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New England Patriots' New-Look Wide Receiving Corps Carries Uncertainty, Promise

Many Fresh Faces Are in Foxboro, Catching Passes from Tom Brady

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COMMENTARY | A numerical roster might come in handy for quarterback Tom Brady.

That No. 83 running a dig route is not Wes Welker. That No. 84 running a 10-and-out is not Deion Branch. And no, that No. 85 running a sideline fade is not Brandon Lloyd.

That's because the New England Patriots' wide receiver position has been overhauled.

At the end of the 2012 regular season, there were five wideouts on New England's roster. Three of them were over 31 years old. Now, there are 12 receivers on the extended 90-man roster. And none of them are even 31 years old.

For head coach Bill Belichick -- a man who often seeks proven NFL receivers instead of the college ones -- 2013 will be a new challenge.

Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Kamar Aiken and Andre Holmes are the only receivers who remain from last year's team. Edelman was the only one in that bunch who recorded a reception in 2012. Slater earned a Pro Bowl nod for his special teams responsibilities; Aiken and Holmes spent time on the practice squad.

Needless to say, next season will be different. The average age of a New England receiver is 24 years old. And within that group, there are four rookies and four free agent acquisitions.

Expect a youth experiment. One where newcomers will have to acclimate to New England's thick playbook. Some will take a while to pick up the option routes and rapid no-huddle attack. Others will never pick it up.

Perhaps that's why there are a dozen receivers in the mix. The learning curve will be steep, yet a little more flexible than in year's past. After all, somebody will have to line up out wide. And with all the renovations, there are a lot of options to choose from.

Free Agent Signings

New England reeled in some experience through free agency. The team agreed to terms with 27-year-old Danny Amendola, 25-year-old Donald Jones, 30-year-old Michael Jenkins and 26-year-old Lavelle Hawkins.

If one were to pick out the surest bet in that bunch, it would be the 5'11", 188-pound Amendola. The former Dallas Cowboy and St. Louis Ram has been hobbled by a couple injuries, yet still managed 85 catches for 689 yards in 2010 and 63 catches for 666 yards in 2012. Often referred to as "Welker's replacement," the Texas Tech Red Raider could end up being the go-to guy.

Beyond Amendola, however, no free agent signing is a lock.

Jones, a 6'0", 208-pound Youngstown State alum, has spent the last three seasons with the Buffalo Bills. He had a career-high 41 receptions for 443 yards and four scores last year. He figures to be in contention for a fourth or fifth spot on the depth chart.

Jenkins, the oldest target on the roster, is a big 6'4", 214-pounder who has spent his career with the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings. A 10-year pro, Jenkins caught 40 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns last season. Despite his length, Jenkins is not a deep threat. He struggles to get separation.

Hawkins, a Tennessee Titans fourth-round pick in 2008, netted 47 catches in 2011. The 5'11", 194-pound California Golden Bear had a combined for 24 catches over his other four NFL seasons.

Not the flashiest list by any stretch of the imagination, free agency wasn't where New England made its splash.

Rookies

Belichick and Co. did their most notable damage in the receiver department during April's draft. The Patriots spent two draft picks on wide receivers for the first time since Branch and David Givens were selected in 2002.

It started with Marshall's Aaron Dobson. New England called his name at pick 59 Round 2. His 6'3", 210-pound frame is outside the traditional Patriot mold. And that's not a bad thing. Dobson has deceptive quickness, tremendous hands and smooth route-running. If the 21-year-old can adapt to the Patriots offense, he could be the No. 1 receiver in Foxboro for years to come.

With the No. 102 overall selection, New England went back to receiver with Texas Christian's Josh Boyce. A 6'0", 205-pounder with burst, Boyce is also tough to tackle. He can be an asset on screen plays as well as play-action passes. The 22-year-old has the makings of a solid "Z" receiver in the NFL.

When the final pick was called, the Patriots weren't done adding.

The team got a deal done with Missouri's T.J. Moe, a 6'0", 200-pound slot receiver. Moe is gifted with surprising strength and lateral agility. He doesn't have great straight-line speed, but the 22-year-old is still quite dangerous in space. Don't be shocked if he outlasts some of the veterans vying for a spot on the 53-man roster.

The same goes for New England's other undrafted receiver signing: Cincinnati's Kenbrell Thompkins. A 24-year-old junior college transfer and Tennessee cast-off, Thompkins found a home with the Bearcats. He's well built at 6'0", 196 pounds and is a tough outside receiver.

The Patriots' "braintrust" made a conscious effort to shed years. Bringing in four rookie receivers is evidence of that.

Positional Outlook

Expectations must be tempered when it comes to New England's wide receiving crop. It's an area of the roster with a lot of question marks and a lot of fringe players.

It's also an area with a lot of potential.

The biggest concern will be how that potential progresses. History has shown that grooming wideouts is not a turn-key operation for the Patriots. For every former draft pick that didn't flourish, there's also been a veteran signing that met the same fate.

But with 12 candidates in the camp, there are bound to be some keepers. They just won't be the same ones we've grown accustomed to.

Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for Bleacher Report and NEPatriotsDraft.

You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.

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