Questions linger for Brandon Tate

The New England Patriots enter 2010 with leading receiver Wes Welker recovering from torn ligaments in his left knee, Randy Moss in the final year of his contract, and the knowledge that the lack of a consistent No. 3 receiver played a significant part in handcuffing the offense last season.

All of which points to receiver being an area of need as coach Bill Belichick navigates through what he often calls the team-building process.

Then again, there is one wild card on the roster. His name is Brandon Tate.

In some respects, Tate is a mystery man, a 2009 third-round draft choice who, if not for a serious knee injury his senior season at North Carolina and then a failed drug test at the NFL combine, probably would have been drafted much higher than the 83rd overall selection. Belichick has said that Tate, who holds the NCAA career record in combined kick and punt return yards, had first-round caliber talent.

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Tate played in only two NFL games as a rookie, opening the season on the physically unable to perform list while still rehabbing his right knee before suiting up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London and for a home game against the Miami Dolphins.

He left the Dolphins game with another knee injury, his final play coming in the second quarter when he darted down the middle of the field and the ball was thrown to Welker underneath. It wasn't a situation in which Tate was carted off the field or even fell to the ground in apparent pain. He simply retreated to the sideline and was placed on season-ending injured reserve later that week. His status has generally flown under the radar since that point.

Because of that, there are plenty of unanswered questions.

How did he get hurt? Was it again the right knee he injured? How serious was the injury since it wasn't anything noticeable? Will he be a factor in 2010?

While the specifics of Tate's injury have not been revealed publicly, those familiar with his situation say that his recovery is at a point where he should be able to participate in offseason workouts, and thus, he should be penciled into the mix as a bona-fide option at the position in 2010. The Boston Globe reported Monday that Tate, according to a source close to the team, had minor knee surgery.

What Belichick and the Patriots will likely ask themselves is how much they feel they can depend on a receiver coming off a serious knee injury in college who then suffered another knee ailment in just his second game as a pro, knocking him out for the season. Damaged goods? Or just bad luck that sometimes results from playing such a physical game?

Outside of Tate, the Patriots have Moss, the recovering Welker, Julian Edelman, Isaiah Stanback, Sam Aiken, Matthew Slater and Darnell Jenkins under contract at receiver, with the final three or four options probably best cast as special teams contributors.

As for where Tate possibly fits, last season's sample size wasn't a large one (just 28 offensive snaps and four kickoff returns). But even then, he showed solid playmaking ability with the ball in his hands.

His first offensive play was an 11-yard run, in which he came in motion from the right side, took a handoff from Tom Brady, then raced up the left side. He also averaged 26.5 yards per kickoff return (with a long of 34), which was an upgrade for a team that averaged 22.7 yards over the course of the season.

Although Tate didn't record a reception, that he made plays with the ball in his grasp is something to remember when considering that one of the points of focus surrounding the Patriots this offseason is to inject more playmakers into the mix.

It's quite possible the Patriots already have one on their roster who hasn't fully emerged.

His name is Brandon Tate. In many ways, he's a wild card in the team's plans.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.