The case of Underwood v. Davis

When news broke on Wednesday that the Patriots were close to signing free agent wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, it added another layer of intrigue to the team’s plans for the position in 2012.

Bringing Gaffney aboard brought the Patriots’ receiver total to 12. While NFL rosters are currently expanded to a 90-player limit, that is still a heavy load to carry at a position that will likely only include between 5-7 players on the final 53-man roster (note: the Patriots' Super Bowl XLVI roster included five wide receivers as Tiquan Underwood was released the evening before the game).

But shortly after reintroducing Gaffney into the fold, the team released Underwood, as reported earlier Thursday by Mike Reiss on ESPN Boston.

Given the number of veteran receivers in front of Underwood on the depth chart, it isn’t a total surprise that he was released. But, one question that some may be pondering is why Underwood was the odd man out, rather than Britt Davis, the only other receiver on the roster that fits into the mold of a young, developmental prospect who was not drafted by the team this season.

One angle to consider is that although Underwood found a spot on the active roster last season (Davis remained on the practice squad), Davis presents a different physical package from the remainder of the Patriots' receiving corps with his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame (both team-highs at the receiver positions).

As Mike Reiss mentioned in his practice notes on January 11th of this year (during the Patriots’ week of preparation leading up to their AFC divisional round matchup with Denver), Britt was used to emulate Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) on the offensive scout team.

It’s possible that the team views Davis’ size and abilities as unlike its other receivers, and wants to keep him around to attempt to develop him again this offseason.

Underwood, meanwhile, served in a role very similar to Chad Ochocinco in 2011. The two have comparable on-field skill sets and a nearly identical frame (both are 6-1, while Ochocinco outweighs Underwood 192-183).

The team worked to restructure Ochocinco’s contract earlier this offseason, and although he is not considered a lock to make the 2012 roster, it would seem too soon to cut ties with the veteran now.

Although Davis still projects as a long shot to make the team next season, retaining him in place of Underwood affords the team more diversity within the receiver group. With OTA’s and mini-camps looming, it will be interesting to see how new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (who coached Davis in Denver) uses him within the New England offense.