Merely calling Chad Ochocinco’s first season in New England a poor year would be incredibly insulting to players who’ve had poor seasons. That label often sounds far worse than what it really is, and it’s typically reserved for players who still contributed, but their contributions fell far below their usual standards.

Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams had an poor year following his impressive rookie season, but he still had 771 receiving yards, and averaged 48.2 per game.

Two years ago Carolina’s Steve Smith had what could be deemed a poor year when his receiving yardage descended to 982 after his 1,421 in 2008.

Ochocinco didn’t just perform poorly, or under-produce for his standards. He was an irrelevant afterthought.

His non-existence this year and disappearance is well documented, but let’s review it one more time so the year-end numbers of a player who was once considered an elite receiver are firmly ingrained. Including the playoffs, Ochocinco was dressed for 17 games, and he was benched for the AFC Championship game against Baltimore. In those games, he had only 16 receptions for 297 yards.

His previous career low was 540 yards during an injury-shortened season in 2008 (he played in 13 games), and over an 11-year career he’s had only four sub-1,000 yard years. He’s also averaged 66.6 yards per game throughout his career, and only had 18.4 in 2011. For the most haunting contrast between the once quick and agile Chad Johnson to the now slow and sluggish Chad Ochocinco we can look to Week 10 of 2006, when he had 260 yards against San Diego. In one game, that’s only 37 yards short of his total this year.

Ochocinco’s 2011 stats reflect a receiver who was deemed useless, because he was barely glanced at let alone targeted in the Patriots’ offense. So consider this a post-mortem on a season that could easily turn into a post-mortem on a career, with Ocho’s professional football life ending when he’s cut some time this spring or summer, and then given the Randy Moss/Terrell Owens treatment. That possibility isn’t just very real, it’s very likely.

Look at those numbers again. Then look at some generic page ranking the league’s passing offenses. Now, keep using that deductive reasoning, and think about a place where a rapidly declining receiver could be useful, perhaps to help a rebuilding team with either a young receiving corps, or a young quarterback.

Anything?

It’s remarkable that Ochocinco lasted the entire season on the Patriots’ roster despite demonstrating an obvious inability to do what he was acquired to do: stretch the field deep from the wide receiver position. When that inability became clear, Bill Belichick accelerated his shift to the duel tight end system, and any wideout not named Branch or Welker was ignored.

Ochocinco is now slated to make $3 million in each of the next two years over the final seasons of a contract that will end when he’s 36. That means he’ll have the fourth largest base salary on New England’s roster, and without agreeing to a massive pay cut there’s no conceivable way he’ll retain a roster spot.

Nick Underhill of Masslive.com agrees, noting that although the Patriots led the league with 72 completions of 20 yards or more, only 23 of those passes traveled the entire 20 yards through the air. Wes Welker is a free agent and could be franchised, and Deion Branch is taking a cannonball into the free agency pool too, although he hopes to remain in Foxboro.

There’s still a need for a deep presence out wide where Ochocinco failed, and the answer could be the most coveted free agent on the market this offseason.

His name is Brandon Lloyd, and he’s quite familiar with new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels after playing for him in Denver and St. Louis. As the Broncos head coach, McDaniels rejuvenated Lloyd’s career after he had languished for seven seasons. Lloyd had 1,448 receiving yards in 2010 under McDaniels, and prior to that he averaged just 338.6 yards per year.

In late December while contemplating his next move, Lloyd couldn’t hide his desire to follow McDaniels wherever he goes.

“I can’t even lie about that. I’m tied to McDaniels. He uses me differently than other offensive coordinators used me in my entire career. He uses me as an every-play receiver. The short game, mid-range game, gimmick passes, deep balls.

“I do everything in this offense as opposed to other coordinators who would just run me off as the deep guy; run me off into double coverage and then say I’m not open. So I really like how Josh uses me within the offense. I’m extremely comfortable in the offense.

Lloyd isn’t young (he’s 30), but he’s still four years younger than Ochocinco. That means younger legs, a body that hasn’t absorbed nearly as much pounding, and likely a few more years of high-level production before the late-career drop off begins.

Lloyd has flare and familiarity, while Ochocinco now has little more than age.