by Dan Snapp

During the offseason, when the Patriots were snatching up wide receivers like they were going out of style, Bill Belichick was often asked of Troy Brown’s future. Without pause, the coach continually told us, “Troy has a role on this team.” Soon, we’ll find out what that role is.

The Patriots this week released tight end Marcellus Rivers and safety Ray Ventrone, clearing spots for receiver Chad Jackson and cornerback Eddie Jackson, both fresh off the PUP list. They also started the clock on Brown, giving them three weeks to make the call on the venerable vet.

The Pats have rarely enjoyed such a bounty of riches at one position, and even when they did, it was quickly pared down by attrition. In their 2003 championship year, for instance, Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens and David Patten all missed time with injuries.

This year, with six healthy receivers at the break, the Pats could be facing a game of musical chairs. Who’s going to be left standing when the music stops?

The Patriots likely have each receiver learn every position, but there are natural spots for each: Brown and Wes Welker at slot; Randy Moss, Chad Jackson and Kelley Washington at end; and Donte’ Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney at flanker.

The logjam at end could signal Washington’s vulnerability, but he also offers a special teams presence Gaffney lacks. Gaffney, though, is a young, cheap, productive receiver who shined brightest in the biggest games last year.

Washington is without a reception this season – partially a by-product of playing behind Moss. Given that production, it’s unlikely the Patriots pick up the $4M option bonus he’s due before next season.

Injuries have prevented Chad Jackson from delivering on the promise of his lofty draft status. But Jackson is signed through 2009 on his relatively cheap rookie deal. Stallworth and Washington are technically signed long-term, but both have upcoming option bonuses that leave their 2008 status in limbo.

The severity of Brown’s injury could render the whole discussion moot. Can he be the same productive player as last year, when he snagged 43 catches at age 35? It would be a shame if, after Brown’s long, glorious career here, his last moment as a Patriot was to be put on IR.

Maybe Belichick will throw us all for a loop, and simply play seven receivers. He’s done stranger things.

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