randy Moss’ departure last year. In his first appearance as a Patriot he caught 9 balls for 98 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 overtime win over the Ravens.

He went on to catch 48 passes for 706 yards and 5 touchdowns. That’s a far cry from the 15 Ochocinco had during the regular season, and Branch managed to do it in fewer games.

Looking back, it just makes this season’s results that much more disappointing from the former Bengals receiver. Last year Branch didn’t have an issue picking things up in an offense that was obviously much different than it was before he left.  He was able to re-learn the offense on the fly despite not having spent one moment of training camp with his new team. Granted a lot of the terminology may have been similar, but being able to become such a big contributor in less than a week doesn’t exactly explain why Ochocinco had such a difficult time over the course of an entire season.

However, Branch is clearly at a point in his career where he can’t be a “go to” guy in this offense.  Which is fine, because looking at the fourth or fifth receiver spot he’s obviously more effective than Slater or Edelman in the offense.  The only problem is at the #2 and #3 spots on the depth chart they really need to get younger and bring in more talent, and with Gronkowski hampered against the Giants, this was clearly a glaring issue.

As it stands right now they’ll need to try and figure out a way to bring back Welker, who is a free agent this offseason. In all likelihood they’ll figure out a way to keep him even if it means franchising him, because when it comes down to it, they’re potentially in tough shape if they lose him. After Welker the depth chart is less than impressive, leaving Edelman, Slater, Ochocinco, and Underwood as the only other guys on the list to go along with Branch. Should Hernandez or Gronkowski go down next year, Brady could find himself once again struggling to find someone open during the postseason.

We’ve already seen them lose a critical offensive player in each of the last several seasons. First it was Welker in ’09, followed by Hernandez in ’10, and then Gronkowski in ’11. Other than potentially Edelman, they need some serious help at the receiver position because they’re just not equipped to deal with injuries.

If you disagree and you’re comfortable with Brady having to look to Edelman and Slater to throw to with two minutes to go in a postseason game, you’re in denial. I appreciate versatility as much as the next guy, but ultimately in the end talent wins out. And as we’ve seen the talent and personnel gap between Welker and Branch is just too large to ignore and needs to finally be addressed.

For now, how Branch fits in next season remains to be seen. As a free agent he doesn’t have the same options he had when he originally left, so the odds are pretty good he’ll be back next year.  However, he’s at the point in his career where he needs to be a smaller piece of the offense and a guy who can win a few match-ups here and there and give them some additional production when he can.  Without anyone else other than Hernandez and Welker to throw to in the closing minutes against the Giants, Branch just couldn’t deliver because he’s simply not as young or as quick as he used to be.

In the end, he shouldn’t have had to have been put in that position.  If all goes well they’ll make a move so he can slide down the depth chart and there will be a couple of other players other than Welker sitting ahead of him to take the pressure off next season.

Don’t get me wrong, Branch has been a bright spot and they’ve been fortunate to have him. But they need to finally bring in a couple of players that can allow the veteran receiver to fill the role that he should be playing at this stage of his career.

Needless to say in the coming months hopefully we’ll see that area addressed. Injuries happen in the NFL, and they’ve already had three seasons to figure out they need to make sure they’re stocked well enough for Brady to have the options to get them another potential title.

We know it can be done. We saw another Manning do it two weeks ago because he had enough personnel to survive a couple of key injuries yet still win the biggest game of the year. With the window of opportunity closing on Brady, it would be nice to see the Patriots give him the same advantage heading into next season.