As free agency opened on March 2, the Patriots' top receiver was Reche Caldwell. And while Caldwell had a nice first season in Foxboro, there's no way that's something anyone was doing cartwheels over. Now? Caldwell may have to battle for a roster spot. Last week, the Patriots again aggressively cast their line in search of a big fish. Yesterday, they caught him, landing super-talent Donte' Stallworth.
As free agency opened March 2, the Patriots' top receiver was Reche Caldwell. And while Caldwell had a nice first season in Foxboro, no one was doing cartwheels over his performance.
Now? Caldwell may have to battle for a roster spot.
Last week, the Patriots again aggressively cast their line in search of a big fish. Yesterday, they caught him, landing super-talent Donte' Stallworth.
The former Eagle and Saint joins Wes Welker as part of the team's makeover of its much-maligned receiving corps.
As it stands right now, Stallworth, Welker, Chad Jackson, Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, Bam Childress and Kelvin Kight comprise the group, with Troy Brown mulling retirement and free agent Kelley Washington who visited Foxboro on Friday another possible addition. Compare that with last year and, well, there's no comparison.
The Patriots' failures at the position last year, despite seemingly solid numbers, trickled down through the offense. More often than not, opponents walked a safety up into the box and the running game suffered. At times, the line was put in spots where it had to protect for too long, and Tom Brady took the resulting hits. In comeback situations, Brady threw uncharacteristic interceptions including one in the Charger playoff game and another the next week in Indy and looked far too often in Brown's direction.
It'd be hard to make the argument that the Patriots suddenly have an elite group of receivers. They aren't the Colts and they aren't the Bengals.
But that's OK. Now they have a group that's very comparable to the ones that won Super Bowls, and they have the quarterback to make them all that much better.
What the revamped crew can do is put the kind of pressure on defenses that was absent last year.
Of course, that's "can" and not "will," because there are still questions here.
Jackson's status is up in the air after he tore his ACL in the AFC title game. Welker's really only had big-time offensive production for a year.
And then, there's Stallworth. ESPN.com reported that his deal will pay $3.6 million in 2007, which is the combined figure of his signing bonus ($1 million), roster bonus ($1.6 million), workout bonus ($300,000) and base salary ($700,000.)
That's imminently affordable. But the real bills will come due in '08. To keep Stallworth, the Patriots will have pay a $6 million option bonus next Feb. 25, a $2 million roster bonus five days later, another $1.6 million roster bonus tied to playing time later, plus a $400,000 workout bonus and a $1 million base salary.
Add it up and that's $11 million, and the reason why that money was deferred to the second year of the deal is simple: Stallworth brings some baggage with him.
Immediately, he becomes one of the most physically gifted receivers in club history but has been knocked in the past for concentration problems and attitude issues. Whether that's fair or not, there's also the more black-and-white issue of his reported (per the Philadelphia Inquirer) enrollment in the league's substance-abuse program, which could have him one strike from a four-game suspension.
In a nutshell, the Patriots get an explosive 26-year-old receiver who caught 70 balls two years ago in New Orleans and averaged 19.1 yards per grab last year in adjusting to Andy Reid's complex West Coast system with the Eagles. Meanwhile, Stallworth gets the chance to rehabilitate his image, play with one of the NFL's best quarterbacks and get paid, either here or elsewhere, next year.
It's a risk-reward scenario on both sides. And, yes, there are questions with Stallworth, as there are with Welker and Jackson.
But if everything works out, the Patriots will have Jackson playing the X (split end), Stallworth at the Z (flanker) and Welker as the Y (slot) in an offense that got Caldwell 60 catches last year.
Any way you slice it, the potential there is immense. And it makes all the risks worth taking.
Albert Breer is a Daily News sports writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-626-3872.