Camp Battles: New England WR
Lots of Patriots playing for spot next to veteran Moss
Once a team famous for no-name talent at wide receiver, the Patriots are now a team with perhaps too many recognizable pass catchers. The additions of Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, Wes Welker and Kelley Washington this offseason, paired with an existing cast that included Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and ageless wonder Troy Brown has made the team's 2007 training camp an interesting one. Thankfully the team (and fantasy owners) need not worry about injured second-year player Chad Jackson or the depth chart would be unbearably muddled.
To further complicate matters for fantasy owners, this is the Patriots passing attack; in recent years New England has made a habit out of spreading the football around, never going back to the same receiver two games in a row. It makes relying on Patriots skill players risky for fantasy owners. But with this cast of characters, the team will offer a couple of viable fantasy prospects. Moss is one, but who else is worth considering?
Why Stallworth is the top choice: Already penciled in as the starter opposite Moss, Stallworth seems to make the most sense. He was a big-play guy in New Orleans and last year in Philadelphia. Now the Patriots will ask Stallworth to stretch defenses with his speed, create game-breaking plays and open up underneath routes. Not a consistent performer, Stallworth does have a knack for delivering big games. Last season he had four 100-yard receiving efforts, including the playoff loss to the Saints. Stallworth started camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list but has since returned, grabbing three passes for 45 yards in a recent win over Carolina. With Stallworth and Moss, the Patriots will force defenses to make difficult decisions in downfield pass coverage.
Why Caldwell is the top choice: What comes to mind when one thinks of Caldwell are his costly drops in last season's playoff run. Aside from that, he has had a very solid, although never spectacular, career catching passes from Drew Brees in San Diego and now Tom Brady in New England. In 2006, Caldwell doubled his previous single-season best for catches by hauling in 61 balls. His yardage (761) and touchdown (four) numbers were not great, as far as fantasy owners are concerned, but they were strong for a wide receiver adjusting to his first year in a new system. The biggest reason why fantasy owners should consider Caldwell, however, is because he offers something Moss and Stallworth do not -- reliability. Caldwell is NOT a big play guy, merely the possession receiver who will take advantage of the room Moss and Stallworth create underneath. For fantasy owners playing in leagues that reward points for receptions, this fact is important.
Why someone else will step up: The two-year investment the Patriots made in Gaffney is minimal compared to the potential payoff the team could see if he continues his fine play. Gaffney had a strong camp and could challenge for the team's No. 3 receiver spot, but no better (and even No. 3 is a reach in this crowded corps).
Welker is a return guy, right? Well, fantasy owners have been quick to forget that Welker snatched 67 passes last season for an awful Miami passing attack. In this bunch, Welker will not catch that many balls; New England is too deep at receiver and he is too important to the club as a return man. However, he must be figured into the depth chart, likely as a situational receiver able to stretch short tosses into large gains.
Washington may have the most upside of the remaining receivers. He has good size and ability, but has been limited by injuries throughout his career. Now healthy, he has been given more practice reps thanks to the minor injuries suffered by Moss and Brown. Against Carolina, Washington hauled in three passes for 37 yards.
Who fantasy owners should pull for: Stallworth (maybe)
When healthy, Stallworth has been a very good fantasy receiver. When he played all 16 games in 2005, his last year with the Saints, Stallworth caught 70 passes for 945 yards. Problem is, in five years, Stallworth has only made it through two without injury, missing a total of 12 games. His consistency is also a concern (of the 12 games in which he played in 2006, he gained fewer than 10 yards in three of them). Still, Stallworth's career numbers have been far better than his counterparts, and for that fantasy owners must keep their fingers crossed that he stays on the field.
Washington is a "deep" sleeper fantasy owners should pay attention to. He has taken full advantage of his limited opportunities in camp, and he could finally return to the level of success he once had as a freshman at Tennessee.
Mike Beacom is the senior editor of Pro Fantasy Sports.